Speech by Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the 20th Forum Global Issues at the Federal Foreign Office, 14 October 2008

14.10.2008 - Speech

-- Check against delivery --

Distinguished Panellists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you today on the occasion of the 20th Forum on Global Issues which is devoted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Having risen from the sorrow and the shame of atrocities perpetrated in the course of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration represented and continues to represent one of humanity’s most shining achievements and the hope for a better world where aspirations to freedom and global welfare and the enjoyment of rights converge.

To that end, a series of human rights treaties were devised to flesh out the Universal Declaration’s ideals. Moreover, all States have ratified at least one, and frequently several, of the core seven human rights treaties giving concrete expression to the principle of universality of rights.

To renew momentum for the high objectives of the Universal Declaration, The Secretary General of the United Nations decided to devote a year-long campaign to mark the 60th anniversary of the Declaration under the overall theme “dignity and justice for all of us.” The campaign will culminate on 10 December 2008. Within this framework we have chosen to pay special attention to persons deprived of their liberty in prisons and other places of detention and invited national partners to undertake concrete activities in this area that demonstrate a commitment to human rights for all.

The campaign offers us an opportunity to evaluate how far and how deeply we have gone in translating universal rights into reality, that is, in the implementation of States’ commitments under international law. We should also reflect more systematically on how the interconnection of rights, development and security can be brought to bear to enhance everyone’s freedoms, entitlements, prosperity and safety.

Yet the universality of human rights is often questioned, more often by duty-bearers than by rights-holders. Indeed, all people share the same basic ideas about what is needed to live a dignified life, free from want and fear. While the promotion and implementation of human rights standards demand sensitivity to context, the universality of the essential values and aspirations embodied in these commitments are beyond doubt.

Allow me to underscore that the UDHR is a clear expression of the interconnectedness, interrelatedness and interdependence of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It also clearly recognizes the interdependence at the international level and enshrines in article 28 the fact that everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which human rights can be fully realized.

However, for all the solemn commitments and normative advances, serious implementation gaps remain. Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated. Regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped to promote short-sighted security agendas. And lamentably, a tradeoff between justice and peace is often erroneously invoked when societies emerge from conflict and combatants return to their communities. Poverty, discrimination based on various grounds, including race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, as well as human rights violations occurring in the context of mass-movements of people continue to be of the gravest concern.

At the same time we face daunting new challenges, the magnitude and multifaceted aspects of which require our collective response. These challenges include climate change, the food crisis, globalization, terrorism, and new or resurgent epidemics. All these challenges have direct repercussions on the enjoyment of rights and I should probably add the financial crisis as a new challenge to this list.

Thus, human rights norms provide uniform and universal standards that help us to understand who has been left out as well as the core obligations of those required to take action. Human rights norms can guide discussion in politically charged environments and instill substance to political discourse in an objective manner.

The instrumental importance of human rights principles--enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international law-- such as equality, participation, accountability and the rule of law, is now widely accepted. Information and the freedom to organize and express views openly are vital for good policy making and measurable implementation. Socio-economic rights are critical for the meaningful exercise of these freedoms. And gender equality, a right in and of itself, has also been an indispensible precondition to maximizing and propagating education, development and community welfare.

Yet interpretation of the relationship between rights is not always uniform. Different approaches to the application of human rights norms have also surfaced. Authoritative interpretations by independent mechanisms, such as treaty bodies or special procedures or regional human rights courts provide the best guidance in this area. Discrepancy in opinion over the meaning of rights can best be addressed through expert fora and panels, and considered opinions can shape the intergovernmental debate in this area. It is important not to shy away from difficult debates, but participate in discussions with a spirit of cooperation and collegiality.

The boundaries of freedom of expression represent a challenging topic in Europe and elsewhere. To tackle it, OHCHR organized an expert seminar which was held from 2-3 October in Geneva.

Allow me to be clear on this score. It is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is incumbent upon all to employ the spiritual basis for tolerance-- which is found in all religions and all systems of ethics-- to promote understanding for diversity so that even contrasting views and convictions can be freely and respectfully expressed in the public arena.

Repetitive, abusive, violent and gratuitous criticism against specific religions per se may lead to a context where members of that religion are afraid to express their beliefs, and are despised and discriminated against. Expressions that amount to incitement to racial or religious hatred should be acted upon in an urgent but proportionate manner. However, speech critical of religions is permissible -- however vehement – and does not necessarily constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred. Each case should be assessed on its own circumstances, and in accordance with all relevant international human rights standards.

It is important to protect the rights of religious minorities and of non-believers. At the same time, we should be mindful that individuals belonging to a majority religion are not always free from pressure to adhere to a certain interpretation of that religion, or to change or renounce their religious affiliation. Their freedom of expression must also be protected by creating an environment conducive to frankness and debate, rather than imposed conformism.

Another topic that has attracted a vast variety of positions is climate change. One thing is clear however: climate-related upheavals pose a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights, such as the right to life, to food, to adequate housing and water. The consequences of calamitous weather conditions are already visible in many parts of the world. A human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected. It provides the legal rationale and grounds to advocate the integration of human rights obligations into policies and programmes countering the negative effects of environmental challenges. It links the assessment of critical vulnerabilities with accountability for acts of commission and omission on the part of States when such vulnerabilities are either deliberately or negligently overlooked.

Blatant examples of long-neglected vulnerabilities have emerged in the course of the recent food crisis. The lack of affordable food has been more acute for the individuals, families and communities who had already been victims of deep-rooted practices of exclusion and discrimination. A failure to empower such groups to claim their rights, as well as the enforcement of repressive policies aimed at gagging protest altogether, further compound the predicament of the vulnerable and the marginalized. Through a human rights lens, we must put corrective measures in place. These should include not only immediate relief, but also fair policies on land ownership, equitable access to other productive resources and public policy safety nets, as well as the creation of vehicles and channels to publicize needs, denounce abuse, and obtain redress.

A good starting point in this regard could be offered by paying heed to the Secretary General’s appeal to do more and faster in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. He reminded us that what we are confronting is nothing less than a development emergency. While many countries are on track to reaching a few of the goals, large disparities persist within and across countries. In the Millennium Declaration, and the 2005 World Summit, world leaders have explicitly recognized the close linkages between development, human rights and peace and security.

Yet in too many cases, the MDGs are pursued in isolation from human rights. One of the “added values” of the human rights approach to poverty reduction and development, which my Office champions and advocates at every opportunity, resides in providing a framework of institutions and norms to help reduce disparities. This human rights approach helps mediate those conflicting claims that inevitably arise through development processes. Indeed, human rights norms provide an objective set of minimum standards that help us to understand who has been marginalized or even forgotten in the process of creating social change and development. For this reason, not only can rights-based programming provide content and legitimacy to “capacity development,” it also makes this process more sustainable in the long run.

Moving now to the issue of terrorism, another topic of your discussion, let me point out that this scourge often thrives in environments in which human rights are violated, where human rights are curtailed, where non-violent channels to express discontent are lacking and where discrimination and exclusion are rampant. There is a broad recognition that not only is respect for human rights an essential element of an effective counter-terrorism strategy, but disrespect for human rights actually undermines counter-terrorism efforts.

Indeed human rights should be placed at the core of international cooperation in counter-terrorism with States meeting their obligation to ensure that measures taken to combat crimes of terrorism comply with their obligations under international human rights law, in particular the right to recognition as a person before the law, due process and non-refoulement.

Migration is another major human rights challenge. It is my firm belief that a human rights approach to migration is the best way to address this issue. Migration policies should be based on human rights principles and draw upon the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. I strongly encourage all UN Member States, including Germany, to ratify this important instrument.

But human rights instruments are not self-fulfilling. More determined collaborative action is needed to maximize the potential for change and development. Cooperation in this area takes place in form of many fora, at the international level within the auspices of the United Nations, in particular the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, as well as within global conferences devoted to human rights issues, such as the forthcoming Durban Review Conference.

One particular feature of the Human Rights Council is the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. The HRC has so far considered 32 countries, and despite criticisms, the process is largely considered valuable and useful, including by civil society. To make a real assessment of the impact and value added of this new procedure, however, requires more time. Yet it must be stressed that the UPR process is the most advanced accountability mechanism to date.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge Germany’s commitment to human rights. Having absorbed and understood the lessons of the past, Germany is an earnest champion of human rights. We know that many challenges remain on the path of full human rights realization. But the 60 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration have shown the way forward. We are now clearer that this effort requires the individual and collective commitment of all; that commitment must overcome partisanship and narrowly defined interests. It requires imagination, energy, diplomacy, determination and hard work. I am confident that States and Civil Society can together continue to harness such qualities and put them to optimal use in the service of human rights.

Thank you and I wish you a very productive discussion.

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