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Address by the High-Commissioner for Human Rights at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights

Dear Felice,
Dear Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to join you at this conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. I am honored to address you in the house where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lived. They and other founders of the modern human rights movement have left us with a legacy that continues to flourish despite seemingly immutable ideologies.

Indeed, the human rights movement keeps expanding in jurisprudence and action. Much is due to the intuitions and advocacy of visionaries, such as Jacob Blaustein, who believed firmly in the need for a United Nations human rights programme. Due also to the efforts of organizations such as the Jacob Blaustein Institute, the General Assembly created the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993 to spearhead the protection and promotion of human rights globally.

Let me note that each High Commissioner made his or her own mark as the Office evolved.

  • The first High Commissioner, Jose Ayala Lasso, built the foundation of the new Office, expanding the focus of the then Centre for Human Rights from supporting intergovernmental and expert human rights mechanisms, including the Commission on Human Rights, special rapporteurs and human rights treaty bodies, to technical cooperation, as well as education activities in the field.
  • The second High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, further institutionalized these avenues for action and strengthened the High Commissioner’s advocacy role. To this day, her insistence on one of the central messages of the World Conference on Human Rights that civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights constitute an indivisible whole continues to resonate and inform the debate.
  • The third High Commissioner, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was instrumental in moving forward the process of engaging the larger UN system on human rights issues, until his work was sadly cut short by a fatal bomb attack. It fell upon the acting High Commissioner, Bertrand Ramcharan, who is with us today, to pursue a wide-ranging agenda, continue to build the capacity of the Office and draw the attention of the Commission on Human Rights to human rights situations warranting its consideration.
  • Subsequently, High Commissioner Louise Arbour lead the Office through a period of great change. Her exceptional drive and strategic thinking led to a reform of the Office and its expansion into the field. At the same time, she tirelessly advocated the centrality of human rights and accountability including during the delicate period of transition from the Commission to the Human Rights Council.

The combined efforts of its leaders led to the Office growing from the small headquarters-based Centre for Human Rights - with some 106 staff and a biennial budget of $31 million at the end of 1993 - to the current structure with 1,108 employees. Currently, 48 per cent of OHCHR staff is based in the field, 50 per cent in Geneva, and 2 per cent in New York. In 2010-2011, our budget was US$ 408 million. We have established 12 regional offices or centers and 13 country or stand-alone offices. Further, 15 human rights officers serve in UN peace missions and 18 human rights advisers are embedded within UN Country Teams in the field. In all, OHCHR has presences in 58 countries.

The impact of OHCHR advocacy has grown steadily throughout the past 19 years. Let me highlight the celebrations of Human Rights Day last December. We ran a "Celebrate Human Rights" social media campaign which engaged a rapidly expanding online audience. The campaign, in particular the global social media human rights conversation I hosted and the “30 Days and 30 Rights” multilingual discussion on the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helped us reach tens of millions of previously untapped audience. On Twitter alone, our messages and tweets were viewed 27 million times and the hashtag #AskRights my Office created was used six million times, within 48 hours of the event. Some were inspired to take action for human rights. For example, a reputable publisher, using hashtag #AskRights, offered everyone seven days free access to its database for human rights research to celebrate Human Rights Day. The social media discussion about the Universal Declaration, through “Weibo” in Chinese and Facebook pages in English, French and Spanish, were viewed at least nine million times during the 30-day campaign period.

As the popular movements in many countries, including in North Africa and the Middle East have demonstrated, there is a growing demand for advocacy and monitoring of human rights. The High Commissioner’s intellectual leadership must be responsive to rights holders of all ages and in all walks of life. It should be directed to help strengthen civil society and human rights activists to claim their human rights.

As High Commissioner, I begin from the premise that human rights norms provide universal obligations that help us ensure that all are held to the same standard. There is no hierarchy of human rights, and I believe that the credibility of human rights work depends on a commitment to truth, impartiality and integrity, with no tolerance for double-standards or selectivity. I strive to ensure that the universality of human rights standards, which speaks to our common humanity and priorities, informs discussions in politically charged environments and instills both substance and objectivity to political discourse.

I am supported by remarkably committed individuals, affected groups and other stakeholders. This is a diffuse approach, encompassing the advocacy-enhancing leadership and consistent calls for accountability that has produced historic humanitarian change, including the creation of the International Criminal Court where I was a judge.

One of the key aspects of such advocacy—and a crucial element of its success—is that many individuals and organizations, as well as different branches of States’ institutions, are encouraged to go beyond their immediate scope of intervention or mandates, and embrace an overarching goal that, in part or in all, transcends their specific field of specialization. Thus, they are able to enlarge their basis of support among constituencies that are not necessarily well-versed in all the sophisticated details of a campaign, but who could “buy” into it through clear and immediately resonant messages.

And therein lies the crux of the matter for human rights enforcement and the leadership needed to realize it. Although most States—at least in their pronouncements—pledge to uphold human rights, implementation lags behind.

Another factor is that, beyond the work of specialized or directly affected individuals and organizations, there is inadequate familiarity with those human rights mechanisms that are mandated to exercise vigilance over the implementation of human rights standards, and facilitate access for rights holders. I refer here to the special procedures and the human rights treaty bodies comprised of experts who serve in their independent capacities.

We have a number of such experts with us here today, including of course Felice, who was elected to the Committee Against Torture in 2000, and in that capacity, has made a profound contribution, in particular by ensuring that freedom from torture is defined against the singular experiences of women and girls. She also served as co-rapporteur as the Committee developed its ground breaking general comment on article 2 of the Convention against Torture. I also refer to national human rights institutions, independent national bodies, charged with encouraging implementation of human rights on the ground.

One of my priorities as High Commissioner is crafting more intelligible and more compelling messages, as well as making the avenues to redress for victims more accessible, attractive and responsive to spur implementation of human rights. To this end, I will continue to reach out to victims of abuse and like-minded States, thinkers and activists, and all those constituencies whose aspirations and work is contiguous to our advocacy. I actively support and promote the work of the human rights mechanisms and my Office has produced an impressive array of material and tools on how to access them.

I can always count on the work, commitment and passion of OHCHR staff who are eager and ready to confront new challenges. My Office has responded with agility and a deeply felt sense of mission to the growing demands for our work and the increasing activities mandated by the Human Rights Council. While meeting rapidly unfolding crises, we continued to address chronic human rights issues. These concomitant and multiplying pursuits have put a great strain on our human and financial resources.

Dear Friends,

Let me turn now to another challenge to human rights which our discussion will tackle, that is, Promoting Universality of Rights: Global Leadership in an Era of Growing Particularism and Relativism.

Borrowing from the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I maintain that human rights law, far from being suitable to some cultures, but irrelevant or even harmful to others, embodies a common standard of achievement for all which would help to secure a “higher standard of life” and a “greater enjoyment of freedom.”

There will always be those who, for their own political or personal designs, would deny the universality of our rights, and seek to use arguments of tradition and culture to oppose them. Yet, I do not know of anyone who demanded the right to be tortured, summarily executed, starved or denied medical care, or discriminated against in the name of their culture.

Tradition is a complex notion. No society, regardless of its geographic location or level of economic development, can be said to be represented by a single and comprehensive set of shared values covering all social matters. Traditions and values change over time and are viewed and interpreted differently by various actors in society. Nuances and, in some cases, radical differences in such values depend on the historical period, societal divides, or, at any given moment, the tension between conservatives and progressives. Moreover, the history of all countries comprise, often concomitantly, traditions of hate and traditions of tolerance, traditions of repression and traditions of liberation, and traditions of deprivation and exclusion and traditions of social justice. Our task is to be squarely and unequivocally on the side of the victims who promote and defend human rights in every society.

Indeed, while the Vienna Declaration recognizes that the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it reaffirms that it is the duty of all States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

My Office has not shied away from such issues which, while sensitive, nevertheless are important for a consistent and universal application of human rights standards. For example, I am proud of our work to raise awareness of the range and prevalence of human rights violations perpetrated on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. There is ample evidence of the problem: individuals murdered, beaten, raped and tortured, arrested, imprisoned and executed, or simply discriminated against, whether at work, at home, at school or in hospital.

In our approach to this issue, we have insisted on the consistent application of universal human rights standards to protect all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And we are making progress. Last year we saw the human rights machinery start to gain traction on this issue with the first UN resolution specifically addressing human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, adopted by the Human Rights Council last June. That resolution requested me to provide to the Council a report on violence and discrimination directed at LGBT people – the first official UN report on the issue. Its findings and recommendations will be debated at the Council next month.

And now to the topic of Preventing Human Rights Violations and Effective Response.

In any preventive efforts, the human rights community greatly benefits from the work of the special procedures among the most effective conveyors of early warning. Their knowledge and expertise are indispensible to devising or fine-tuning prevention measures against violations, observing situations of concern over time, and addressing the plight of voiceless victims.

I am fully aware that the credibility of my Office, and the United Nations as a whole, depends on being close to victims helping them and assisting when they are threatened with or exposed to violations. This requires our independence of judgment, responsiveness from headquarters, and—crucially--service on the ground. The mandate of our country and regional offices consists largely in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and providing technical cooperation to prompt promotion and protection of human rights. Our public reports serve as diagnostic tools which inform our cooperation and technical assistance to Governments and other partners.

Recent innovations in the human rights field may also help prevent the recurrence of violence and abuses. Transitional justice initiatives following armed conflict are particularly suited to this effect. Our work in this area emphasizes a four pillar approach to the rights of victims of past human rights violations: the right to justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. To ensure a bottom up approach, we insist on national consultation processes on all transitional justice options. Last year, I sent teams to Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain to assess the human rights priorities in these countries during their historical transition.

Equally valuable are fact finding missions and Commissions of Inquiry dispatched to identify violations and recommend ways to stop them. OHCHR supported Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the Human Rights Council for Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, and established OHCHR’s own investigative mission for Syria.

The international community has come to regard such investigations among the responses of choice by international community in the face of a crisis. This is because they serve a multiplicity of purposes. They help identify perpetrators and protect victims, help deter violations, and contribute to establishing a chain of accountability and means to deliver justice and redress to the victims once violations subside. Investigations aim at influencing positive change in laws and practice by drawing attention to serious violations and accountability gaps. Their ultimate goal is preventing abuses or, at a minimum, mitigating and stopping violations when they do occur, as well as challenging impunity.

The report and recommendations of an investigation can have far-reaching consequences as was the case when, based on the recommendations of a commission of inquiry, the Security Council issued a referral to the International Criminal Court. Findings and recommendations of such inquiries have contributed to transitional justice mechanisms and helped to set the record straight to pave the way for societal wounds to heal.

Let me now offer some observations on the topic of Influencing Other UN Bodies to Act.

We constantly seek to expand and deepen our interaction with UN agencies and other crucial partners in, international organizations both at headquarters and on the ground.

We see this cooperation particularly in our interaction with the Human Rights Council which by 2011 had held 19 regular sessions and 18 special sessions. Significant progress has been achieved with the universal periodic review of the Council. The first cycle of the UPR will be completed next month and thousands of recommendations have been issued. The task for the next cycle is to streamline these recommendations, make them more manageable, focused and actionable, so that their implementation will be easier to monitor and evaluate. My Office is defining its catalytic role with regard to supporting UPR follow-up at country level, which includes development of strategic partnerships with the UN system. This also entails the placement of human rights advisers in UN country teams and regional organizations.

We have also played a pivotal role in ensuring the incorporation of human rights into the outcome of the Millennium Development Goals Review Summit in September 2010. On that occasion, Member States recognized that human rights are indispensible for the realization of the MDGs, and committed themselves to a wide range of specific human rights actions.

In the same year, during my term as chair of the Global Migration Group (GMG), we promoted a human-rights based approach within the UN system to address the rising challenge of migration better. A key outcome of this work was a landmark joint statement on the human rights of irregular migrants adopted by the GMG principals.

I have also been increasingly called upon to address the Security Council: 11 addresses in recent times, while before then, my predecessors had been invited to do so only 8 times since the creation of this post. Today, we have reached a point where the Council systematically includes human rights, notably monitoring and reporting functions, as a core element of all mandates of multi-dimensional peace missions.

Through my briefings and reports, important human rights material is placed on the record, made public, and used to ensure effective decision-making by the Security-Council. We jointly draw lessons where we need to learn: building on the experience in the DRC and the SC landmark conditionality policy in Resolution 1925, the SG last year adopted a ground-breaking UN system-wide Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, which applies to all UN support to non-UN security forces. This policy was developed by a UN inter-agency forum which we co-led together with DPKO, and requires all UN actors providing support to non-UN security forces to exercise due diligence by conducting a human rights risk assessment before support is given to such forces.

In effect, UN actors cannot provide support to non-UN security forces where there is a real risk that recipient entities may commit grave violations.

Human rights partners come in many forms. From my perspective, taking rights-based positions is not the exclusive responsibility of human rights advocates. In the most recent meeting of the United Nations Chief Executive Board, I challenged the broader UN system to put the norms and standards of the UN system at the forefront of all UN activities, including in the Organization's dealings with individual member Governments. My call was for a single standard of norm-based, constructive engagement with all governments, rich and poor, north and south, strong and less-strong. I argued that the UN Charter and the many binding international human rights treaties adopted under UN auspices since the Second World War prove that the UN is not intended as a mere forum for diplomatic dialogue, and a rush to the lowest common denominator. We stand for something. And at the centre of that something, is human rights. Clearly, our duty to the intergovernmental system cannot include a requirement to turn a blind eye to injustice and abuse. This, in my view, is a clear lesson of the Arab Spring.

Friends and colleagues,

The challenges ahead for the human rights movement are multiple, I am particularly concerned at four main challenges that will continue to engage the human rights community in the future as they have done in the past, namely impunity, discrimination, conflict and poverty. Because of their scale, deep roots and their effects on the well being of countless victims everywhere, these are not only challenges, but veritable priorities for the human rights movement. Another priority for my Office is supporting and strengthening those institutions and mechanisms that are crucial to respond both to emergencies and chronic human rights situations, in particular the human rights mechanisms.

Today we look with great concern at the renewed turmoil in the financial markets and the threats to State-solvency. One can readily think of the devastating effects on global welfare and on the most vulnerable that these crises are producing and can produce in the absence of safety nets firmly anchored to human rights.

Climate change, scarcity of food, and crumbling welfare systems pose direct threats to people’s enjoyment of a wide range of universally-recognized human rights, including the right to food, to education and health, to an adequate standard of living, and to the right to life itself. No means should be overlooked to mitigate the most negative effects of these crises on the rights of those who live at the margins, particularly the very poor and people eking out a living at subsistence levels.

Some political and economic leaders seem to have forgotten that health care, education, housing and access to justice are not commodities for sale to the few, rather they are rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. An important lesson from the Arab Spring is that human rights should provide the central litmus test for good governance. Not economic growth, not free markets, not sophisticated governmental institutions, but rather the degree to which Governments ensure freedom from fear and want’ the standards of which Roosevelt spoke.

In my presentation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, I pointed out that an analysis of the assessments provided by our financial institutions and development agencies in the immediate lead-up to the Arab Spring is illuminating. Even as the events were unfolding, we read, for example, that Tunisia showed “remarkable progress on equitable growth, fighting poverty, an achieving good social indicators”, that it was “on track to achieve the MDGs”, was “far ahead in terms of governance, effectiveness, rule of law, control of corruption and regulatory quality”, was “one of the most equitable societies”, “a top reformer”, and that “the development model that Tunisia has pursued over the past two decades has served the country well.”

At the same time, the human rights mechanisms, and voices from civil society, were painting a different picture. We heard of excluded and marginalized communities, imposed indignities, and a denial of economic and social rights. We heard of inequality, discrimination, absence of participation, absence of decent jobs, absence of labour rights, political repression, absence of fundamental freedoms, including free assembly, association, and speech. We heard of censorship, arbitrary detention, and the lack of an independent judiciary. In sum, we heard of fear, and want. The events in Tunis and across the region, need not have been such a surprise to so many.

Another lesson that we should draw from transitions in the Arab world and elsewhere is that the sustainability of the democratization processes is very contingent on the existence of independent institutions which should safeguard the separation of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. Equality and non-discrimination, particularly regarding women and minorities, depend on such sustainability.

And the international community must begin to take more seriously its commitment to the free, active and meaningful participation of civil society -- including women, minorities, indigenous peoples, and human rights defenders-- in decision making at both the national and international levels. The age of public decision-making being reserved to the back rooms of government or the boardrooms of corporations is coming to an end. This is the age of an increasingly informed, interconnected, and mobilized civil society. We should be attentive to the powerful role that the internet and social media can play in mobilizing forces for change and the apparatus of repression, including the bloggers working in their rooms at home, and those who monitor bloggers and advocates’ every move with sophisticated surveillance equipment.

Dear Friends,

The human rights movement has grown and thrived since the Roosevelts lived here. We know that we have much to do until human rights are enjoyed by every woman, man and child everywhere.

Thank you.