Laura Dupuy Lasserre was six years old when her father, a union representative, was arrested and tortured by a government intent on suppressing opponents demanding democracy and rights. He was held for four years.
As the first female president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dupuy Lasserre plans to promote women’s rights and fight against the sort of abuses that took place in her native Uruguay during the dozen years of military dictatorship that controlled the South American nation until 1985. Now the battleground has shifted to places such as North Korea, Myanmar and Belarus.
“We were even limited about the kind of words we could use,” Dupuy Lasserre, 43, recalled in an interview in her office in Geneva on June 30. “The word ‘freedom’ was banned.”
Her childhood experiences drove Dupuy Lasserre to pursue a career in human rights as well as environmental issues. She was director of human rights and humanitarian law at Uruguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming her country’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva in 2006.
Gender issues will be among Dupuy Lasserre’s priorities during her 12-month presidency of the UNHRC, the world’s only global body dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights. Three decades after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women came into force, violence against women “prevails on an unimaginable scale,” according to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is also headed by a woman, South African Navi Pillay.
Globally, as many as six in 10 women experience physical or sexual violence, according to the UN. A 2005 World Health Organization study of 24,000 women in 10 countries found that the prevalence of physical or sexual violence by a partner varied from 15 percent in urban Japan to 71 percent in rural Ethiopia, with most areas ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent.
“I will try to enlighten people about gender issues, violence against women and discrimination, because they are very important,” said Dupuy Lasserre. “Maybe I can serve as an example for other women and offer a gender perspective on different issues that tend to get lost or aren’t that visible.”
Dupuy Lasserre, who has a degree in international relations from the University of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, worked at the country’s Directorate of Environment from 1992 to 1994 and was a delegate to the UN and various international organizations in Geneva from 1995 to 2000. She worked at the General Directorate on Integration and Mercosur in 2000 and 2001, and was an alternate representative to the Organization of American States in Washington from 2002 to 2007.
Freedom House, an independent watchdog that advocates for democracy and human rights, is “very happy to see a woman take over the mantle” at the council, Director Paula Schriefer said by telephone from Washington. “Having gender balance in the people who are essentially making decisions about human-rights issues is a good thing. It shows a more balanced approach.”
Having a woman at the helm for the first time, especially one with Dupuy Lasserre’s background, will be “extremely significant, because a lot of human-rights issues disproportionately fall against and on the shoulders of women,” Joshua Cooper, a lecturer on human rights at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, said by phone.
Dupuy Lasserre took over as president on June 20, more than six decades after Eleanor Roosevelt became the first person to head the UN Commission on Human Rights, the council’s forerunner.
Dupuy Lasserre is “walking in the footsteps of other amazing women,” Cooper said. “She brings a lot of elements. She lived through an oppressive regime and understands what that’s like. She’s relatively young, so she’ll be very approachable. She’ll be innovative and open to new ideas.”
Some of those ideas may not go over well in the council, which has been censured by officials including UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon for being politically motivated. Ban and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, as well as the U.S., the European Union and Canada have accused the 47-member body of focusing disproportionately on the Israel-Palestinian conflict since it was created in March 2006.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February called for the council to end its “structural bias” against Israel, saying it “undermines the important work we are trying to do together.” As of 2010, the assembly had condemned Israel in 32 resolutions -- two-thirds of all motions it’s passed. Israel is the only country the council has specifically condemned.
That track record and its belief that the council turned a blind eye to human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Belarus and Myanmar prompted the administration of George W. Bush to boycott the organization. The U.S. decided to seek a seat on the council in March 2009, saying the move fit with the Obama administration’s goal of international engagement.
Some human-rights groups say the council is controlled by various Middle East and African nations, supported by China, Russia and Cuba, which protect each other from criticism. “A relatively small group of rights-abusing countries have exerted an inordinate level of influence within the council,” according to Freedom House.
Dupuy Lasserre acknowledges this, saying she aims to shore up confidence in the organization.
“There’s still too much politicization in the debates,” she said. “I would like to work with the parties that are on the extremes, to find these bridges, to find common ground. It’s a pity that issues like this” taint the council.
Still, the UN body plays an important role, with its “biggest value coming from the idea of the universality of human rights,” said Freedom House’s Schriefer.
“This past year has been the best in addressing the most critical human-rights issues that are taking place right now,” she said. “We saw strong resolutions on Libya and Syria and the council singled out countries like Sudan and Somalia that are among our worst of the worst. The council largely plays a name- and-shame role, and there it can make a difference.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer M. Freedman in Geneva at email@example.com.
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