10 December 2014
It has been a real pleasure to have you among us, and to watch so many bright minds from every region of the world grappling with human rights advocacy. I'd like to thank the University of Pretoria for organising this impressive competition, and its creativity in drawing up the brief.
To the winners of this joust, let me say that I am proud to award you victory. Your knowledge and oratory was remarkable, and I think many of us have been inspired by the energy and skill of your arguments.
The question of Kopjestan’s culture and politics is, of course, a fictional argument. But it is also a very serious one.
It involves the subjugation of women – of half the human beings on this Earth. It involves the domination of a minority people and the outbreak of armed violence, resulting in displacement of families to squalid camps, violence against women, and the repression of protest.
Virginia Woolf said “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached – ever so slightly, perhaps, but still attached – to life at all four corners”. The events of Kopjestan are very solidly anchored in the reality of many countries.
Human rights violations are not random, not accidents. They generally are the consequence of political, economic, social and cultural inequalities that create obstacles to the fair sharing of opportunities and resources, and which limit freedom and participation. The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, sex, beliefs, caste or class.
From hunger to rape or other forms of torture, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.
Indeed, if we look deeply, we may see that these factors are not spontaneously generated. Many, perhaps most violations of human rights result from legislative or policy choices – not just in Kopjestan, but in real life.
When they agreed to the UN Charter almost 70 years ago, States pledged to achieve “better standards of life in larger freedom”. They agree to cooperate “in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.
And yet today, human rights advocates – and we can now count you in our number – face many challenges.
With so many crises and conflicts, the world’s attention span skitters and jumps from one to the other. Too many of us are becoming desensitized to the pain, the violence and the adversity that so many of our fellow human beings face. We are becoming numbed. It takes the flash of a really extreme and grotesque abomination, a video of a person being beheaded with a kitchen knife, for us to be brought up short by the shock of violence.
We need to revive our sense of a common humanity. We need to re-establish the simple fact that every human being – woman, man or child – from every part of the world, every community, every belief, every background – has exactly the same human rights as everybody else.
They are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent; and interrelated. When the rights of one among us are denied, the rights of all of us are wounded.
Those rights include the right to freedom of expression, opinion and belief. The right to participate in decision-making. The right to make choices about her or his own life. The right to adequate food and clean water, and to decent health-care and other vital services. The right to peaceful protest. The right to education. To access to justice. To make reproductive and sexual choices. The right to lives that are free from want and fear.
States must be willing to protect the human rights of their people, and people must be able to hold the State responsible.
This moot court is named after Nelson Mandela, that mighty activist and lawyer, who risked his life on numerous occasions to bring freedom, equality, dignity and human rights to the people of South Africa. I am proud that OHCHR has supported this Moot Court, which is now six years old, and I’m also glad that today is the first time that the closing contest is taking place here in Geneva. I think you'll agree that its setting, in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room of the Palais des Nations, is particularly fitting.
Today is Human Rights Day, when we renew our commitment to promoting and protecting human rights for everyone, I trust that we can count on you to help us do that work. Because you have worked extremely hard and argued very ably in the matter of Kopjestan, but it was not a jest.
It was, as you must have realised by now, an exercise to sharpen your evident knowledge and skills as lawyers – and perhaps leaders – in human rights.
In the future, your advocacy may be vitally important to the people of your countries. You have shown us your mettle, and you will doubtless face many challenges, but we count on you to join our work to bring full enjoyment of human rights to everyone, 365 days a year.