"Meeting the Challenge of Human Rights"

Published: Tue 28 Sep 1999 01:53 PM
"Meeting the Challenge of Human Rights"
by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Sounding the Century Lecture
Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
"Meeting the Challenge of Human Rights"
London, 23 September 1999
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The theme of this evening's lecture "Meeting the Challenge of Human Rights" could not be more timely. Human rights belong centre stage in today's political and ethical debate. Events in East Timor have angered and outraged people around the world and have once again raised fundamental questions about whether and how human rights can be secured and defended in our modern world.
All of us are called upon to play a part in championing and defending human rights. In my comments tonight I will concentrate on countries far away because their problems are so urgent and on such a scale, but it should not obscure the challenges closer to home. One such challenge is racism. We are preparing for a World Conference on Racism which will be held in less than two years time. I need hardly remind you that racism has deep roots and that it has many ways of making its distinctive, ugly presence felt. New forms of racism have appeared, for example in the shape of hate-filled messages on the Internet. And it is not confined to prejudice on the grounds of colour: all sorts of minorities can be the target of racism and discrimination, from migrant workers to asylum seekers to indigenous people.
So let us not forget: human rights are for all, whether you live in Luanda or London.
I believe that human rights can be secured and defended - I do not think that this is an impossibly idealistic goal. I say this in the face of what happened in East Timor, the atrocities that were reported to me by the refugees, political leaders and human rights defenders I met when I visited the region. I say it in the face of the horrors I witnessed in Sierra Leone and Kosovo a few months earlier and in many other parts of the world I have visited in the two years since I was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
During this time I have been reflecting on how to shape the human rights debate as we take stock of one century and enter another. As Secretary General Kofi Annan reminds us, we face a two-fold challenge: to make the next century the century of human rights and to create a world wide culture of conflict prevention. To address the first part of the challenge we don't need to write new laws, we need to implement in practice, on the ground, the international norms and standards that exist. To achieve the second part we need the approach urged recently by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Anna Lindh, when she wrote:
"In all cultures and every society, prevention is something normal. Measures are taken to avert crop destruction by floods or rodents. Cattle are protected from predators. Warning signals are placed at rail crossings and air traffic is controlled to avoid accidents. Insurance policies are developed in almost all areas of human activity. All this is the result of preventive thinking, based on the assumption that accidents and disasters can be avoided if you think ahead while preparing for the worst...It is high time to transfer and strengthen the sophisticated preventive habits we know so well at home into the field of international security."
East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone: all have experienced terrible human rights abuses that test our belief in the achievability of a worldwide culture of human rights and our capacity to respond effectively to gross violations. Many more examples could be given but I will focus on these three countries as I can bear personal witness to the enormous suffering of victims where we fail to prevent conflicts and gross violations of human rights.
Legislation and Norms
Major advances have been made in the legislative and normative field since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
- Legitimacy has been secured for the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible. Governments accused of human rights abuses may still try to hide behind the veil of national sovereignty but it is a position that is increasingly hard to sustain. Even those Governments which are the worst offenders realise that internationally agreed human rights norms are not going to go away.
- Flowing from the Universal Declaration has come an impressive body of human rights treaties, conventions, covenants and declarations including the two major covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights respectively. There are four core conventions on the rights of children, on women, on racial discrimination and on torture, and more than 60 further human rights instruments. A large majority of States have ratified the major conventions and Secretary General Kofi Annan and I have urged universal ratification by 2003.
These legislative achievements are impressive. The challenge, of course, is to implement this impressive array of legislation. We are at the stage where we must move from the era of standard setting to putting the principles of the international treaties into practice. As Dag Hammarsjold put it
"The constant struggle to close the gap between aspiration and performance now, as always, makes the difference between civilisation and chaos."
It is salutary to think that he made that point 40 years ago and that today we find ourselves still confronted by a huge gap between aspiration and reality in the field of human rights.
Because the reality is that, in spite of Governments' undertakings and their legal obligations, every day there are fresh, terrible examples of human rights abuses in many parts of the world. These abuses are brought home vividly to us by the print media, radio and television. We owe a lot to the courageous activities of journalists, human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations who bear witness to abuses wherever they occur.
The public response, understandably, is to ask why more cannot be done about gross human rights violations. Why have people in the Balkans or East Timor or Central Africa to endure so much to secure rights about which there is a universal consensus? Why have there been genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia when the whole of the modern human rights movement is predicated on the determination, born out of the horrors of the Holocaust, that genocide would never happen again? Why cannot the international community - and the United Nations in particular - prevent these horrors from happening?
East Timor
The awful abuses committed in East Timor shocked the world - and rightly so since it would be hard to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The murders, maimings, rapes and countless other atrocities committed by the militias with the involvement of elements of the security forces were especially repugnant because they came in the aftermath of the freely expressed wishes of the East Timorese people about their political future. I heard numerous first-hand allegations of a well-planned and systematic policy of killings, displacement, destruction of property and intimidation.
All of the warning signs were there but the horrors still happened. East Timor was a test of the world's preparedness to translate fine-sounding promises about human rights into action, and it was a test we all but failed. For a time it seemed that the world would turn away altogether from the people of East Timor, turn away from the plain evidence of the brutality, killings and rapes. Action, when it came, was painfully slow; thousands paid for the slow response of the international community with their lives.
However, a multilateral force is now in East Timor, with the cooperation of the Government of Indonesia, and I have just come from the opening of a special session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on the issue of human rights violations in East Timor. This is only the fourth time in over fifty years that the Commission on Human Rights has met in Special Session, and I shall return to Geneva for the continuation of the Session tomorrow.
It was the tide of public anger which stirred world leaders to intervene, however belatedly, on behalf of the East Timorese people. I was struck by the words of the poet Seamus Heaney who addressed a protest meeting for East Timor. He said
"Everybody has felt the pity and the terror of the tragedy. But I think that we have also experienced something more revealing, which is a feeling of being called upon, a feeling of being in some way answerable".
That feeling "of being answerable" seems to me to go to the heart of the challenge we face in translating the principles of human rights into reality. Some people regard it as naive to believe in universal human rights; I believe, on the contrary, that the growth in the human rights movement is one of the most hopeful, optimistic developments of our time. To the often-repeated quote about human rights being "the major article of faith of a culture which fears it believes in nothing else" I would reply that if people believed in nothing else except universal human rights and put them into practice, the world would be a much better place.
Michael Ignatieff has written, in the context of the Balkans tragedy, that "we need to be as ruthless and determined in our choice of means as we have been high-minded in our choice of ends." That argument has been heard a lot in regard to Kosovo. Kosovo is held out as an example of the idealism of human rights defenders colliding with the cold brutality of a regime which thought nothing of manipulating ethnic fears and expelling hundreds of thousands from their homes and country.
There are many lessons to be learned from Kosovo but to my mind the most important is that Kosovo represented a failure by the international community to act in time to prevent a tragedy which everyone predicted. For ten years observers on the ground had been warning about the need for action to address a deteriorating human rights situation in Kosovo. Nobody could have failed to see the red light flashing. What was lacking was the foresight and the political will to do something before the situation reached crisis point. The result was an attempt at conflict management instead of conflict prevention with an appalling cost in human lives and material damage.
The cost of failing to take preventive action over Kosovo was truly staggering. More than 10,000 innocent civilians are estimated to have been killed in massacres in Kosovo. A further 1,200 civilians were killed by the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia as well as perhaps 5,000 members of the security forces there. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes. The estimated cost of the NATO air campaign was over £5 billion while the estimated cost of the reconstruction of the Balkans region as a whole will top the £20 billion mark. And that does not take account of the huge humanitarian aid effort and peacekeeping costs.
But, it will be asked, what action can or should be taken once gross human rights violations on the scale of those perpetrated in Kosovo are happening before our eyes and those responsible will not stop? It is obvious that there are situations where peace enforcing will be necessary - East Timor is another example. But we should always be aware that such operations are a last, bad resort, an admission of earlier failures. I strongly believe that they should only take place when authorised by the Security Council and then in a manner which is proportionate and which protects the civilian population on all sides.
Sierra Leone
In May and June of this year, while the world was focussed on Kosovo, I visited that region twice. In between, I visited Sierra Leone. I did so in response to an invitation to see the situation in a country which will soon have the largest number of human rights monitors deployed by my Office. This is to happen in the context of the Lome Peace Agreement which it is hoped will put an end to the terrible bloodshed of the past twenty years. I was conscious, too, that with the media of the world monitoring Kosovo, few had thoughts for the tragedy of Sierra Leone. Human rights abuses go on whether the cameras are rolling or not.
The facts of the fighting in Sierra Leone are well known but nothing can prepare you for seeing at firsthand the extent and cruelty of the violence committed against innocents in that country. There has been a campaign of terror in Sierra Leone, deliberately aimed at the civilian population. The number of deaths will never be known, nor are there accurate figures for those who have been deliberately maimed. Certain figures do exist: around 4,000 people have been hospitalised with amputation wounds, 50% of them women. It is estimated that for every person hospitalised, four others suffered severe injuries but did not get hospital treatment. In January of this year, between 5,000 and 7,000 people were killed in Freetown alone. Property destruction in the capital has amounted to 90%.
A tragic feature of the conflict in Sierra Leone was the deliberate targeting of children for murdering and maiming. This phenomenon is especially chilling in that it has taken place in the year when we mark the tenth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the perpetrators are themselves often children.
Yet when it comes to addressing Sierra Leone's problems, what has been the record? For the most part, the world has not wanted to know. For example, compared to the billions which will go into the reconstruction of Kosovo, the target for donors to Sierra Leone this year is 25 million dollars. Even that modest target has not been met: so far, less than 9 million dollars has been donated or pledged.
It is small wonder if people in Sierra Leone feel that there is a lesser value put on their lives than on others. And Sierra Leone is better placed than some African countries in that the peace negotiations have focussed attention there this year so it may expect some increase in international interest and funding. Others are not so lucky - think of Somalia, not long ago the object of intense international attention and today a collapsed state with no central government and little or no international concern.
Sierra Leone - and so many other countries - force us to reexamine whether the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible is really being put into practice or whether it is a case of greater value being placed on one person's human rights than another's. These are questions which the international community must address. In the case of Sierra Leone, I have urged that there should be a much greater focus on the peace effort and immediate international help to overcome the legacy of the conflict and to establish a culture of human rights. The same applies to all the other "forgotten" conflicts throughout the world.
Role of the United Nations in Human Rights
Many actors have a part to play in embedding a culture of respect for human rights in the world - Governments, international organisations, NGOs, businesses, individuals - but the United Nations has a special role in defending human rights and making them work properly. The easiest thing to do when our aspirations are not matched by reality is to blame the UN. But that is a simplistic response. The United Nations is the representation of the will of what we call the international community - which is another way of saying all the people of the world - but through the structure of Member States. It has many failings, it can be cumbersome and slow-moving. But the UN, uniquely, possesses the quality of universal legitimacy and is a forum where every nation, from the tiniest to the most powerful, can make its voice heard.
The United Nations can only function effectively if the Member States, and especially the larger ones including Britain, give it sustained support and provide the resources needed to do the job. There are many areas, my Office included, where the resources are not adequate to the task. To give an example, the core funding of the United Nations this year is $1.26 billion from around the world. Contrast that with the $15 billion which will be spent in Britain alone on celebrations for the Millennium.
The UN depends on engaged interest and adequate financial support on the part of Member States in addressing the tough human rights problems throughout the world. There are many urgent conflict and country situations where the world's attention is at best sporadic, at worst uncaring. The responsibility here lies on all of us as individuals not to be governed by the disaster headline syndrome. It is not enough to take an interest in grave human rights violations for awhile, only to drop them when they are no longer in the news. Individuals have a duty to keep up the pressure on governments - and on big business and all the other actors with a role in human rights - and to try to ensure the media spotlight is not turned off. Championing and defending human rights is a tough, long-term task.
An Age of Prevention
As well as calling for the next century to be the century of human rights, Kofi Annan has emphasised that we must now enter the age of prevention of conflicts. I see prevention as the main focus of my Office's work. And prevention must be paramount for every international actor, whether it be Foreign Ministries, bilateral donors, transnational corporations and certainly for the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all of the agencies of the United Nations system.
Failures of prevention shame us all. Cambodia shamed us, Kosovo shamed us and now East Timor has shamed us. Are we going to be shamed again? Our failures to prevent the gross violations of the past do not relieve us of the responsibility to prevent their recurrence.
Protecting and Promoting Human Rights
On the positive side, the UN's mechanisms to protect and promote human rights are expanding and improving. We have the potential for an effective early warning system.
- The Secretary General's reform programme envisages the mainstreaming of human rights in the UN system and concrete steps are being taken to bring this about;
- Special Rapporteurs and Special Representatives are appointed by the Commission on Human Rights. They investigate and report back on country situations or on thematic issues such as torture, religious intolerance or violence against women and are effective engines of change. The number of these mechanisms has grown rapidly in recent years in response to the demand for action to deal with gross abuses. These are courageous individuals whose dedication and fearlessness sheds light in dark places.
- There is commitment to strengthening the United Nations human rights treaty mechanisms - the system by which Governments are examined on the extent of their adherence to the core human rights treaties. These mechanisms have a low profile but they can achieve important results.
- Two highly effective preventive tools are field presences and technical cooperation. Our first human rights field presence was established seven years ago; today we have 22 in countries as diverse as Burundi , Colombia and the former Yugoslavia. The biggest operation is in Cambodia where the human rights field presence is making a significant contribution to that country's reconstruction;
- The number of technical cooperation programmes is also expanding rapidly - ten years ago we had 2, today we have 55. An example is the agreement we signed in June with the Russian government to put in place a major programme of human rights education and so strengthen the human rights culture in that country.
- Overall, the response to the preventive approach is very favourable. Another example is national human rights institutions. My Office is active in offering technical advice and assistance to help get such institutions established. We do so because we are aware that independent national institutions can be extremely effective catalysts in strengthening human rights within countries. So far, OHCHR has responded to requests from over 40 countries wishing to establish national institutions to promote and protect human rights.
- Lastly, there is a significant increase in the level of regional cooperation. In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, there have been valuable workshops on human rights themes and a framework for regional technical cooperation has been drawn up. As a personal initiative I have begun appointing regional advisers on human rights - individuals who will galvanise the potential for regional cooperation.
If preventive measures succeed, we may not hear about it precisely because a possible conflict has been avoided. No headlines, no harrowing and sometimes voyeuristic images on television, but human life and dignity protected and maintained. Quiet diplomacy and skilful capacity building in human rights are also important tools of prevention.
One of my strongest convictions is that there must be accountability for gross human rights violations. I welcome the trend whereby courts are increasingly allowing the prosecution of human rights cases, irrespective of where they occurred or how much time has elapsed. The decision of the House of Lords in the Pinochet case was a landmark ruling on the potential of national courts to enforce international commitments. I welcome, too, the fact that the international judicial machinery is finally moving into action: the setting up of ad hoc tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda was an important step forward and the adoption of the Statute of an International Criminal Court providing jurisdiction over the three core crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, was a milestone in the struggle to strengthen respect for human rights and humanitarian law. What better way could there be to usher in an age of prevention than for States to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court and allow it to begin its vital work?
The issue of accountability loomed large during my visit to Sierra Leone. The Lome Peace Agreement contains provision for a broad national amnesty for all those who committed crimes in the conflict in Sierra Leone - this would allow even those guilty of the most brutal atrocities to go free. The United Nations disagreed with the amnesty and entered a reservation, pointing out that there could be no amnesty for the grossest violations amounting to crimes against humanity. Here, too, human rights defenders are accused of being naive. Is an amnesty not a fair price to pay, it is argued, if it means peace for a most distressed country?
The principle involved appears to me to be clear: there must be no impunity from the grossest violations, there must be accountability to break the cycle of impunity. Of course, in the context of conflict resolution, tough, often unpalatable decisions have to be made in the interest of lasting peace and reconciliation - we need look no further than Northern Ireland for evidence of that. But there are multiple ways of addressing the issue of impunity. Absolving wrong-doers from the national judicial process does not mean that ways should not be found to confront them with the reality of their crimes at the international level. If individuals are not obliged to face up to their actions, the cycle of impunity will continue unabated. That is why I urged the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry in Sierra Leone to investigate and assess human rights and humanitarian law violations and abuses. In addition, my Office is working to support the setting up of an independent national human rights institution and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. More recently I have called for the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry into gross human rights violations in East Timor.
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
In crisis situations we tend to think of civil and political rights only, but there can be no talk of genuine preventive strategies without addressing economic, social and cultural rights. Violations of these rights are widespread and are among the worst in the world. Over a billion people live in extreme poverty, the majority of them women and children. How can we expect democratic societies to flourish if access to food, water, education and even basic healthcare is denied? Yet the problems of marginalisation, of extreme poverty, of economic and social imbalances within and between countries are getting worse, not better.
I was interested to hear the economist Jeffrey Sachs call recently for "a new creativity and a new partnership between rich and poor". Sachs argued that the G8 debt relief proposals which are to be implemented soon ought to be no more than a beginning in efforts to reduce the crippling debt burden of the most indebted countries. He contrasted the response to AIDS in resource-rich countries, where great advances have been made, with the AIDS epidemic which is raging in developing countries. And he called for a mobilisation of global science and technology to address the crises of public health, agricultural productivity, environmental degradation and demographic stress confronting the poorest countries of the world.
New, imaginative approaches of this kind will be essential if economic social and cultural rights are to be secured. The need for fresh thinking is particularly acute because different challenges are appearing all the time. Foremost among these is the impact of globalisation which has made transnational corporations more powerful in some respects than national governments. One of my aims is to engage the business community in ensuring respect for human rights. There are positive signs that some business leaders are genuinely committed to improving their companies' record in this area by identifying and accepting their responsibility and taking practical steps to meet it.
Human rights are directly relevant to how we shape our future. That is shown by the fact that the tough issues are now at the forefront of public debate and that human rights values are invoked in tackling domestic violence, asylum seekers and refugees, and ethical problems arising from scientific advances. We must face the challenges that lie ahead with courage. Recently I was invited to write a foreword to a publication of women's writing on human rights called A Map of Hope. It was edited by a Chilean poet, Marjorie Agasin, who explained:
"A Map of Hope was born because of a passionate desire to bring to witness the atrocities faced by women since the beginning of the century - indeed, since the beginning of time. I also wanted to show through the voices of women throughout the world the power to heal through words as well as the power of resistance".
I carry this book with me now and draw strength from it.
I come back to Seamus Heaney's words about East Timor: yes, we all felt the pity and terror of the tragedy, but there was something more, "a feeling of being called upon, of being in some way answerable". We are all answerable.

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