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International Film festival and Forum on Human Rights

The state of human rights in the world

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein,  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 9 March 2018


It is wonderful to be with you here on a Friday night for the opening of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights – it proves you are human rights activists! To be among people who care passionately about rights – and who love film and understand its creative power, its power to raise deep questions about the human condition.

If I may mention here a film which left a deep impression on me in this regard:  Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, with its exploration of the roots of evil. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film is set in a small village in northern Germany in 1913, tellingly on the eve of the First World War, a superficially moral social order beset by bizarre acts of wanton violence, involving children, shrouded in guilt and mired in an atmosphere of festering resentment. A pillar of this society, the pastor, insists that his children have to wear a white ribbon until he is convinced they are cleansed of their wrongdoing – a symbol of purity transformed into a public display of humiliation and guilt.

Are the victims of this unforgiving atmosphere displacing their anger and desire for revenge not on their stronger tormenters, the pastor and the other adults, but on smaller children who are easier to attack? What we learn is that the children have not learned virtue but punishment that they then inflict on the more vulnerable. 

The setting of the film suggests that these children will be conformist, resentful adults drawn to National Socialism, with all the ills that will presage. But the film’s message, I think, addresses a wider sweep of history – how outward goodness can feed, to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the banality of evil; how human beings – how we – must strive to preserve our humanity – and humanity.

This year, as you know, we are marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was painstakingly assembled in the ruins of World War II, with the overarching aim of preventing such horrors from destroying humanity and with the overriding lesson: justice builds peace.

But as we look around the world today, we see many regions that are far from at peace, and many millions who are denied justice. The generation that lived through World War I is gone; memories of World War II are dimming; the lessons that fuelled the Universal Declaration are in danger of being forgotten.

Two days ago, I addressed the Human Rights Council here in Geneva, highlighting the state of human rights around the world. Parts of the globe have become human slaughterhouses, where civilians are killed and injured, as the international community wrings its collective hands, but does little or nothing to stop the slaughter and destruction.

Syria’s brutal civil war has become a byword for horror, and Eastern Ghouta the definition of suffering. What we are seeing in Syria are likely war crimes and crimes against humanity – in the second decade of the 21st Century. Those responsible must – and will I believe – be held to account. And while Syria dominates the news, what of the deaths and injuries suffered by the people of Yemen, the abuses and violations seen in the Kasais in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar?

It is 2018 and once again we are seeing the spectre of possible genocide, and once again we are doing very little to stop it from happening.

Conflicts have crushed, and continue to crush, the rights of millions of people, as State and non-State actors deliberately and wilfully violate the rules of basic human decency we term international humanitarian law.

Millions of people, including from minority groups, suffer discrimination, exploitation and deprivation.  In many countries, the fundamental idea that civil society has the right to freely participate in decision-making – one of the significant advances of the late 20th century – is being challenged and dismantled.

We are at a pivotal moment in history, as contempt for human rights spreads. We are living in a world where authoritarian leaders bully and bellow, where   oppression has returned to the fore, where fundamental freedoms are threatened, and civil space is shrinking. Xenophobes and racists have emerged from the shadows. A television reporter can ask a group of young men: are you Fascists? And they reply, enthusiastically: “Absolutely, fascism is the way to make our country great again.”

So far, I know, I have painted a picture of despair. But 2018 is not merely a year to take stock of the state of human rights globally and then abandon hope. It is a year to celebrate human rights, to celebrate the Declaration that gave voice to aspirations of all human beings, and gave rise to the body of international law that, however battered and disregarded, is our rock and pillar for dealing with the worst of humanity and preserving the best.

Human rights are not an  esoteric Western creation. They are deeply practical, as they build equitable and inclusive societies, based on justice and fair access to opportunities and services that are more resilient to shocks.

Human rights defenders know this and live this every day of their lives in their struggle to defend their rights and the rights of others. They are our inspiration.

So it is not the time for despair. The MeToo movement that has arisen to combat the abuse and sexual exploitation of women touches all countries and all nationalities. It is a call not merely to end violence against women, but to end the culture of acceptance of male dominance over women, and to genuinely listen to and believe women’s accounts of what happened to them.

Amazing ordinary people have also stood up in Parkland, Florida. The students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school – mature, articulate, resolute – have seized the moment with their NeverAgain movement to call for tighter controls to end the gun violence that ripped their school, their community and their lives apart. Some have, unbelievably, questioned their authenticity, belittled their arguments and even suggested they are part of an anti-gun conspiracy. But as a recent article in Slate said, the poise and the commitment of these students is no fluke, but the result of an education that values drama, journalism, public speaking, free speech and political activism; that values culture and humanity.

And this is what gives us hope – and why the array of films being shown during this Festival is so inspiring, tackling provocative issues, raising difficult questions we all should ask ourselves, and telling the stories of people – good people, bad people, bad good people, and good bad people.

I am looking forward to our conversation this evening. Talking with audiences such as yourselves, enriches the debate, informs our work, and indeed helps us to reflect on what we are achieving and what more we need to do.

And as we discuss, debate – and indeed perhaps even differ - we are embodying the essential freedoms of thought and expression. And in doing so, we are standing up for those denied these rights and who we must never, and will never, abandon.

I have asked before why it is that we have to increasingly defend human rights, why so many governments fail or refuse to grasp the concept of fairness that is obvious to a child.  This is, sadly, the world we have today, but just as the drafters of the Universal Declaration were driven by the desire for a better tomorrow, so should we be.

That is why we are mobilising to defend and celebrate the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration – for upholding these values is humanity at its very best.