UN official: 2013-14 devastating for human rights

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. human rights chief on Wednesday blamed rising inequality and exclusion for much of the unrest that has swept across the world in recent years, calling the recent deepening turmoil devastating for human rights.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee that “a toxic tide of discrimination and xenophobia” is undermining the dignity, equality and rights of people in many countries.

“From the relentless slaughter in Syria and its spillover to a new wave of barbarity in Iraq; from the deplorable conflict in Ukraine to the entirely avoidable bloodshed in South Sudan – and, at the end of this reporting period, the slow, smoldering spread of Ebola – 2013-2014 was a year of devastating impact on human rights,” he said.

Zeid, Jordan’s former U.N. ambassador who took over as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights last month, said it is vital that human rights are protected in “two looming tragedies: Ebola and climate change.”

He said the failure of governments and others to address people’s rights to health care, food, livelihood, housing and timely information “have fueled the Ebola epidemic.”

And similar to the Ebola crisis, he said, “failure to address systemic and systematic denial of economic, social and cultural rights may be not only a causal factor of climate change, but also among its far-reaching consequences, including especially for small island nations in the Pacific and Caribbean.”

Zeid was strongly critical of countries that attack human rights investigators and commissions of inquiry into rights violations instead of focusing on the findings and addressing abuses.

He also raised what he called “the painful issue” of government reprisals against people who defend human rights, saying their work is not only legitimate but often “heroic.”

“If despite all the power and authority at its disposal, the future of a government hangs on a tweet, a street protest or a helpful report to an NGO or U.N. agency, then that government is in far deeper trouble than it believes,” Zeid said. “For it has forgotten the fundamental principle that the state is the servant of its people – not the other way around.”

He also criticized the 193-member General Assembly for its lack of funding for human rights, saying he was startled to discover when he took office that the U.N.’s regular operating budget covers just over one-third of his office’s budget, meaning it doesn’t have funds to carry out its mandated activities.

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