In a valedictory speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council today, Louise Arbour has challenged the continued oppression of women and sexual minorities.

She is to step down later this month as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“A failure to understand or accommodate diversity has inevitably led to an erosion of the rights of minorities and vulnerable people within a country, and those of individuals who move across borders, including refugees or migrants,” she told the 47-member council.

“Fears and mutual suspicions, engendered by the security environment that has prevailed in the past few years, have exposed minorities to additional risks and abuse.

“The perpetuation of prejudices continue to deny equal rights and dignity to millions worldwide on the basis of nothing more innocuous than their sexual identity or orientation, or their ancestry, in the case of caste discrimination.

“Whether these are explicitly articulated grounds of prohibited discrimination or not, it remains that they are immutable personal attributes, or, as in the case of religious adherence, they are personal choices that could only be forcibly abandoned at an unconscionable personal cost.

“Against this background and the moving target of interests and values, international human rights law cannot be pigeon-holed to deny protection to those whose discriminatory exclusion is real, and who are entitled to turn to the law for their protection.

“It must provide the best, the most reliable and fairest guidance for managing and protecting the multiple identities that each of us carries and the values and principles that each of us embraces, for ourselves, and for each other.”

Mrs Arbour, 61, is a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

She came to international prominence as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

She will complete her four-year mandate as High Commissioner on 30 June and is not seeking a second term.

Her successor, who will be chosen by the UN Secretary General after consultation with member states, has not yet been named.

During her time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights many Muslim and African countries have expressed their displeasure at Mrs Arbour’s insistence that gay and lesbian people and women have human rights equal to those of men.

She has highlighted the treatment of sexual minorities through her work.

Mrs Arbour said the new state reporting system, known as the Universal Periodic Review, could provide a vehicle for scrutiny of the implementation of rights and norms beyond anything ever attempted by the Commission on Human Rights, the ineffective body that was replaced by the Human Rights Council in June 2006.

The UPR, which began functioning in April, has examined the human rights record of 32 states so far, and will take four years to complete its first round of all the UN’s 192 member states. It illustrates deep divisions on the issue of gay rights.

As part of the second stage of the UPR Tonga was advised to decriminalise sexual activity between consenting adults, recommended by the Netherlands, Canada and the Czech Republic.

However Bangladesh, a Muslim country, told Tonga it should retain a ban on gay sex.

Pakistan has expressed the view that sexual orientation falls outside “universally recognised human rights.”

Mrs Arbour sounded a note of caution to the Human Rights Council.

“Scepticism has not been fully dispelled.

“It may at times erode the clarity with which members of the Council and this body as a whole could and should speak on critical human rights protection issues.”

“We must guard against using criticism of a State or a group of States as a proxy for the expression of hatred against peoples, their origins or beliefs,” she said.

“We must forcefully condemn all those deplorable and manipulative distortions that hide sinister purposes, such as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic agendas, or that convey any other form of intolerance.

“At the same time, we should not hesitate to condemn human rights violations, irrespective of the origins of the perpetrators.”

Last year Mrs Arbour declared her support for the Yogyakarta Principles.

Named after the Indonesian city where they were adopted, the principles were introduced by 29 international human rights experts at a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva in March 2007.

They refer to the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity and address issues such as rape and gender-based violence, extra-judicial executions, torture and medical abuses, repressions of free speech and discrimination in the public services.