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Human Rights in the Pacific: Navigating New Challenges with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Lecture by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

10 February 2018

Distinguished Vice-Chancellor,
Members of the faculty,
Students,

My greetings to all of you – here in Fiji, and in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, across the 12 campuses of this vast and impressive university.

Allow me first to thank you for inviting me today. We are beginning the 70th commemorative year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is a real pleasure to begin it here, with the people of the South Pacific. It is also the 50th anniversary year of this University, and I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss with you, as representatives of your generation, about how I think you can best approach some of the challenges your countries and communities face.
The world is growing darker, in many ways. But it doesn't have to. With the longstanding efforts of many Pacific nations, a global plan has been laid out, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to mitigate and diminish climate change. With the Sustainable Development Agenda, we have a clear map to end extreme hunger and poverty in the world. There is real hope for more inclusive, and more sustainably prosperous societies.

However, we are also seeing an advance of short sighted nationalism – countries somehow believing conflicts between them will not matter. Increasingly, world leaders are turning away from multilateral solutions – away from the pursuit of the common interests we all have, as members of humanity. The sea is rising, and the world is growing more turbulent.  . There will be hard challenges for your generation to face.

Climate change is an inescapable reality. It has exacerbated the extreme weather events which  have battered many Pacific Islands in recent years, causing loss of life and damage to livelihoods on an unprecedented scale.  The impact of Winston remains enormous here in Fiji, as well as in Tonga and Niue. In your lifetimes, you will face the risk of losing habitable land and homes, the salinization of freshwater sources, and other climate-related risks that can drive massive displacement. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of some islands and nations, where extraordinarily resilient cultures are in peril.

Pacific Island countries have had almost no involvement in generating climate change. They did not contribute significantly to the processes of industrialisation which created it – the Pacific Islands add no more than 0.03% to global greenhouse gas emissions. Your future, then, depends on action taken by other States – States with jurisdiction or control over major fossil fuel polluters.

Under international human rights law, all States have an obligation to cooperate with one another and take measures to ensure the rights of all people are protected. These obligations of international cooperation and assistance are particularly important in the context of climate change. So if this was not clear to you before, let me emphasise this here: international human rights law will be key to solving the existential challenges of this region, as Pacific Island States have clearly recognized, in advocating for high ambition and inclusion of human rights in the UNFCCC negotiations.

Indeed, the Pacific Islands stands stands out as a zone where the authorities' overall approach to human rights laws and principles is markedly positive. Although there may be many outstanding human rights challenges, I want first to herald some recent advances. Many states have now ratified core international human rights treaties, particularly the Conventions on the rights of the child and the rights of persons with disabilities. And Fiji recently abolished the death penalty, which constitutes inhuman treatment. In many States there have been significant legal reforms, including to improve respect for the rights of persons with disabilities, and to end torture and ill-treatment of people in detention. In Fiji, Nauru, Samoa and Vanuatu, work is underway to train judges in human rights law and train police forces to respect human rights.

I am particularly glad to observe a growing openness, across the region, to the voices of civil society – whose contributions, even where they are critical, are essential to every healthy society. Here, I think, lies great hope. It is essential that everyone in society – including youth – feel engaged, feel they have a stake and a voice in the common good.

Genuinely sustainable development, with the best possible governance, will be also essential. Every member of society needs to be educated, engaged, and able to contribute. "Leaving no-one behind" is the core of the Sustainable Development Agenda, and what that means is upholding everyone's rights. Because economies and societies that are inclusive and participative, and where government is accountable, can better withstand shocks. And because whether it is on the basis of sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political opinion, religious belief or any other supposedly defining characteristic, discrimination and human rights violations are responsible for deep injustice which harms individuals and communities.

Allow me, then, to say to you that I am alarmed by the discrimination and violence which are suffered by so many women across this region. In several States, women lack equal property rights and their rights to customary land is curtailed. They are much less likely to be able to get adequate jobs, and much less likely to be able to make their own choices about their lives, than men are.

Women's access to healthcare is limited. Girls are less likely to be in school. The plight of women who are trafficked in the region for purposes of labour or sexual exploitation remains very disturbing. Representation of women in parliaments, and in decision-making positions in government and business, is exceedingly low. And domestic violence is shockingly high. Over two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati have suffered domestic violence and sexual offenses, according to some studies; 4 out of 10 in Samoa, and 1 in 4 in Palau. It appears that despite legislation many people seem to look on a man hitting his wife or child as acceptable, or even routine. And despite some changes in law, women are still facing severely discriminatory policies, social and cultural barriers across the Pacific Islands.
This needs to change.

I too come from a region where discrimination is deeply embedded across society. I know the weight of tradition, and the power of clarity and the truth. Whether in the Pacific or any other region, women are equal to men in consciousness, capacity and rights – and that includes the right to express themselves and to develop as they wish. Tackling the limits on women's freedom does not have to mean destroying a culture. Culture is not a fossil hardened into bitterness and rigidity. Cultures are strong when they are renewable – when they recognise and resolve injustice.

Furthermore, global studies have repeatedly indicated that areas with high incidence of domestic violence also suffer heavy rates of violence against children. I am concerned that there is no accurate region-wide data, but it appears that violence against children, as well as corporal punishment, could also be very high. The  dignity and worth of all children is the starting point of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this essential principle resonates in every culture and tradition. It stresses that in all circumstances children must be protected from violence and discrimination. Children too have rights which merit respect.

On the rights of LGBTI people, I am glad to note that in recent years, seven Pacific Island States have decriminalised same-sex relationships. In several States, laws are also being introduced to counter discrimination against LGBTI people in employment and education. However, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Tuvalu still criminalise consenting relationships between adults of the same sex – a fundamental human rights violation. And violence and abuse targeting LGBTI persons occurs on a regular basis in most Pacific Island countries.

In particular – and this fact appears to be largely absent from national conversations about human rights – lesbian, bisexual and transgender women suffer stigma and multiple forms of violence and discrimination. For those in detention, the situation is particularly acute. I take this opportunity to encourage civil society actors to extend their work on LGBTI issues, and other supposedly "sensitive" topics, such as the rights of prisoners.

I also encourage far stronger national structures to support work on human rights across this region. Today only two countries – Fiji and Samoa – have established National Human Rights Institutions. Samoa's has gained "A" status as fully independent and compliant with the Paris Principles. I strongly encourage all other Pacific Island countries to move swiftly to establish fully effective and independent NHRIs.

Why? Because human rights values will build a better future.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a distillation of the lessons of preceeding generations. It draws on experience of every kind of disaster that humanity can face – the exploitation of colonialism, atomic destruction, the horror of genocide and global conflict. It is a statement of the fundamental truth of human equality, drawing on visions from many cultures of what it means to be human. And its guidance is completely practical and pragmatic.

It lists the ways to build societies where there is greater justice and greater participation; more equal economic and social rights. More respect for the dignity of individuals, less discrimination. The 30 Articles of the UDHR inform and strengthen better policies, whether on the international or national stage. They comprise measures that are pragmatic and practical, which make development policies more effective. They build justice, combat extremism and despair.

Human rights matter at any time, of course, because people will always matter – and upholding their rights and sustaining their well-being is what government is for.

But these laws and principles are especially vital in times of crisis – when the future is anxious, and it seems that options are narrowing. It is then that core values, the lessons of history, can deeply guide us to the right course – no matter how stormy the water or how dark the sky. This is the essence of who we are, as human beings.

I was recently reminded of a lovely and wise poem by Dr Komai Helu Thaman:

These islands the sky
the surrounding sea
the trees the birds
and all that are free
the misty rain
the surging river
pools by the blowholes
a hidden flower
have their own thinking
they are different frames
of mind that cannot fit
in a small selfish world.

There is so much that is precious in the traditions and cultures of the Pacific Islands. Frames of mind that can expand this selfish world, and teach us better approaches. In this university – with its extraordinarily broad footprint and the distinctive contributions of so many ways of thinking – respect for diversity is built in. You know the value of human rights. The value of equality and non-discrimination. You, and your generation, have a great deal to contribute in the search for solutions.

My Office will do whatever we can to assist you to stand up for justice – nationally and on the international stage. We will endeavour to assist in slowing climate change, and preventing its worst impacts. To help end poverty and abuses, and promote equality, fundamental freedoms and access to essential opportunities and goods, we can assist in advocating and monitoring meaningful implementation, working with Government officials and civil society– including youth groups.

I hope you will meet the challenges that face you with the courage of justice, and in the knowledge of equality. I hope you will enable human rights law to inspire a number of reforms. I hope you will respect and honour one another, and work for the common good of everyone – because every human being is valuable.

In this 70th year of the Universal Declaration, and in this world of mounting uncertainty, I very much hope that – wherever you live, and whoever you become – you will stand up for your rights, and the rights of others. And make a difference to your future.

Thank you. I welcome your questions.