Shame of failure on human rights

The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, as the new High Commissioner points out, the record on human rights hardly gives cause for celebration. Learning lessons from the failures, the challenge now is to create a culture throughout the UN where human rights drive decision making.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 February 1998 7 minute READ

On the morning I left DUblin to begin my work as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Seamus Heaney gave me a beautifully bound copy of The Golden Bough inscribed with those encouraging words: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly…’.

Human freedom is that precious space secured by standards, laws and procedures which defend, protect and enhance human rights. We are all custodians of those standards. As the Vienna Declaration in 1993 stated: ‘Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings’. International human rights law, developed since 1948, is there because domestic protection of vulnerable individuals or groups is either absent or insufficient.

Today, news reaches us faster than ever and much of it concerns human rights violations. Making human rights protection work is a problem for the international community for which I now bear some responsibility.

Perception gap

The task is not easy, particularly because the expression ‘human rights’ carries different meanings, resonates differently in various parts of the world and within countries depending on political preferences, ethnic association, religious views and, importantly, economic status. I have learned that the gap in perceptions of what we mean by human rights is even wider than I had thought. It is a gap that must be narrowed if there is to be a shared commitment at the international level to further the promotion and protection of human rights.

My own approach to human rights is based on an inner sense of justice. Perhaps because I am from Ireland and have my roots in a past of struggle for freedom, of famine and of dispersal of a people. Perhaps also from my experiences as a lawyer and politician and, more recently, as a President privileged to visit and be a witness to profound suffering and deprivation in countries such as Somalia and Rwanda.

The broad mandate of my office, created by the General Assembly resolution of December 1993, entrusts me, I believe, with a particular responsibility to bridge the perception gap. The means at my disposal are modest, the tools being mainly advocacy and persuasion. Nonetheless I take the very breadth of the mandate as the starting point, because it is clear that the gap in perceptions is widest when the term ‘human rights’ focuses specifically on civil and political rights on the one hand or, at the other end of the spectrum, emphasises the importance of the right to development.

My responsibility as UN High Commissioner is to adopt and to foster a rights based approach across the whole spectrum of ‘civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights’, to promote and protect the realisation of the right to development and specifically to include women’s rights as human rights, as we were reminded by the Beijing conference. It is useful to have a timely opportunity for an open and, I hope, frank debate on all of this.

Aspirational document

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ranks as one of the great aspirational documents of our human history. It embodies the hopes and even dreams of people still scarred from two World Wars, newly fearful of the Cold War and just beginning the great liberation of peoples which came about with the dismantling of the European empires.

The Declaration proclaims the fundamental freedoms of thought, opinion, expression and belief and enshrines the core right of participatory and representative government. But just as firmly and with equal emphasis, it proclaims economic, social and cultural rights and the right to equal opportunity. It was to be ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’, and the rights and freedoms set forth therein were to be enjoyed by all without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Twenty years after its adoption the basic tenets of the Declaration were endorsed in the Teheran Proclamation of 1968. These rights and freedoms were developed in greater detail in two UN Covenants of 1976, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and that on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Declaration is a living document. To commemorate it in the closing years of this millennium, the debate must give more priority to current complex human rights issues: the right to development, the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights and empowerment of people with disabilities, gender mainstreaming and issues of benchmarks and accountability in furtherance of these and other rights.

There are now many more participating Governments than were present on 10 December 1948 and also many more voices from the wider civil society. The challenge will be to produce a similar commitment to a shared vision to that in the opening words of the preamble to the Declaration: ‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…’. And that they form part of a renewal in our time of that vision.

The international system’s achievements in implementing human rights standards cry out for fresh approaches. As we prepare for the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, I have told my colleagues that I do not see this as an occasion for celebration. Count up the results of 50 years of human rights mechanisms, 30 years of multi-billion dollar development programmes and endless high level rhetoric, the global impact is quite underwhelming.

We still have widespread discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religious belief or sexual orientation and there is still genocide – twice in this decade alone. There are 48 countries with more than one fifth of the population living in what we have grown used to calling ‘absolute poverty’.

Lessons to learn

This is a failure of implementation on a scale which shames us all. So much effort, money and hopes have produced such modest results. It is no longer enough to hide beyond the impact of the Cold War and other factors limiting international action in the past. It’s time instead for a lessons learned exercise.

One lesson we need to learn – and to reflect in our approach – is that the essence of rights is that they are empowering. Poverty itself is a violation of numerous basic human rights. Furthermore, the increased recognition of the feminisation of poverty makes it vital to link into the international protection of human rights the energies and approaches of the thousands of international and national networks of womens’ groups.

This link between rights and empowerment is very much in my mind as I begin to identify my own priorities. One of these must be to respond to the directions of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in his report last July on Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform, that ‘the High Commissioner will undertake an analysis of technical assistance provided by the United Nations entities in areas related to human rights and formulate proposals for improving complementarity of action.’

What the Secretary General had in mind were the various United Nations programmes that, for example, assist democratic processes, strengthen good governance and the rule of law, support the reform of the judiciary and legal system and train security forces. In addition, many United Nations programmes affect economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of the child. The report notes: ‘The Office of the High Commissioner should be able to provide its advice for the design of technical assistance projects and participate in needs assessment missions’.

This year also sees the five year review of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in the summer of 1993. The Conference adopted an Action Programme identifying particularly vulnerable individuals and highlighted the need for continual review of subsequent measures to ensure adequate protection of their rights.

Women, minorities, indigenous peoples, children, people with disabilities, refugees, migrant workers and prisoners were seen as particularly vulnerable. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was endorsed by a resolution of the General Assembly which also established the post I now occupy.

One of the prime movers in building the consensus in Vienna for that post was Ecuador’s ambassador and now Foreign Minister, Jose Ayala Lasso, who was then handed the challenge of being the first High Commissioner. He moved prudently – building a more solid and durable consensus for the post, beginning reform of the human rights secretariat in Geneva and enlarging the activities of the new Office to include substantial field presences in post genocide Rwanda, in Cambodia and elsewhere. When the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education was proclaimed by the General Assembly to begin in 1995, he initiated a plan of action which I propose to build upon.

And what of the role of civil society in all this? In his reform proposals last July, the Secretary General noted that ‘civil society constitutes a major and increasingly important force in international life’, but, he continued; ‘Yet despite these growing manifestations of an ever more robust global civil society, the United Nations is at present inadequately equipped to engage civil society and make it a true partner in its work’.

Moral voice

I feel a particular responsibility, as the person charged both ‘to enhance international co-operation for the promotion and protection of human rights’ and ‘to co-ordinate the human rights promotion and protection activities throughout the United Nations system’, to lead in forging partnerships with and shaping the energies and effectiveness of the worldwide human rights community.

It will not be easy. The High Commissioner’s mandate was carefully worded and balanced – reflecting the concern of some governments that they were creating a post which might shine an unwelcome light on neglect of their citizens’ rights.

Professor Philip Alston, in a recent article in the European Journal of International Law, described the role of the High Commissioner as ‘neither fish nor fowl’. He points out that whereas the tasks given to the High Commissioner have continued to expand, including significant field operations, it has been necessary to supplement the inadequate resources from the regular UN budget by voluntary special purpose contributions. I share the broad thrust of his analysis.

Recognising that voluntary contributions from Governments will continue to be an important source of funding, I am writing to all Governments so that support for our activities will be as inclusive as possible.

I am also very conscious of the difficult task of developing an appropriate balance between the use of consensual diplomacy, and the moral voice on behalf of victims which speaks out in defence of human rights. It helps to have only one agenda, the fulfilment of my mandate, and to recognise that there are many friends in the international human rights community ready and willing to help.

Wake up to rights

I would like to focus briefly on the co-ordinating role which has been given new impetus in the reform proposals of last July.

The former Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Ian Martin, said that the High Commissioner for Human Rights should wake up each morning thinking how best to protect human rights.

I agree with him but would go further. The protection of human rights requires that every United Nations staff member should wake with the same thought and work committed to that end.

Lost the plot

Almost by definition and certainly according to its Charter, the United Nations exists to promote human rights. Somewhere along the way many in the organisation have lost the plot and allowed their work to answer to other imperatives.

This is the root cause of much of the criticism that is levelled at the UN – you hear it couched in terms of complacency, of bureaucracy, of being out of touch and, certainly, of being resistant to change.

There is an opportunity now to recapture the lost purpose of the United Nations. I hope to contribute to this by helping shape a framework which will result in an Organisation driven by human rights standards.

I believe profoundly in the relevance to our global community of the human rights standards built up over more than fifty years. Not only are all human rights universal, indivisible, interrelated and interdependent, they are inherent in human nature and pertain to the individual.

Realising and implementing these human rights standards is a core value of the reform proposals of last July. The language is explicit: ‘Human rights are integral to the promotion of peace and security, economic prosperity and social equity…’ and again ‘A major task for the United Nations, therefore, is to enhance its human rights programme and fully integrate it into the broad range of the Organisation’s activities…’.

The first step has already been taken by assigning each entity in the UN system, with the exception of my Office, to one of four Executive Committees. These committees are the central tool in ensuring coordination, focussed on peace and security; humanitarian affairs, economic and social issues and development operations.

The Secretary-General has asked me to participate in each of the four and to assess whether this is a more effective way to ‘mainstream’ human rights rather than having a fifth committee.

In a practical way human rights has become a core value in the work of the UN – human rights imperatives can and should be injected into every aspect of the organisation’s work. It will require an integrated approach, for example, working with our colleagues in political affairs and peacekeeping to understand that today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts.

I do not exclude any agency, no matter how apparently purely technical. The International Telecommunications Union, for example, has a crucial role in ensuring that people in the least developed countries can join the information revolution. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration anticipates the lnternet, enunciating the right to ‘receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

Culture of rights

As High Commissioner I have the responsibility to act as a catalyst, stimulating and coordinating action for human rights throughout the UN system, and providing education, information, advisory services and technical assistance.

This requires more than structural and organisational changes: it requires an approach of education and heightened awareness among the UN’s most important resource, its staff. They need to become familiar with human rights standards and how these standards are applied in their own areas of responsibility. They need to understand the principles and ethics underlying these standards and identify with this ethos. They should have a commitment to promote human rights and communicate and implement such standards in their daily work.

Changes are occurring. I have been impressed with new thinking and the development of a ‘strategic framework’ in how we work in each country. This is a collegiate effort to encourage disparate elements of the UN to accept common goals and to coordinate actions to achieve them.

Human rights bring a unifying set of standards – common reference points for setting the objectives, assessing the value of possible interventions and then for evaluating the impact of actions.

The process of building up a culture of human rights throughout the UN system, will be our contribution to the review after five years of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. That review requires a stocktaking by Governments of the extent to which they have implemented the international human rights standards. It will also engage regional and national human rights institutions and the process will involve a reporting procedure to the Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva in March and to the General Assembly in September.

The timing is right. The five year review of the Vienna Conference will give us reference points to assess what is working and what might work better. Clarence Dias and James Paul coined the expression ‘lawless development’ as a succinct indictment of the shortcomings of international interventions over the past 30 years and as a broad hint that some solutions might be found in the application of international law.

Rights question

A few weeks ago, colleagues in my office met representatives of an Australian NGO which – in conjunction with counterparts in South East Asia – is formulating guidelines for what it calls the ‘Rights Way to Development’. Their ideas are challenging.

This group is asking the right questions. For example – what are the real objectives of a World Bank loan for an infrastructure project or an intervention by the International Monetary Fund to stabilise a currency?

For too long the objectives and the success or failure of interventions have been measured narrowly – according to the criteria of macro-economics. I suggest that their real purpose is to contribute to the realisation of a number of human rights.

In many ways both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are adapting to this broad objective using terms such as ‘human development’, ‘human wellbeing’, ‘human security’, ‘basic needs’ and ‘good governance’.

I prefer the language of the Universal Declaration and the two Covenants. The language there, unlike these surrogate terms, has the force of treaty law and directly empowers people. It tells people at the grassroots level that they have rights… rights to security, dignity, economic opportunity and a better life for their children – not any vague and undefined entitlement to a favour of some kind, bestowed by a government or an international agency.

Rosalyn Higgins – one of Britain’s great international jurists and now a member of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, described international law ‘as a normative system, harnessed to the achievement of common values – values that speak to us all, whether we are rich or poor, black or white, of any religion or none, or come from countries that are industrialised or developing.’

The normative work is largely done. The international human rights standards are in place. The task for us all, given new impetus by the focus this anniversary, is to implement them.

Let me return, in conclusion, to The Golden Bough:

‘If fate has called you,

The bough will come easily, and of its own accord.

Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster you never will

Manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades.’

As I wake up each morning thinking how best to protect human rights I must also, and with modesty, rely on fate.

This article is based on the Romanes Lecture at Oxford University in November 1997.