UN rights chief hails jailed 'unsung heroes'

8th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The UN human rights chief on Wednesday urged governments to release jailed rights campaigners, as she paid tribute to "hundreds of thousands" of "unsung heroes" whose struggle fails to capture the limelight.

In a statement to mark World Human Rights Day on Thursday, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said "we should do our utmost to support" human rights activists who are harrassed abused, unjustly jailed and murdered.

"On this Human Rights Day, I call on governments to acknowledge that criticism is not a crime, and to release all those people who have been detained for peacefully exercising their fundamental freedoms to defend democratic principles and human rights," she added.

The UN rights chief said some unjustly jailed campaigners gained "a significant measure of physical protection" thanks to international efforts to win their freedom, even if it did not always result in their swift release.

"But most of those detained by repressive authorities languish largely unnoticed in jails, under house arrest, in 're-education centres'. Often their families are targeted as well," she explained.

"We owe the progress we have made to the enormous efforts of hundreds of thousands of largely unsung heroes, known collectively as human rights defenders."

Pillay pointed to "dramatic advances" in the 60 years since the United Nations was founded, spearheaded by historic campaigners such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rigoberta Menchu.

"But these inspirational figures could not have done what they did without the help of many others whose names we don't know," she added, highlighting an unfinished, 1,000-year struggle against slavery as well as women's rights.

Earlier this week an exiled Chinese dissident representing Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo's family criticised Pillay for declining to attend the award ceremony in Oslo on Thursday, charging she was bowing to pressure from Beijing.

Pillay's office underlined she had condemned Liu's imprisonment and could not attend because she was already due to host an event for human rights day in Geneva with five lesser known rights campaigners.

© 2010 AFP

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