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UN Human Rights Chief calls for fundamental rethink to prevent atrocities

WASHINGTON D.C. (5 February 2015) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday called for better leadership and a fundamental global rethink of education as a means of combatting the causes of the conflicts and atrocities occurring across the world.

In a major speech delivered at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., one week after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the UN Human Rights Chief analysed the processes and human failings that enabled the Nazi leadership to carry out the largest organized destruction of humanity in history. He said similar processes underlie the atrocities carried out by ISIL in Syria and Iraq, as well as by other groups following the same Takfiri ideology in Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The High Commissioner cited a statement by Hermann Goering, a Nazi leader, that “it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship,” and said many leaders wrongly believe “that circumstances dictate a special response,” which warrants setting aside established law and moral principles.

“This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on,” Zeid said.

The High Commissioner noted that international human rights law represents a distillation of humanity's experience of atrocities, and the remedies to prevent them. But today, leaders are too often deliberately choosing to violate those laws. “In the years after the Holocaust, specific treaties were negotiated to cement into law obligations to protect human rights. Countries the world over accepted them – and now alas, all too frequently, ignore them in practice.”

Zeid said the world needs “profound and inspiring leadership” driven by a concern for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people. “We need leaders who will observe fully those laws and treaties drafted to end all discrimination, the privation of millions, and atrocity and excess in war, with no excuses entertained. Only then, can we help ourselves out of the present serious, seemingly inexhaustible, supply of crises that threatens to engulf us.”

He said that forceful reprisals against atrocities – including attacks on children and “the savage burning of my compatriot the pilot Mu’ath al Kassassbeh” by ISIL – are having limited impact. “Just bombing them or choking off their financing has clearly not worked… for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength. What is needed is the addition of a different sort of battle-line, one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas.”

Zeid noted a knock-on effect on key civil and political rights in other countries: “The space for dissent in many countries is collapsing under the weight of either poorly-thought out, or indeed exploitative, counter-terrorism strategies. Human rights defenders are therefore under enormous pressure in many parts of the world today…They risk imprisonment or worse in the peaceful defence of basic rights.”

“Years of tyranny, inequalities, fear and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence,” the High Commissioner continued. “Few of these crises have erupted without warning. They have built up over years – and sometimes decades – of human rights grievances: deficient or corrupt governance and judicial institutions; discrimination and exclusion; drastic inequalities; exploitation and the denial of economic and social rights; and repression of civil society and public freedoms.”

To combat this in the longer term, Zeid said, the key is rethinking the way education is handled across the world. “Since we cannot afford sinking into a state of paralysing shock, our task becomes the need to strengthen our ethics, our clarity and openness of thought, and our moral courage. To do this I can only suggest that we must turn to a new and deeper form of education. Education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include skills and values that can equip people to act with responsibility and care.”

“What good was it to humanity that Josef Mengele had advanced degrees in medicine and anthropology, given that he was capable of committing the most inhuman crimes? Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust at Wannsee in 1942 held PhDs... I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.”

All children, from a young age, should be taught human rights, the High Commissioner suggested: “Children everywhere need to learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the terrible wrongs they can produce. They need to learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They should also learn that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they should learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings.”

“Every child should be able to grasp that the wonderful diversity of individuals and cultures is a source of tremendous enrichment,” he continued. “They should learn to recognise their own biases, and correct them. Children can learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use non-violent means to resolve disputes. They can learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. They can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathise with other points of view.”


To read the full speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum event entitled “Can Atrocities be Prevented? Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust” go to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15548&LangID=E

The High Commissioner will give a Press Conference at 10:00 a.m. on Friday 6 February at the Georgetown Law Center (McDonough Room 200), located at 600 New Jersey Ave NW, Washington, DC.

For more information and media requests, please contact
In Washington: Deborah DeYoung deyoung@un.org +1 202-276-8670
In New York: Andre Michel Essoungou, essoungou@un.org +1 917 367 9995
In Geneva: Ravina Shamdasani, rshamdasani@ohchr.org +41 22 917 9169

Learn more about the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org

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