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Keynote Address by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 30th International Congress of Psychology

Cape Town, 22 July 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Colleagues and friends,

I am very pleased to participate in the opening ceremony of the 30th International Congress of Psychology. The focus of this event provides a good opportunity for exploring the nexus of psychology and human rights and how they serve humanity.

For many years, human rights and psychology have been considered as two distinct spheres, without any points of intersection and without any consideration of complementary approaches and cross-sectional studies. What has been omitted is the fact that they do have a common objective – both of them promote and protect people’s wellbeing. I see at least four ways in which health including psychological well-being and human rights correlate.

The first one is that the failure to protect human rights can have adverse consequence for health. Very few people would deny the psychological trauma that results from domestic violence or sexual exploitation of children, for instance.

Secondly, activities in the field of mental health may themselves violate human rights. In many countries mentally ill people may be involuntarily hospitalized on the basis of procedures that do not fully respect their right to personal liberty and security. The relation between health and human rights can be a mutually reinforcing one.

My third point then is that activities in the field of mental health may serve to promote the enjoyment of human rights. Take for instance the right of victims of human rights violations to reparations that include rehabilitation.

And fourthly, the protection of human rights may enhance psychological wellbeing. In this brief statement, allow me to elaborate on these points.


The framework:

The very specificity of the concept of “human rights” is that they belong to the individual in his or her quality as a human being, who cannot be deprived of their substance in any circumstances; these rights are thus intrinsic to the human condition. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives expression to this fundamental ethical basis in its first preambular paragraph by recognizing “the inherent dignity and ... the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”.

There is no widely accepted definition of human well-being; it is usually considered as a multi-factorial concept that is based on the satisfaction of various physical and psychological needs. Already in 1946, the Preamble of the Constitution of World Health Organization, described health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” and underlined that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”. This approach reveals the complex nature of health and also emphasizes the importance of the principles of equality and non-discrimination, which are fundamental in human rights law.

In recent decades, international human rights law has had an ever-growing impact on domestic legal systems throughout the world. Under international human rights law, States are responsible and accountable for issues related to mental health. This is clearly expressed in article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. Since then, other international human rights treaties have recognized or referred to the right to health or to elements of it.

The need to pay attention to victims:

Developments around the world over the past decades have demonstrated that establishing effective mechanisms to ensure that perpetrators of human rights violations will not go unpunished is an important step in restoring the rule of law in the aftermath of conflict or authoritarian regimes. National accountability mechanisms are also vital to ensuring that victims obtain appropriate remedies and redress.

International law prohibits arbitrary detention and recognizes the severe consequences it has on physical and mental health. Even in cases of legal detention there are Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners that have to be applied to minimize psychological harm, including access to fresh air, adequate food, drinking water, medical services, family and lawyers’ visits.

The psychological consequences for victims of blatant human rights violations, such as those arising from torture, are obvious. In this regard, international law defines "torture" as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”. State Parties are called upon to undertake measures to address the psychological consequence for victims of torture, and to ensure that such victims have access to psychological counseling and rehabilitation.

You know better than anybody else that psychological damage inflicted by serious human rights violations, such as torture, continues long after the physical wounds have healed. Evidence suggests that, even in the presence of extreme physical pain, psychological torture is the most severe traumatic experience as it threatens to destroy an individual’s sense of self. In this regard, effective and prompt redress, compensation and appropriate social, psychological, medical and other forms of rehabilitation for victims may enhance the healing process by supporting the victim’s sense of justice.

In this context, I would like to point out that the provision of reparations for victims is as important as the punishment of perpetrators. My Office, both at headquarters and country level, has implemented various activities focusing on reparations of victims, particularly in the area of transitional justice. Rooted in the rights to justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence, transitional justice mechanisms constitute a comprehensive approach for combating impunity, ensuring accountability for past human rights violations, redress for victims of violations of human rights and advancing broader institutional reform necessary to address the root causes of strife and conflict.

While the need for psychological support for victims of human rights violations, also taking into consideration the fact that some of them are victims of multiple forms of discrimination, has been recognized by several human rights bodies, these efforts are far from sufficient. More attention should be paid to the inextricable links between psychology and human rights already in the realm of prevention. It is the time to be proactive and not reactive; it is the time to anticipate, plan and form partnerships that will serve humanity and contribute substantially to the wellbeing of people.

My Office has two special Funds that support the victims of torture and contemporary forms of slavery. The UN Fund for Victims of Torture has provided financial assistance to more than 600 organizations and entities worldwide, including four projects in South Africa, which in turn, have enabled hundreds of thousands of victims to deal with the devastating psychological and physical consequences of torture and overcome the trauma they have endured. Additionally, the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has provided support to more than 400 projects which have directly assisted thousands of victims of contemporary forms of slavery in all regions of the world.

Racism and xenophobia are old and new ills:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Humanity’s yearning for respect, tolerance and equality goes a long way back in history, but the curious thing to note is that, although our societies have in many respects made great strides in the technological, political, social and economic fields, contemporary grievances remain very much the same as they were hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

As we speak today, the mental health of so many people in all parts of the world continues to be endangered due to an increase of xenophobic sentiments, discrimination and even violence. We must acknowledge the courage and strength of refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and other victims of different forms of discrimination, who day after day find a way to cope with various manifestations of hatred and hostility, who day after day find a way to preserve their psychological integrity and move forward.

Regretably, manifestations of xenophobia often increase during periods of economic hardship. Those who are perceived as outsiders or “foreigners” to the community often become targets of hostile attitude and physical assaults due to an unjustifiable assumption that they endanger the wellbeing of the community. We should be aware that hatred is not a natural and spontaneous sentiment—it is usually the outcome of propaganda and incitement to hatred, hostility and violence carried out at several levels, including social, political and media. People in vulnerable situations are often used as scapegoats for already existing domestic problems: they are mainly presented as a “threat” to the security and safety of the “local” population; they are the first ones to be blamed for pickpockets and burglaries; they are also blamed for “stealing” jobs and unfairly taking advantage of the social welfare system.

Xenophobic sentiments are on the rise in many countries but I am particularly saddened by the presence of intolerance, disrespect and hostility in some countries, including in some areas in South Africa. We know that the consequences of allowing discrimination, inequality and intolerance to fester and spiral out of control can have genocidal consequences. One would have thought that we would champion the cause of human dignity and we would guard the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination.

The end of apartheid has enabled us to be very optimistic, to believe that change can happen. Thus, I am confident that effective actions can be undertaken to give a new momentum to the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. And this struggle concerns all of us in our increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic societies where the challenges posed by bigotry and discrimination fuel hatred and exacerbate conflict. Indeed, all of us are responsible for guarding against a repeat of the horrors rooted in racism – from slavery to the Holocaust, from apartheid to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The role of mental health professionals:

In this regard, the academic and professional activities in the realm of psychology are also essential for the promotion and protection of human rights. Historically the field of psychology has overlooked the importance of human rights and justice for the individual and community health. However, in the last couple of years there has been an increasing number of educational programmes on psychology that include sections on human rights or at least some references to the subject matter. Important progress has been made, but there is much more to be done. More trainings and specializations are needed to explore in details the complex linkages between psychological wellbeing and human rights.

We should not forget that health and mental health professionals must also respect human rights standards. Unfortunately, mental healthcare has been used occasionally in some countries with oppressive political regimes, to remove “undesirable”, politically inconvenient individuals from the society. In this regard, the United Nations General Assembly has emphasized that “a determination of mental illness shall never be made on the basis of political, economic or social status, or membership of a cultural, racial or religious group, or any other reason not directly relevant to mental health status”.

Allow me to conclude by highlighting the need to take prompt measures to ensure people’s wellbeing. Swift progress is needed in the era of Internet and social media where messages inciting hatred and violence can reach millions of young people in a second. It is the responsibility and obligation of all of us to ensure that difference is celebrated as an enriching value and a great contribution to humanity. Let us be united in our efforts against intolerance, disrespect and hostility. I am confident that by acting on the ideals of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights we can uplift not only the victims of human rights violations but humanity as a whole.

I wish you all the best in your deliberations.

Thank you.