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THEWORLDTODAY.ORG AUG-SEPT 2008 PAGE 6 HUMAN RIGHTS ANNIVERSARY Louise Arbour, UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS 2004-2008
The principles of justice and equality HERE IS MUCH TO CELEBRATE IN THIS SIXTIETH for all in the Universal Declaration anniversary year. In the decades that followed the unveiling of the Universal Declaration in of Human Rights have taken root 1948, the Commission on Human Rights put in many places. But the goal of in place a series of treaties which ﬂeshed out the rights listed in the Declaration, including making them truly universal is far tcivil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as equality and non-discrimination standards, protecting those from being achieved. In December, vulnerable to racism, women, and people with disabilities. the Declaration will turn sixty. All states have ratiﬁed at least one of these international human rights treaties, and eighty percent have ratiﬁed four That date also marks the end of a or more. The process of adopting the Declaration’s year-long United Nations campaign norms, translating them into law and putting them into effect continues internationally and nationally, with regional to celebrate the milestone. groups increasingly involved.
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peninsula. Yet United Nations members were still able to rise above partisanship and parochial concerns to articulate a greater common good. Granted, in the past sixty years, UN membership has more than tripled from 58 countries to 192, an increase that ampliﬁes the number of different agendas and sets of priorities. But this makes it all the more imperative to recognise that human rights norms – stemming from, and protecting our common humanity – are the best platform to ﬁnd a shared understanding among different countries and peoples. They are indispensable for preventing and defusing the often interlocked plagues of poverty and powerlessness, as well as discrimination and intolerance that affect the lives of millions. Each of these factors, or their combination, are among the most daunting and persistent challenges to the realisation of the Universal Declaration’s ideals. And yet, these challenges are not insurmountable. I will explain how a human rights approach contributes to facing up to them and also argue that we must continue to help shape and take full advantage of the norms and institutional machinery the UN has put in place to assist states and rights holders.
CLOSING A GAP Poverty continues to be the most serious, invidious and widespread human rights violation we must confront. It is poverty and exclusion – both in cause and effect – that stand at the root of, and exacerbate, abuse, neglect and discrimination. They deny millions the enjoyment of their rights, including their basic right to adequate nutrition, as the recent food crisis has starkly illustrated. There is, of course, no silver bullet to defeat widespread and chronic conditions of economic inequality and destitution. However, a human rights approach to poverty- reduction strategies lays out the explicit obligations countries must fulﬁl to protect their people. As opposed to merely voluntary schemes, this approach underscores government responsibilities to create an environment conducive to public welfare. It also enables the poor to help shape policies, fulﬁl their rights and seek effective redress when abuses occur. All states must commit themselves ﬁnally to weld GREATER COMMON GOOD together the artiﬁcial divide, generated by Cold War rivalries, Some argue that the objective of making the Declaration between civil and political rights on the one hand, and truly universal is simply utopian. These critics maintain economic, social and cultural rights on the other. This will that the holistic vision and common purpose expressed honour the principle of the interrelation of all rights the as a reaction to the Second World War and the Holocaust Universal Declaration envisaged by connecting freedom are irreconcilable with today’s growing diversity. The from fear to freedom from want. profound and deepening divisions between rich and Its framers understood that economic marginalisation, poor, the armed and the defenceless, the powerful and which is often compounded by social and cultural stigmas, the vulnerable, the technologically advanced and the precludes full participation in public life, as well as the ability illiterate, the aggressors and the victims, exacerbate cultural, to inﬂuence policies and obtain justice. religious and political divisions. The post-Second World War rationale of geopolitical The Universal Declaration itself did not come into being in bipolarity undermined this uniﬁed approach. Developing an environment purged of conﬂict. At that time, the Cold War countries argued that the need for survival – economic, social, had started, civil conﬂict ravaged China, the Middle East was and cultural rights – took priority over the constraints ablaze and confrontation was brewing on the Korean imposed on governments by civil and political rights.
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In contrast, western governments were wary of migrants. Fears and mutual suspicions, exacerbated by the this perspective, which they feared would either hamper security environment that has prevailed since September 11 free-market practices, or impose overly cumbersome 2001, have exposed minorities to additional risks and abuse, ﬁnancial obligations on states, or both. Thus they chose to including torture and curtailment of civil liberties. champion those civil and political rights that their political A denial of equal rights and dignity on the basis of nothing traditions had developed and which they viewed as the more innocuous than sexual identity or orientation or hallmarks of democracy. ancestry – in the case of caste discrimination – continues to This division persists despite the fact that, over the years, affect millions worldwide. the international community has repeatedly witnessed rude Against this background and shifting interests and values, awakenings. Calamitous circumstances, such as natural in the name of which, all too often, discrimination is disasters, or catastrophic bad governance, or unrelenting perpetrated, international human rights law provides the conﬂict, have made the inter-relation of all rights – and the best, most reliable and fairest guide for managing and cascading effects of violations of one set of rights over the protecting the multiple identities that each of us carries, and other – painfully apparent. the values and the principles that each embraces, both for In Burma, or Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, ourselves, and for each other. just to mention a few examples that have captured worldwide attention, the effects of the perverse combination of repression, as well as poverty-inducing policies or failures of USE IT, DON’T LOSE IT governance, have been obvious enough. Mistrust among regional blocs, and the rationale of At lower intensity, simultaneous neglect and violations expedient alliances – mainly formed along North/South fault of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social lines – contributed to the unravelling of the Commission on and cultural rights, are a daily reality in the lives of countless Human Rights. The Human Rights Council was created by victims. These conditions are often endured in helpless the World Summit in 2005 to succeed the Commission. It was silence, but they too may carry the potential for violent to give a new lease of life to human rights institutions in the and widespread strife. face of towering challenges. The most promising feature of the Council is the Universal Periodic Review, a process which will assess the human EXPOSING ABUSE rights record of all 192 UN members. With the active To give victims of such conditions an additional forum, the participation of all states, the Review could provide a vehicle UN crafted an Optional Protocol to the International to scrutinise the implementation of rights and norms beyond Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the anything ever attempted by the Commission, which was General Assembly is expected to adopt early next year. The rightly accused of taking a very selective approach towards new Protocol ﬁnally creates for that Covenant a vehicle to individual states’ performance. expose abuse, known as a complaint mechanism, which is When all countries are equitably and transparently similar to those for other core human rights treaties. called to account for their human rights shortcomings, and This procedure may seem opaque, but by lodging a when the Council provides proper remedies, it will complaint under the Protocol, victims will now be able to become apparent that it is quite different from its predecessor. bring to the surface abuses their governments inﬂict, fail to This will dispel the concern that the Council will simply stop, or neglect to redress. All states should urgently ratify this perpetuate the playing out of narrowly partisan interests, Protocol to promote the Declaration’s idea that human while failing to generate a cohesive vision of human dignity can only be achieved when people are lifted from rights, genuine innovation, and universal compliance with want, as well as from fear. standards and norms. Individual states should speak more often on critical human rights protection issues, rather than pursuing a lowest DISCRIMINATION AND INTOLERANCE denominator regional consensus. Next to poverty, and often connected with it, Ultimately, it is the duty of individual countries to act discrimination is one of the most severe and incapacitating on the obligations they have willingly accepted as their own. forms of exclusion stemming from a denial of basic rights. The task for the Council is not only to use its convening power Guarantees of non-discrimination ﬁgure prominently in and leverage to prompt states to give real effect to human every international human rights standard. Yet, laws in rights. It must also create a constituency for the middle some countries, and practice in many, still permit or tolerate ground where different national and regional interests, discrimination, not least against women and girls, or on concerns and experiences can meet, be reconciled and the basis of race. directed to a greater common good. A historic failure to understand or accommodate diversity This approach is indispensable to honour the purpose of the has not only led to an erosion of the rights of minorities and Universal Declaration and ensure future generations are better vulnerable people within a country, but also those of equipped to uphold its universal principles and ﬁnally individuals who move across borders, including refugees and celebrate the full achievement of its gleaming vision.
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