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Statement by Ms. Louise Arbour United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights On the opening of the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights (Geneva, 14 March 2005)

14 March 2005




Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission,
Director-General,
Ministers, Excellencies,
NGO representatives, Members of the press,
Distinguished Colleagues, Friends,

It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you today, and to address the Commission at the start of its sixty-first session. I look forward to your deliberations on the many, varied and important items on your agenda.

I wish you every success for the next six weeks. Yours is a heavy responsibility which you will fulfill not by the quantity of decisions you take, but by the tangible benefits those decisions bring to rights-holders everywhere in the world. It is the extent to which you improve the situation of people whose rights are being denied that will set you apart.

My colleagues and I will support you in this task in every way.

Mr. Chairman,

These past sixty years have seen the establishment of a wide-ranging, broadly encompassing normative framework in which many human rights have been clearly articulated and enshrined as universal legal entitlements. This process has been one of the truly monumental achievements of the international community since the end of the Second World War. It has been a process in which the Commission, starting with the creation of the Universal Declaration, has been pivotal.

In tandem with the development of this framework has been the increasing understanding and use of the language of human rights. This can be seen in the everyday debates in the media, in civil society, in government, and by people the world over concerning the vitality of our rights and the degree to which they are respected – or violated.

The vocabulary of human rights has entered our common lexicon. This development has led to a critical shift in how we view the world: namely, our concern for state security – a concern at the heart of the inception of this Organization – has been joined more expressly by a concern for human security. This has been a dramatic, welcome, re-orientation of outlook: we can no longer view one in isolation of the other.

Likewise, we are witnessing a greater understanding of the critical centrality that human rights play in societies at large. Two recent publications make this point with crystal clarity. I refer to the report to the Secretary-General prepared by the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, and the report on “Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals”.

Taken together, these documents – in spirit and substance – assert that social and economic development – the improvement in individual and collective welfare – and security – the framework for peace – cannot be attained, or sustained, without full respect for human rights, and that states, collectively and individually, must fulfill their responsibilities in this regard.

Extreme deprivation, marginalization and inequality – perceived or otherwise – can create or exacerbate situations of insecurity. Such insecurity is no longer a matter of concern for one state alone, but can quickly, terrifyingly, become a matter of concern for all. Put simply, the realization of human rights is critical to a safe and prosperous world.

When we talk of the need to end poverty, to entrench systems of good governance and the rule of law, of the importance of democratic institutions, of ending racism and intolerance in whatever form, and of the need to protect the dignity and safety of all, we are talking directly of the reality of human rights.

Mr. Chairman,

We are arguably in the midst of the greatest reform initiative ever undertaken by our Organization. This initiative will include addressing how better we can advance the cause of human rights: in doing so, it will ask searching questions of you, the Commission, as well as of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

How we engage in this debate, and how – including how quickly – we move from debate to action will mark each and everyone of us for the years to come.

Within this context, I would like to make four observations which I believe are central to furthering respect for human rights and which will guide my work as High Commissioner. In framing these, the following considerations are central: that human rights are universal and indivisible; that they must be discussed in context: simply comparing one situation to another is arguably less useful than assessing each on its own terms; and that to have meaning human rights must be realised. Rights which are violated or ignored are rights in name only.

My first observation is that states remain the primary actors, the key conduits through which respect for our rights must be realized. The obligation to respect and enforce human rights rests on states. States sign and ratify human rights treaties, thereby becoming duty bearers. And when states violate those rights, either directly by their own actions, or indirectly by failing to implement them or prevent others from breaching them, they bear the responsibility. When state systems fail, insecurity, at home and often abroad, is the inevitable consequence. The international human rights framework is, in essence, a reflection of the state’s responsibility to protect, an intrinsic corollary of its sovereignty.

Thus, we must look to means to nurture state capacity and acknowledge that no state has cause for complacency: no human rights record is perfect.

Consequently, the Secretary-General’s Action II reform initiative seeks to strengthen national systems for the protection of human rights. Together with our UN partners, we are determined to respond swiftly and effectively to the needs of Member States in this regard. This year, our technical cooperation marks fifty years of providing support, throughout the world, to the administration of justice and law enforcement officials – police, judges, corrections officers – as well as to national, independent human rights institutions, legislators and educators. This support is aimed, simply, at assisting states in meeting their own commitments with regard to human rights.

Sometimes, however, such assistance is insufficient. In situations of crisis where the lives of many are in immediate peril and where governments are unwilling or unable to protect persons within its jurisdiction or control, our collective responsibilities become more pressing. The Commission is one embodiment of our collective responsibility to promote and protect all human rights for everyone. This responsibility takes on many forms, including action by the United Nations, initiatives by regional organizations, scrutiny by the media and civil society, and ultimately, and perhaps increasingly, through the establishment of appropriate mechanisms of accountability.

Mr. Chairman,

At the outset of this sixty-first session of the Commission, on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, we must assess the progress made in meeting the challenges posed by large-scale, gross human rights abuses. Whatever our differences in answering that question, I suggest that a consensus would rapidly emerge that much remains to be done to prevent the most horrific manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man.

We live in a world in which memories of our capacity to wreak unspeakable atrocities on our fellow human beings are never far from the surface. Next month will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. This summer will mark the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, while last year, we all recall, was the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. The Secretary-General used that occasion to demand determined action to bring an end to the mass violation of human rights being perpetrated in Darfur, Sudan. Our response, so far, to that human rights crisis should be examined to see if it falls short of our collective responsibility to the most vulnerable. I suggest to you that it falls very short, whether measured against our obligations or against our means, or both.

Between states working determinedly towards the realization of the full spectrum of human rights, and those in situations of near collapse, there is a category of states in which human rights problems are chronic: in which a range of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights are routinely flouted or denied but which do not attract our fickle attention in a systematic, concerted and coordinated manner.

Whether we face acute or chronic human rights violations, our approach to human rights diplomacy – both bilateral and multilateral – remains unsatisfactory. It is sporadic and selective. The Commission must take the lead in developing more effective approaches that allow for dispassionate analysis and focused, contextualized, calls for action, together with sustained, constructive attention, in order to help resolve issues that are our collective concern and responsibility.

This past year has seen more than its share of turmoil and trauma. It has also witnessed extraordinary moments of hope, generosity and solidarity. We see before us several opportunities for peace and progress; the Commission should provide an environment conducive to the realization of these goals.

My second observation is a corollary of the growing understanding I referred to earlier of the linkage between our collective security and our collective social and economic welfare. Namely, I stress the need to ensure that the economic, social and cultural rights expressed in the Universal Declaration and enshrined in the widely ratified International Covenant are indeed realized by all. So, too, must the right to development inform our quest for dignity at home, and our vision of globalization for the world.

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Colleagues,

I cannot help but be struck by the continued way in which we view some rights as though they occupy discrete compartments, each shut off from the other with no apparent linkages between them. This is certainly not what the Commission’s founders had in mind. Indeed, the story of the Universal Declaration, and the place of both civil and political as well as social and economic rights within it, reflected an integrated vision of the human being as embodying all the interests and entitlements necessary for a life with dignity. Yet in the years that followed, and for reasons well known, a schism emerged between how we addressed our civil and political rights and how we dealt with our economic, social and cultural ones.

Whatever that history, there can be no cause today to question the equal status of economic, social and cultural rights. The indivisibility and inter-dependence of all rights have been affirmed time and again. Socio-economic rights have the status of binding law under numerous international instruments as well as in regional human rights systems in which procedures exist to ensure that their violation can be redressed. Courts the world over have been playing an increasingly vital role in enforcing socio-economic rights bringing them from the realms of charity to the reach of justice, and developing a body of ever growing jurisprudence by which we can be guided in bringing these vital rights to the reality of people’s lives.

The realization of all human rights obligations requires no more and no less than reasonable efforts within the maximum extent that resource constraints permit, with priorities determined through inclusive democratic processes, and with an overriding concern for the empowerment of the most disadvantaged.

For these reasons, I very much hope that agreement can soon be reached to allow the entry into force of an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights giving rise to a legal process that would allow individuals to bring their claims before an international forum in those situations where national recourse has been found wanting.

Mr. Chairman,

My third observation is that now is the time to put to rest the notion that the pursuit of justice is intrinsically inimical to the pursuit of peace.

In the common law tradition, a crime is a breach of the peace. This explains why law enforcement officers are often called peace officers. Yet the link between the pursuit of justice and the restoration of peace and order, which is so obvious in a domestic environment, curiously remains challenged on the international scene by many who argue that justice can be an impediment to peace. This, I believe, is a misguided view. It equates peace, crudely speaking, simply with the absence of a full-fledged open conflict and it defines justice only as the immediate unfolding of a criminal prosecution.

Justice, however, is a richer, more subtle concept. It contains within it punitive notions, to be sure, but also, at its core, the belief that there is as much redemption in the process of justice, as there is in the outcome. It vindicates truth over lies and deception. It affirms society’s solidarity with the victim, rather than with the offender, thereby restating the norms within which we can live in peace with each other. In the most fundamental way justice is the guarantor of peace, the process by which we surrender our desire to seek revenge in exchange for the intervention of the state on our behalf. The abandonment – even the postponement – of the process of justice is an affront to those who obey the law and a betrayal of those who rely on the law for their protection; it is a call for the use of force in revenge and, therefore, a bankruptcy of peace.

Recently, I visited Afghanistan to support the efforts of the Independent Human Rights Commission to push forward an agenda for transitional justice. The commission was launching the results of a survey it had recently conducted: the first time that Afghans had ever been asked how they thought peace, security and justice might best be established. The results were clear. They wanted action to be taken against those who had preyed on their vulnerability over an extended period of time. But, first and foremost, they wanted to be sure that those same individuals no longer had positions of power over them; they wanted the violations to cease and, for once, they wanted the state to do it on their behalf. In that fundamental way, they were truly seeking peace through justice.

Let me turn now to my final observation. The role played by human rights in ensuring security or in enhancing welfare only has meaning if those rights are realized. The monumental body of law created by the international community, led by this Commission, and which articulates and enshrines the fundamental rights of mankind is essentially null and void if these rights remain unenforced.

Mr. Chairman,

No-one should be so bold or presumptuous as to declare finished the process of articulating the contours of basis rights. The aspirational quality inherent in the concept of human rights would suggest that this process may never be complete. One can certainly point today to lacunae in our international normative framework. Indeed, I am particularly concerned that some long-established rights, such as the right not to be tortured, now find themselves opened to unprecedented interpretations.

Yet the normative framework of rights is by and large in place: its shape and outlines are clear. Our core treaties, historical declarations from Teheran, Vienna and Durban, together with decades of jurisprudence from treaty bodies and international tribunals provide the architectural drawings.

But it is equally a truism that there is no right without a remedy and that such a paper framework should not be mistaken for a bricks and mortar dwelling. The absence of effective implementation of rights that have long been expressed, declared and proclaimed leads to the erosion of the rights themselves. The unfulfilled promises of equality, justice and dignity betray the rights on which these promises were said to rest.

Human rights norms expressed in widely ratified international instruments are solemn promises that people have made to each other. They are promises of shared equal enjoyment of rights. Without implementation, there is no point in reaffirming or refining the meaning of rights: they simply do not exist.

So far, we have fallen short in the task of implementing human rights. We readily give the impression of viewing declarations as our final destination, rather than as the path to a life with dignity, and we readily settle for selective and sporadic implementation of rights of convenience.

I am further concerned that we have unduly embroiled our normative discourse in unnecessary clashes of vision, creating competing images, each incomplete and ineffective without the addition of the other.

Are human rights universal or culturally specific? Are they collectively or individually held? Should we promote them, or protect them? Which is the more effective: technical cooperation or naming and shaming; country analysis or thematic debate? Which comes first: peace or justice; economic, social and cultural rights, or civil and political rights; development or democracy?

Such questions serve, in practice, as little more than a series of diversions to the real task in hand. They become the theoretical playground within which we demonstrate our irrelevance and justify our inaction, whether that inaction is borne of indifference, shrewd calculation, or despair.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission,

The United Nations is no stranger to talk of change. This is as it should be. The United Nations is a body that reflects many diverse constituencies, voicing many diverse priorities, needs and hopes. The United Nations encapsulates both who we are, in all our diversity, and with the inevitable contradictions that this may bring, and also who we want to be. When we talk of the United Nations we talk at once both of a reality and of an aspiration: of how, in a perfect world, we would like our global society to function.

It is this aspirational dimension that provides the permanent impetus for change. In no area is this more so than with human rights. And at no time, perhaps, has change been more discussed than now. Increasingly, that discussion includes the voices of right-holders who, until recently, did not perceive themselves as such. Now they do, expressing heightened, legitimate expectations and asking, pointedly, what more will be done to ensure that their rights are reflected in the realities of their lives.

I trust that this Commission will honour the gravity of their request.

Thank you.