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International conference on human rights-based approach to conflict situations in the Arab region, Doha - Qatar

Opening remarks by Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

20 February 2017

Excellences, colleagues, friends,
[formal greetings]

I wish to thank the Government of Qatar for their gracious hospitality; the Qatar National Human Rights Committee for their gracious partnership and all of you present here today, for the solidarity which by your presence here, you make material, true and so promising too.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is truly honoured to stand with you this morning and in this it falls to me to bring you our greetings and specifically those of the High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussain himself.  For him, I am a poor substitute indeed but on his behalf and at his request, I bring you his warmest greetings, deepest respects and his sincere appreciation for your presence here.  

I wish to pass on his thanks particularly to Mr Ali al Marri of the Qatari Human Rights Committee for his extraordinary effort and leadership in making this gathering of brilliant minds a reality and again to thank you all as representatives of government ministries, of national human rights institutions, as activists, civil society actors and practitioners – national, regional and global.  Thank you for being here.

Excellencies, friends,

There is a longing that - even as little children - we all feel, to be treated with respect, a longing for dignity; for health and well-being to be enjoyed by our families; a longing for sustainable peace and security in our own communities - these golden threads bind us all.  Our common and shared desire to live our lives out of harm’s way; to find personal peace where otherwise rages public violence; to be accepted and respected rather than subjected to hate or oppression or exclusion; to see unfolding in front of us that bright beam which is hope’s light rather than the dark and dismal unfairness of hate’s mean narrowing of prosperity - strangling prospects, possibility, purpose, peace.

Was it this hunger for dignity that hung most heavy on the heart of Mohamed Bouazizi - the Tunisian street vendor – who would set himself on fire on 17 December 2010? 

Certainly, his tragic self-immolation has come to represent - in finest concentration - not only the sheer desperation of a people unjustly and cruelly dispossessed, but a turning point too leading to the popular awakening that has swept across the region; an awakening driven largely by a longing for a more dignified life and borne out of the individual realisation that “I too have rights.”  That “I too am born in dignity and rights”.

For all the raw beauty in public calls across the region, for equality, for justice; to live no longer under shackle or threat but in liberty and possibility; for all the strength and promise of that raw renewable which is this region’s human hope and aspiration, since December 2010, we have seen - to our deepest regret - that wherever in the region institutions, infrastructure and inspirational leadership have been found wanting – people’s longings for personal dignity have gone largely unfulfilled. 

From Iraq, to Libya, in Syria and in Yemen, aspirations to shake off the heavy weight of political systems’ cruel, indecent and unfair self-serving, have not flourished freedom but instead have seen a repugnant degeneration.

People are dying in their thousands; are displaced in their millions; are rendered homeless, jobless, hopeless in countless number.  

The rule of law has not prevailed.  The media has been neither free nor pluralistic.  Dissent has been suppressed. 

Opposition has been expunged.  Human rights advocates have been attacked.  Discrimination on grounds inexcusable under international law has driven once mutually respectful neighbours into bloody conflict.

Militarisation of ideological movements; intrusion from external players; shrinking economies and unjust public policies; rampant impunity: all these have been as petrol pouring onto the embers of sectarian, ethnic and national divisions so that they combust then the very fabric of whole communities and entire nations.

Today, both governments and non-state armed groups - motivated by greed for power’s rewards can operate with a calculated confidence that - in all likelihood - they will never have to account for the violations they are choosing to commit.

Excellencies, friends   

Because it concerns the obligations of power to powerlessness, upholding human rights is challenging, even in times of peace.  But, be not mistaken, international law means our duties to protect rights continue even in times of conflict.

In this context, that only two states in the Middle East and North Africa have ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is not acceptable.  

Accountability mechanisms such as the ICC are not merely important tools of last resort for the holding of individuals responsible for crimes after the fact, they are central steps towards non-recurrence, they are deterrents to repetition and they do signal that those with power must be accountable to those whom they are duty bound to protect.

Armed conflict is both a short and long-term affront to human rights: loss of life; injury; destruction of infrastructure; mass displacement; loss of livelihood; and enduring collective trauma: thus human rights and the rule of law can be the strongest tools by which to inoculate communities against instability, conflict, and violence.

History teaches us that injustice and marginalization generate discontent; that when that discontent reaches a critical mass, it overflows into popular uprisings.  When those uprisings find no outlet in due and democratic process, their offspring are conflict and violence. For prevention of conflict too, adherence thus to the principles of human rights is not only morally and legally sound, but strategically advantageous. 

Excellences, Colleagues

The human rights community in its ensemble, including our Office, has a wider range of manoeuvre in times of peace than in times of conflict. And we should be confident that preventing escalation by promoting and protecting rights is more efficient, more effective, more feasible and more pragmatic than are guns, drones, or bombs. Peace building, conflict avoidance and violence prevention can be achieved.  But it requires that we reinvigorate and democratize our political structures; strengthen our national institutions, uphold the rule of law.  It means bolstering independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, the sanctity of civil society.  In this, rapid learning from good practices elsewhere is made more possible if we take on board the guidance of the international legal and normative system.

In an increasingly interdependent and intertwined world, misery suffered by millions of innocent victims anywhere impacts us all everywhere - sooner or later.

No wall or border; no special identity nor rarefied privilege; no surveillance system nor unmanned drone; no enmity so heartfelt nor friendship so rare, on this planet, can put between any of us such a distance that your rights do not count with me; that my rights do not matter to you; that their rights do not factor in.  No such distance exists upon this village planet except, that is, in the fantasist, sinister and destructive, popularist ideologies that feed off desperation, despair and disillusion.

Shifting sand means that the region’s glorious, mysterious deserts are always changing and, yet, they are always, also, somehow the same.  Human culture, tradition and their manifestation are unique, always changing, different and diverse, as are the sands of the desert.  And yet in this somehow, we are always somehow the same – simply human.  Universal, indivisible, as is the desert from its shifting sand.

Afterall, we are not the Uniform Nations but we must be the United Nations – united by our common dignity and rights and united for their protection and united against that which would see us divided.