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Opinion by Alfred de Zayas, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, on occasion of the first session of the open-ended working group on the right to peace

High level debate on the human right to peace: A unique opportunity for prevention of human rights violations

14 February 2013

As Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order I welcome the convening of the open-ended inter-governmental working group on a draft declaration on the human right to peace, being held in Geneva from 18 to 21 February 2013.

Peace is undoubtedly a condition for the realization of an international order that is more democratic and more equitable. Nothing is more urgent today than to secure local, regional and international peace and to shift budgets away from military expenditures and toward the promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

The open-ended inter-governmental working group offers Member States a unique opportunity to discuss how best to reduce and eventually eradicate human rights violations and human suffering caused by war and structural violence. The international community has too often ignored endemic injustice and atrocities in various contexts. By discussing how to eliminate structural imbalances and how to provide remedies to victims, the working group paves the way for a peaceful and sustainable environment, which alone ensures human dignity.

Governmental and civil society participants at the open-ended working group meeting are already aware that many of the elements of the right to peace have been codified as articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). While I recognize that some States still harbour doubts about the justiciability of the human right to peace as a norm of international law, no one can question the fact that many of the constitutive elements of the right to peace already exist and that a significant body of regional and international jurisprudence has emerged over the past two decades.

Seen from the individual rights dimension, a breach of the right to life constitutes a violation of article 6 of the ICCPR. Pursuant to its Optional Protocol, the UN Human Rights Committee possesses the competence to examine individual complaints concerning violations of article 6, which also entails an obligation of disarmament by all States as stipulated in the Committee’s two General Comments on article 6, and by the General Comment on states of emergency. Threats to the right to peace may be dealt with under article 9 ICCPR, which stipulates the State’s obligation to ensure security of the person. Freedom to engage in anti-war activities, to manifest for peace and to create pacifist organizations is protected under articles 19, 21 and 22 ICCPR. The prohibition of the recruitment of children as soldiers in armed conflicts is justiciable as a violation of article 24 ICCPR. The right of conscientious objection to military service has been repeatedly affirmed in the Committee’s General Comments and case-law, as inherent to article 18 ICCPR, which stipulates the right to freedom of conviction and belief. Moreover, conscientious objectors and other persons have the right to leave any country including their own pursuant to article 12 ICCPR. Persons who have fled armed conflict and persecution, or who have left their countries of origin because of conscientious objection have a right seek asylum; as refugees, they have a right not to be subjected to refoulement, and this right is also protected under article 7 ICCPR and article 3 of the Convention Against Torture. These categories of persons also have the right to return in safety and dignity to their countries of origin pursuant to article 12 ICCPR. Propaganda for war is specifically prohibited under article 20 ICCPR, and violations by Governments or the private sector are justiciable before the Human Rights Committee. Moreover, in case of violation of these constitutive elements of the right to peace, victims have a right to a remedy under article 2 ICCPR.

The human right to peace also has important collective dimensions, including economic, social and cultural components, which are justiciable in the UN system, within the ‘available resources’ limitations provided by international law. Through the ratification of the Optional Protocol to ICESCR (in force 5 May 2013), the right to health, the right to a safe environment, the right to food, the right to water, the right to education etc. have acquired even more resonance in the life of each individual.

No one should claim that the Human Rights Council is not the appropriate venue for conducting these important discussions. Indeed, peace, human security and human rights are inseparably linked, and the Human Rights Council has been seized of most of the aspects of the human rights to peace since its inception, following up on the pertinent activities of the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Indeed, there is no better forum to continue this debate.

Important preparatory work for this open-ended working group was realized by the Expert Workshop convened by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights in December 2009, which elaborates on the multiple individual and collective dimensions of the right to peace. Attention should also be given to the work of the Standing Committee on Women, Peace and Security and follow-up on the 2012 Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, at which strategic thinking around progress, opportunities and challenges for the UN system in implementing its commitments on women, peace and security was advanced.

This is the peace paradigm that international civil society urges Governments to adopt, as reflected in the pioneering Santiago Declaration on the Human Right to Peace, which was the product of four years of worldwide consultations and was unanimously adopted by representatives of international civil society on 10 December 2010. The Santiago Declaration provided a solid foundation for the Draft Declaration elaborated by the Advisory Committee in February 2012 and constitutes a sound framework for the current codification work of the Human Rights Council.

Future sessions of the Human Rights Council will no doubt carry the noble task of codification of the right to peace a step further, with a view to its future adoption by the General Assembly.