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Dialogue with the African Union, a "mighty force" for rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

24 April 2018

Distinguished Chairperson of the African Union,
Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

It is an honour for my team and I to return to the African Union for this high-level dialogue, which I am convinced presents a potentially transformative opportunity for the people of this continent.

Many of us here today are disturbed by growing global challenges to multilateral institutions and international law. Short-sighted nationalism, isolationism and the rapid rise of xenophobia are dangerously eroding States' capacity to respond effectively to the difficulties they face.

I believe today our dialogue can symbolise – and, in very real terms, accelerate – Africa's determination to hold true to the key principles which underpin sustainable peace and development across the world: the principles of justice, equality, human dignity, as encapsulated by human rights.

Human rights are not an afterthought. They are not a second-stage, which countries can begin to construct after development is well underway. They are not a project which unfolds after peace has been established. Rights are the drivers of development. Rights are the constructive elements of peace.

Upholding the rights of peoples is the whole purpose of government. Any government which fails to respect and promote human rights is failing its people, and damaging its own efficacy.

At the UN Human Rights Office, we monitor human rights conditions around the world – and we know that the problems we observe in some African countries are shared by those in many other regions. We strive to be impartial in our criticisms and recommendations, and I am convinced we succeed far better than many other international bodies, including within the UN.  We may criticise restrictions on civil society in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Tanzania, but we do the same in Cambodia, Venezuela, Hungary, France and the US.

I'm told there is an African proverb about a hyena and a sheep. “O, sheep," the hyena says, in tones of outrage. "If I do not eat you, you will eat me.”

My Office is no sheep. But we have no intention or ability to weaken States. On the contrary, wherever we are present, we propose assistance to States to build their capacity to uphold rights – because those rights are the accelerative force that will enhance development, social justice, participation, inclusion, and peace. 

We – and the human rights we stand for – have a powerful capacity to make States stronger. Stronger, because they are more fair. Richer, and more sustainably developed, because they can count on the full expression of the skills, talents, and views – including critical views – of their people. More peaceful, because their people are not torn apart by festering grievances, biting inequalities and injustice.

Distinguished Chair,

The African Union is a mighty force, and I am convinced that we are natural allies.

I call on you to help us stand for the rights of all women and men – not only on this continent, but across the world. Millions of Afrodescendants face daily humiliation and oppression because of racism. We stand up to racism, no matter how powerful the leader who voices it – whether it is President Trump, Prime Minister Viktor Orban or anyone else. Join us – support us in this effort to build a more equitable international community.