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Nigeria gets first visit from UN rights chief

13 march 2014, 11:35
SwitzerlandU.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. ©Reuters/Denis Balibouse
SwitzerlandU.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. ©Reuters/Denis Balibouse
Nigeria, under fire internationally for banning gay marriage and alleged abuses while tackling Islamist insurgents, received its first visit from the United Nations human rights commissioner, AFP reports.

But Navi Pillay said she had not come to Africa's most populous nation to pass judgement, instead vowing to encourage the government in Abuja to protect and promote basic freedoms.

"I'm not here to come and criticise. I'm here to encourage them (the government) to do more to protect everyone human rights," she told a meeting of local rights and civil society groups plus Nollywood film actors.

Nevertheless, she agreed there were "very serious underlying problems" in the country that needed to be addressed.

The UN said on Monday that Pillay's visit was the first in the 20-year history of her office and she would meet President Goodluck Jonathan, senior government ministers as well as leading lawmakers.

The overall aim was not only to get Abuja to promote and protect human rights but also "broaden the profile and understanding of human rights in general throughout the country", according to a statement from her office.

In January, Nigeria caused outrage among Western powers, including the United States, after Jonathan signed into a law a bill banning same-sex unions and gay marriage, promising up to 14 years in jail for anyone flouting the legislation.

Outraged gay rights activists warned that the act, which finds overwhelming support across religiously conservative Nigeria, legitimised homophobic violence and increased the threat of persecution.

Pillay herself was one of the most vocal critics, saying: "Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights."

Nigeria's military meanwhile has been accused of abuses against both civilians and suspected militants in their counter-insurgency operations against Boko Haram in the country's north and northeast.

International rights groups have claimed civilians and suspected militant fighters have been arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions, exposing them to cruel and degrading treatment, torture, illness and death.

Pillay, who is on a three-day visit, was also told at her meeting on Wednesday that widespread corruption and impunity were key issues facing Nigeria currently.

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