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What choice will you make – for yourself, and for our world?

UN in Geneva Graduate Study programme
Human Rights at a Crossroads
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein

2 July 2018


It is a pleasure to be here. I find it quite moving to be speaking to all of you as I approach the end of my mandate as High Commissioner, and you move towards the beginning of your professional lives.

If you are at all like the person I was at your age, this is a time of questioning – developing a sense of your own identities; searching for your path through the world, the field of study which will best fit the person you want to be and the endeavour that will best engage your energies.

All sentient humans ask themselves these questions – I know I do. We move through them almost like caterpillars, drawing back and up, feeling our way through an inscrutable blur before we place our feet down and inch ahead. That hinge moment, where we are poised to take decisions, and perhaps change direction, can be a very rich one. The Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells us: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

As students in this Graduate Study Programme, you are certainly questioning the direction the world is taking; perhaps also questioning the directions in which you want to take your lives. Let us then take this opportunity to move in caterpillar fashion, and curl backwards before we move ahead. What I want to do this morning is to circle back into history and sketch out some of the answers that other people have found. Because the answers gifted to us by our forebears can light areas of darkness we dare not explore or have not considered; proposing steps that might initially strike us as improbable, unfeasible, or even foolish.

You have come of age at a time of rising turbulence. Contempt is deepening for the principles and agreed law – including international human rights law – which the world began to lay down 70 years ago, at the conclusion of the most terrible spasm of conflict the world has ever seen. The unprecedented number of people -- 68.5  million – who are displaced by conflict and deprivation today speaks for the deepening chaos and destruction of our era. And in many – if not all – societies, it is precisely these people, these victims of misery and warfare, who are becoming targets for hatred and fear. Not the perpetrators of torture, but the tortured; not the rapacious and corrupt, but their victims.

Why? This past decade has seen the rapid rise, in every region, of political leaders who propagate the idea that their countries are threatened by foreigners – and who, with few exceptions, institute policies that demean and abuse migrants. Echoes of this pattern of action reverberate all the way back through history. Hatred of so-called strangers is an old tactic for generating excitement and panic. Once it has successfully sown fear, and harvested political support, it is also used to claim criticism and debate is treasonous, silencing opponents and closing off the institutions which maintain a check on political power.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt describes the phenomenon very cogently: "Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people are surrounded by 'a world of enemies' - 'one against all' - and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others; and denies, theoretically, the possibility of a common mankind, long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man."

You have been invited to study at the UN – the united nations: an organisation that was set up in exact and fundamental opposition to this chauvinistic, weaponised nationalism. Think back: it was 1945 when the UN's core purpose was minted – to ensure peace, in the aftermath of unparalleled slaughter and devastation which had been caused – or at least made possible – by nationalism. To save humanity from yet another global war – a war which would henceforth be compounded by atomic destruction – the world's leaders would have to undo the machinery of hatred and chauvinism, and address humanity as a community, with intrinsic bonds, common interests and many mutual responsibilities.

They did not take this approach because they were well-meaning idealists. It was very stark: choose life, or watch death engulf their world. These were women and men who had seen chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism at work, close up. They knew that once these violent, zero-sum forces reach a certain pitch, war and violence are very likely. "Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," begins the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which they wrote. They came to this conclusion because in their urgent search for peace and social progress, it seemed to them that upholding human rights – upholding justice – was the only possible foundation.

They wrote the Universal Declaration as a detailed map to get humanity out of trouble. It drew on experience of every kind of disaster that humanity can face – the exploitation of colonialism, atomic destruction, the horror of genocide and global conflict. And it listed the completely practical and pragmatic steps which lead away from destruction and violence, to safety. Steps that build greater justice and greater participation; more equal economic and social rights; More respect for the dignity of individuals, without discrimination. Policies that build justice, combat extremism and despair.

It was not an expression of white, liberal neo-colonialism; most of the initial impetus behind the Universal Declaration, and much of its content, stemmed from States of the Global South.

It was to become the most widely translated document in human history, and its principles form the most constructive, and arguably the most successful, body of ideas in our time.   

Over the past 70 years, a sustained peace has been achieved in and between many societies. Conflicts have been resolved, with respect and through law; a vastly increased number of people able to meaningfully express their views, and access education, healthcare, and opportunities for development. Apartheid was ended; the Declaration also facilitated decolonisation.  Millions have gained greater freedoms and equality. They have been empowered to fight discrimination and gain greater access to justice, to essential services and to equality of opportunity. Conditions of profound economic misery and exploitation have been challenged. Oppressive dictatorships have been replaced by participative systems of governance that seek to serve their people. The perpetrators of horrific human rights violations – including genocide – have been prosecuted by international tribunals.

Some of us may take these achievements for granted. But they are the enactment of policies – policies and laws that uphold the universal principles of human dignity, equality and justice.

Perhaps you attribute this progress to the powerful work of civil society activism, mobilizing on each of these issues and fighting for rights within their countries. And indeed, this is true: the work of civil society activists and human rights defenders is absolutely essential to each of these advances; my admiration for their struggles is boundless. But theirs is not the whole story. Without a universal point of reference – a legal destination, in the form of an international human rights treaty; a universal agreement that endorses the absolute legitimacy of their claims – the journey for civil society, and for the Governments inclined toward it – would have been less focused.

Thus, for women's rights, for the rights of ethnic, religious, racial and caste minorities, for the rights of persons with disabilities, for workers and employees, for people who are LGBTI, the rights of the child, for the rights to health, to education, to decent housing and social services – and many others – we have achieved enormous advances over the past 69 years. This progress has served the cause of greater peace, preventing conflicts.

We have also failed. Conflicts have crushed the rights of millions of people. Millions of people have suffered human rights violations – the humiliation and violence of discrimination and genocide; exploitation; deprivation; the crushing iron fist of tyranny. Recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights of human beings has been far from universal. And like all human endeavours in this imperfect world, the UN itself has flaws.

But today, the very basis of human rights principles, and the multilateral institutions which underpin the process of achieving those rights, are being undermined by a loosely attached coalition of chauvinistic nationalists. Fundamental principles of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are shamelessly and openly flouted, setting back decades of work to ensure respect for the basic, minimal decencies due to every human being. Measures to end discrimination and promote greater justice and rights are being dismantled by those who profit from hatred and exploitation. We see a backlash against many human rights advances in numerous countries, including on the rights of women, the rights of many minorities, and the fundamental principle that civil society has a right to freely participate in decision-making, in every country.  

When these leaders undermine human rights, and human rights law, that is in no way an act of patriotism. These perhaps personally convenient, and certainly fact-free, policies have profoundly negative consequences for us all. They are eroding the structures which can ensure the safety of their people ­– pitching their societies backwards into violence, destruction, exploitation and disaster. They are recreating the rule of brute force and exploitation – within countries and between them.
True patriotism consists in viewing every State, and humanity as a whole, as a community of mutual responsibility, with shared needs and goals. True patriotism consists of the work of creating tolerant communities which can live in peace.           

My message today is that we can set our planet on a course of greater inclusion; more sustained prosperity; more justice; more dignity; more freedom; more peace. We can build in human rights. We can encourage leaders to embrace the voices of their people, instead of cutting themselves off from their most precious resource. Conflict can be prevented. Peace, security and development can be built. Brick by brick. Equality. Dignity. Participation. Respect.

The Universal Declaration is not a tired collation of pretty sentiments. It is a programme of hard-headed action. It tells us what human life can be, and should be, and it shows us the steps that will take us there. Human rights are the workhorses, the load-bearing bricks and mortar which build resilience, and greater security, for every society.

Dear fellow questioners,

In this brief caterpillar space of reflection and choice, what direction will we opt to travel towards – both for humanity, and in our own lives?

Listen to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, who recently spoke of his grave worry about the erosion of the multilateral system: "This state of affairs is heavy with danger, not only for world peace but also for the values of human dignity, tolerance and acceptance of others which are the foundation of human rights. The rise of xenophobia, racism and national selfishness, and the exaltation of differences and defensive identities, constitute grave challenges. The lines which we define as intolerable are now constantly in retreat...We must all mobilise to reaffirm the values which are common to us all, speak for our faith in human solidarity and affirm loud and long our refusal of all that dehumanises, sows the seeds of hatred and trivialises the rejection of human beings – for the sake of our planet's future. "

Consider that in the poverty and vulnerability of refugee camps; in urban slums and bitterly oppressed communities – wherever there are human beings, we find individuals who will not be silenced; defenders who bravely stand up for their rights, and those of their fellows.

Remember that every direction we choose to take, and every job we choose to do, is a self portrait: a portrait of our own values and who we truly are. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it so memorably, “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity.”

So please, by all means, don't recite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so you can pass an exam.

Use it. And do it because it matters. Because people will always matter – and upholding their rights and sustaining their well-being is what government is for.

Do it because the Universal Declaration was drawn up at a time of profound crisis, as a distillation of the lessons which could save the world. It is precisely when the future is anxious, and it seems that options are narrowing, that these core lessons of history can guide us to the right course – no matter how stormy the water or how inscrutable and dark the blur we face.

This is the essence of who we are, as human beings: we are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Listen to the voice of the 13th century Persian poet known to us as Rumi:

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsil
l where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Can we gather together these voices, and use these emotions, to create a hopeful, tolerant, peaceful vision of the future, and move towards it with actions that will realise that hope?

We can. Here, in this Graduate Studies programme, you are free to think, to critique, to debate and to prepare to act on your ideas.

The work you are embarking on today will empower you to help to build inclusive and sustainable development – a goal in its own right, but also our best form of prevention against violence.

It will empower you to stand up for the full rights of our fellow human beings, and to help achieve a world, for yourselves and for other young people, which is safe.

Because you are the leaders you have been waiting for. We are in this together, this struggle to question, to debate, and to act on behalf of one another in pursuit of our deepest convictions.

We need to place our feet back on the ground now and organize and mobilise in defence of human decency – in defence of a common future for humanity – and in defence of our values. We need to fight back against discrimination and stand up for human rights – for the sake of us all.

 I thank you.