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'Foreign Policy' reception for Career Diplomat Award of the Year

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

13 June 2018

Good evening,

I must confess I am astounded, as well as delighted, to receive an award for diplomacy. Over the past few years I've been attacked and trolled in various ways but never have I been described as very diplomatic.

Still, diplomacy, properly defined, is the peaceful management of relations between States, and this does hit home. Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on two core premises. One: every human being has inherent dignity, and all of us have equal, and unalienable rights. And two: recognition of those rights – and I quote the first line of the preamble –"is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".

Four years as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have brought me many luminous encounters with women and men of immense dignity and principle; a number of desperately important, life-saving struggles; much shocking and painful information; and some lessons. Profound lessons; lessons which may take many years to fully assimilate, although I hope to share a few of them here, tonight, with you.

But first I want to circle back – as I have constantly found myself doing, throughout my mandate – to the Universal Declaration, and the context in which it was drafted. Forgive me, but I am a historian by training, and this is truly where the story begins.

It was a time of slaughter and terrible suffering, with broken economies and nations emerging from the ashes of two global wars, an immense genocide, atomic destruction and the Great Depression. Finding solutions that could ensure global – and national – peace was a matter of the starkest kind of survival. Committing to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was desperately important. They were not philosophical goals: this was life or death.

There will be, to use the refrain, no peace without justice. There will be no durable development without promotion of broad social progress and better standards of life, for all, in larger freedom. The men and women who survived the two World Wars understood this utterly. It was in their bones. Leaders of States understood it, and knew they must draft and hold to international laws which would ensure collective action and peaceful relationships within and between States.

Treaty after treaty, they built a great body of laws and covenants and committed to upholding them. There is a great cynicism about the global order they constructed – never fully global, never very orderly – but although it may have been partial, the progress they ensured was immense.

But that generation is departing quickly, and with them the living memory of the lessons which were so painfully clear to them.
And the world, instead of advancing towards greater freedom, justice, and peace, is going backwards.

Backwards, to a landscape of increasingly strident, zero-sum nationalism, where the jealously guarded, short-term interests of individual leaders supplant and destroy efforts to find common solutions.

Backwards, to an era of contempt for the rights of people who have been forced to flee their homes, because the threats they face there are more dangerous even than the perils of their voyage.

Backwards, to a time of proxy wars, at the knife-edge of sparking regional and global conflicts. A time when military operations could deliberately target civilians and civilian sites such as hospitals, and chemical gasses were openly used for military purposes and against innocent families.

Backwards, to an era when racists and xenophobes deliberately enflamed hatred and discrimination among the public, while carefully cloaking themselves in the guise of democracy and the rule of law.

Backwards, to an era when women were not permitted to control their own choices and their own bodies. An era when criticism was criminalised, and human rights activism brought jail – or worse.

Civil and international, this is the way that wars are made: with the snarl of belligerence and the smirk of dehumanisation. The lash of injustice and the incremental erosion of old and seemingly wearisome checks.

The path of violence is made up of the unreckoned consequences of banal, incidental brutality seeping into the political landscape.

It is shaped by leadership that is both thuggish and petulant, cultivating grievances in order to reap votes, and sowing humiliation, oppression, hatred and disregard for the greater, common good.

Here is one lesson: intolerance is an insatiable machine. Its wheels, once they begin to function at a certain amplitude, become uncontrollable – grinding deeper, more cruelly and widely. First one group of people is singled out for hatred; next it will be more, and then more, as the machine for exclusion accelerates into violence, and into civil or international warfare – feeding always on its own rage, a growing frenzy of grievance and blaming. As that tension begins to peak, no obvious mechanism exists that is capable of decompressing and controlling its intensity, because the machine functions on an emotional level that has very little contact with reason. Release may only come after tremendous violence. This, in the human rights community, is something we have witnessed time and again.

We are at a pivotal moment in history, now, as contempt for human rights spreads. Xenophobes and racists have emerged from the shadows. Backlash is growing against advances made in women's rights and many others. The space for civic activism is shrinking. The legitimacy of human rights principles is attacked, and the practise of human rights norms is in retreat.

What we are destroying is, quite simply, the structures that ensure our safety.

The destruction of Syria is a murderous parable, written in blood, which brings home yet again – yet again – that horrific spiralling of incremental human rights violations into absolute destruction.

The organised campaigns of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar – which was South East Asia's fastest growing economy, in 2016 – yet again reminds us that economic growth will never maintain peace and security in the face of biting discrimination. In 2017 – 2017! – we once again saw the spectre of possible genocide, and once again, we did very, very little to stop it from happening.

So, in a sentence, what is the one core lesson that has been brought home to me by this extraordinary, privileged, crushing mandate as High Commissioner?

It is that in every circumstance, the safety of humanity will only be secured through vision, energy and generosity of spirit; through activism; through the struggle for greater freedom, in equality; and through justice.

I thank you.