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Columbia University
Lecture 12 March 2017
Deputy High Commissioner Kate Gilmore


​I am very grateful for this opportunity – thank you Columbia – and would like to start our discussion today with the most critical aspect of human rights – not rights but humans!  I should be clear that for me – despite its sometimes unfairly-maligned reputation to the contrary -  human rights are not primarily about law and legislators, judges and courtroom, good guys and bad – it's about people and the nature of being human. 

If say, the science of human anatomy can be said to be a codification of the bodily - physical structure of the human being, then rights – as set out in the UDHR – can be said - simply – to be a textual codification of what it means to be human and thus of what are the characteristics/elements, that if absent or eroded means we can understand that we are "de-humanised".  This "textual" account – defining the essential grounds/preconditions for human dignity – are hard won understandings, forged in the worst of times and reflecting common patterns across diverse traditions, culture and philosophies.   But they are first and last about humans!

Which is why I want to start with an account of what is happening to humans today and then to consider with you what this might mean for rights and our we should uphold those!

If you ask me, I would say that today we first must notice that millions upon millions of people are displaced – torn from their homes, their communities, their livelihoods by force of torrid mix of conflict, crisis, contagion and climate change. 

Hundreds of thousands have scrambled across and out of their countries of origin - over and through desert and ocean – at great personal risk and loss; in flight from what they know to be even deeper risks of further violence, worse persecution, deeper poverty.  More people on the move within and across borders than ever before.

Although migration is as old as are human sapiens, today people's movement takes place against a backdrop of natural resources' more rapid depletion and man-made climate instability - terrible twins, born of consumption at a rate that this village planet simply cannot sustain; bringing impacts that are worst for peoples with the least and most direct for those most directly dependent for their livelihoods on the land or ocean.  Traditional livelihoods eroded and depleted, driving more people – for the first time in history – out of rural communities and into urban and peri-urban settings, where millions eek out lives often absent basic dignities.

There is a deepening today too of seemingly intractable intra- and inter-state conflicts – wars both by proxy and direct intent – conflicts destroying civilian lives, homes, families and wrecking civilian infrastructure for justice, health, education, culture, memory and future. 

In response? We are witnessing a rising tide of toxic hatred for the "other" – this demonization a fabrication of a fictional criminalization of the "other", woven out of massive demographic changes and the muck of deepening inequalities – a sour soup of xenophobia, stirred up by reckless political profiteers: the peddlers of fear, the pimps of prejudice, the pushers of the narcotics of bigotry. 

Yet, this self-same world, with data, speech and information traveling at lightning speed around the globe - never before has this troubled world been so interconnected.

And alive today, the largest generation of adolescents in all of human history - their being at their most concentrated in places of greatest poverty, least opportunity and fewest prospects for prosperity.  And where, by contrast, resides the greater prosperity?  In the places where also resides the largest generation of older people that the world has ever seen?   The median age of Germany? 47.  The median age of Niger? 15. 

Yes, over the course of the past decade and more, we have turned the AIDS crisis around; we halved maternal and infant mortality but we deepened too inequality.  And, we also broke the rules – the world leaders of communities of privilege sought to rip up the rule book - through their black-sites, their torture cells in Bagram and Abu Graib, the disgrace of Guantanamo Bay.  

But in this changing world, basic universal values and the rules that bring those alive, have not changed.  It is compliance with them that has been eroded.  For it is a fallacy that walls, borders or fences erode our obligations to each other's rights.  Walls within this human family, on a small, distressed planet in a globalized world, home to the largest population of youngest people in all of human history?  Walls are untruths. In this interconnected world, at this time, on this climate-stressed planet, no country can rightfully stand apart, can bury its head in a sand of myopic self-interest or absent itself from the global table of rights-filled solutions.

There quite simply is no wall so high nor border so patrolled; no special identity nor privilege made so rarefied; no surveillance system nor unmanned drone so comprehensive; no enmity so heartfelt nor friendship so rare, that, on this domicile planet, there can be places between you and me such a distance that your rights do not count with me; that my rights do not matter to you; that their rights do not register with us.  No such distance exists upon this village planet, except, that is, in the fabrications of fantasist, sinister, populist ideologies whose destructive force feeds off a mendacious manufacture of desperation, despair and disillusion.

Friends, if any of you has flown recently, you will have benefited from international regulations that helped guide your plane to its safe landing.  I am guessing that when disembarking you were not greeted by someone claiming that their national sovereignty had been imperiled due to the fact that local air traffic control had to confirm to internationally agreed standards?

Those of you who are checking your emails right now - because this speaker is too boring - are also relying on universal standards.  Which prince or principality denounces mobile technology because it contravenes their culture, faith, or tradition – even though that life changing technology is but a few decades old and despite the fact that power seeks to contain and limit it.  

Which head of state falling critically ill, denies himself access to the benefits of modern medical science despite the fact this is in direct contravention of more traditional alternatives.

Gosh, good golly, current efforts to challenge, erode or discount universal principles, international standards and international law is not a movement against cultural or political hegemony.  It is just an effort for deterioration of the obligations of the powerful to answer to those with less power.

Of course, western governments are bustling and shifting against the strictures and obligations of international standards as refugee and migratory movements reach pressure point pinnacles, pushed as destination Governments are by the heightened anxieties of their aging populations, the consequences of callous criminal acts of so-called terrorist violence and the aftermath of global financial crises. 

Of course, claiming that the International Criminal Court is targeting certain countries unfairly, certain states are seeking out impunity's protections.  But in their talk of withdrawal from the Rome Statute, aren't leaders seeking to benefit themselves from the shield of immunity and doing so at risk of what cost?  A willful, self-serving effort whose cost is to deprive their own people of the kind of protection against heinous, widespread crimes that only international law can provide.

As the High Commissioner for Human Rights has emphasized "We can safeguard our societies by standing firm on the universal principles of justice or we can cast away moorings of law laid down to save the world from horror – and turn away from the screams, as impunity overwhelms men, women and children in wave upon wave of violence." 

In this, I want to remind us that each and every country that joins the UN signs up freely, and without coercion, to these basic justice-principles – UN Charter principles, further enshrined too in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elaborated through a range of international covenants, conventions, treaties and declarations.  The UN Charter, for example, puts human rights first – above even peace, security and development.  Human rights - principles that do not prevent our diversity – they protect it.  Principles that do not limit our diverse expression – they ensure it.  Principles that do not restrict our access to culture or belief or opinion – they guarantee them and set out, what's more, the terms and conditions under which we may exercise these rights without cost to the exercise of any other person's rights.

And, the opposite of human rights upheld?  Selfishness, bullying, bigotry, injustice, tyranny and oppression – toxic stepping stones – a perverse paving of pathways to privation, suffering, conflict and, ultimately, atrocity.  Contempt for the "other"; hatred of the foreigner; distrust of those who look or love or worship differently … aided and abetted by clampdowns on freedom of the press; stepped-up surveillance in cyber space; encroachment on public movement; closure of national borders to people fleeing persecution; gagging of activists and the deprivation even of life saving services such as those essential for sexual and reproductive health: The pounding of these malicious fists grows louder and louder on the doors of our dignity, of our privacy, of our mental and physical integrity and against our freedom. And this must be resisted

After all, humanity has travelled down this path before and we know only too well where it leads … to a dead end – to death-ridden ends.  Small, mundane acts of every day contempt, flourishing into common garden-variety intimidation, inflating into brutalizing discrimination against the "other", fueling popular persecution under whose caustic clouds we then so casually descend into conflict's callous catastrophe.

Perhaps to many, these matters today appear primarily to be of party politics. And for sure, certain parties' politicians pedal pernicious policies in a pugnacious pursuit of power.  But, in reality, it is not about one political party versus another.  

Perhaps, it appears to be all about one particular leader's personal characteristics or approach in contrast to another's - the victor's as compared to the vanquish-ed's?  And for sure, there are leaders - across all walks of life I might add - lavishing themselves with illegitimate license for a lecherous looting of power's spoils.  But really, it is not about one leader versus another.

Perhaps this appears to be all about economic systems - the capricious, callous, cash-coveting, cruelty of unaccountable capitalism or of …. wait a minute … of communism too.  But it is not just a question of one economic system versus another.

More fundamentally and more far reaching than one election, one government, one president, one prime minister, one referendum, or one system, there is underway today, and as far as the eye can see, a struggle – a deep struggle - to protect the hard won, mutual and reciprocated recognition - that we all are born equal in dignity and rights. 

In this struggle for rights, there is no north or south, no right or left, neither east nor west.   There is only the humane and the inhumane. Our rights to not be subjected to hate, or violence or discrimination. Our rights to not be coerced, deprived of liberty, or to be denied voice.  Rights!  Golden threads weaving their just course from the court room to the board room to the school room to the bedroom.

Friends, you don't have to be like me to respect my rights.  I don't have to be like you to uphold your rights.  We do not have to agree with each other to defend each other's rights.  Rights are not a beauty parade, a reward system nor some kind of nepotistic prize for good behavior.  They are not the dispensation of the powerful to the powerless.  They are that which cannot be taken from us. Rights are for the best and the worst of us; for each and every one of us; to the exclusion of none of us, in the interests of all of us. And against attack they must be defended. 

So, in the face of all this, what can we - what must we - do? Stand up for rights!  We must use our rights to defend our rights.

  • We can be doctors who provide dignified access to care regardless of a patient's identity or social status;
  • We can be lawyers who cherish the rule of law – upholding equality before the courts and defending judicial independence;
  • We can be journalists who love the truth; who prize evidence, protect fact and diversify voice.
  • We can be scientists who pursue knowledge without fear or favour, but deploy its fruits for the betterment of a planet under strain; a climate undergoing hurtling change and a people undergoing inconceivable suffering;
  • We can be innovators and creators –  so that more rapidly and comprehensively we replace unfairness and exclusion with something more equal, inclusive and more sustainable.
  • We can be dissidents who speak truth to power, and not for our own elevation but rather for the elevation of that in which we believe, that which we know to be true.

We can be – we must be:

  • Artists who disturb, provoke, illuminate and enchant. 
  • Lovers who seek first each other's freely given consent.
  • Philosophers who seek to understand and thus erode our ancient practices of cruelty against each other;
  • Economists who seek a more just distribution of wealth;
  • Workers for rights, rather than consumers of entitlements. 

We can be heroes. No! We must be heroes – and not just for one day.  Heroes and for their rights first.  (hash tag) Stand-up for some's rights today!

In this, please take heart.  For, though it may be a most poor and withered thing, even in the darkest cells of the cruelest prison; in fragile settlements perched high on remote mountain tops; in the midst of sprawling resource-depleted refugee camps; scampering along barely shoulder-wide alley ways of urban slums; heard in the calls of street walkers, the banter of market stall owners; the mutterings of farm laborers and in the songs of indigenous peoples  – even there - without a single well-intentioned, carefully-measured, targeted intervention by global elites – even there, there exists - however sputtering, or flickering; however overshadowed by the coercive power of the State; still there exists there – and everywhere –people who are standing up for rights.

The American black-rights activist and singer Billy Holliday stood up for rights when, borrowing a poet's voice, she sang out against the lynching of black Americans in the US' southern states:  

"Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees".

Today, in this world that so casually betrays principle, so readily flourishes xenophobia, so easily seeds hatred and bigotry, strange fruit indeed is budding on populist trees: – assassinations of environmentalists; imprisonment of journalists; arbitrary detention of political dissidents; removal of activists' passports; rejection at our borders of the refugee in flight; indiscriminate rounding up of people wrongly denied access to citizen rights; bullying of children for their gender identity; sexual violence against women just because he can!

Should such daily, banal cruelties pass us by unremarked? Basic qualities of equalities be eroded without resistance? NO! 

Stand up we must!  Every day, in any way we can, where ever we are – we must stand up.  Stand up to stand out because of what we must stand for!

Yes, they do hunt down the dissidents.  They do lock up the truth-telling journalists.  They do bar the law-loving lawyers.  And they may again even "torch every book; char every page of reason; turn every loving and tolerant word to ash."  But please know, that even so, if and when we stand up together in, through and for human rights – we are just incombustible.