GENEVA – The U.N.'s top rights official laid out the world's most significant human rights issues Monday, criticizing Syria and Bahrain but also mentioning problems in Western countries such as France and Greece.
The assessment by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is important because it sets the tone for the U.N.'s 47-nation Human Rights Council, whose month-long session opened Monday.
The U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to commemorate Switzerland joining the world body a decade ago, challenged the council to focus attention on five areas, including discrimination, violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and women's rights.
"It is an affront to our conscience that millions of people still struggle against poverty, hunger and disease. These conditions violate their fundamental human rights," he said.
Pillay argued that respect for human rights is key to peace, development and humanitarian efforts, and she began by citing Syria's civil war as an area of grave concern with devastating consequences for civilians.
Activists say up to 26,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising began in March 2011 against President Bashar Assad's regime.
Next on Pillay's list was Bahrain for handing down what she called harsh prison sentences against 20 prominent rights activists and opposition figures, including seven who face life in prison. Bahrain's U.N. Ambassador Yusuf Abdulkarim Bucheeri defended his nation, saying its judiciary held a fair trial attended by diplomats, human rights representatives and news media.
Pillay spoke of human rights problems in Colombia, Ivory Coast and Congo, then mentioned France and Greece. She also noted issues in Kenya, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Myanmar and many other countries.
"I am also worried by the recent forced closure of Roma camps in France, which have affected hundreds of people, making them even more vulnerable and exposed to a whole range of human rights concerns," Pillay told the packed chamber.
"I acknowledge a number of steps that have been taken by the government, but further efforts must be made to address this situation" and integrate Roma, or Gypsies, into society, she said.
In August, police raids in Paris and other French cities dismantled camps used by Roma from Eastern Europe and left hundreds without shelter. It echoed a crackdown on the Roma two years ago under conservative then-President Nicolas Sarkozy that drew criticism.
But the French government has since made it easier for Roma, who mostly originate from Romania and Bulgaria, to get jobs and stay in France by expanding the number of sectors where residents of those nations can seek work. The government also abolished a tax paid by employers to hire people from the two countries.
Pillay also noted problems in Greece, where there has been a surge in racist attacks against immigrants with dark skin.
"Equally troubling are violent xenophobic attacks against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in recent months, for example, in Greece," Pillay said. "I am also concerned about reports that the police appeared to have been unable to respond effectively to protect victims of xenophobic crimes. "
Greece launched a campaign in August to try to seal its northeastern border with Turkey in the face of a crippling financial crisis that has caused joblessness to soar.
She also criticized the United States, along with Belarus, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and authorities in the Gaza Strip for their use of the death penalty in recent cases.