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St. Petersburg International Legal Forum Plenary Session: The Art of Law

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

St Petersburg, 15 May 2019

Prime Minister Medvedev,
Minister Konovalov,
Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues, Friends,

Dobroye utro! Vernut'sya v Rossiyu ochen' priyatno dazhe dlya takogo korotkogo vizita.  (Good morning. It is a real pleasure to be back in Russia, even for such a short visit)

I am impressed by the range of issues included in the Programme of this Forum, from the philosophical "Law as an Art" to the technical and specific issues of insolvency or arbitration. It shows the consistent interest of many stakeholders in Russia in the role of law -- and international law, in particular.

Dostoevsky told us, "The secret of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but having something to live for". We could say that Law is what brings meaning and vision to the State. States may have many peoples, with many languages, a fixed territory and a monopoly of the use of force and courts. But what brings hope and confidence to the people is the forward-looking projection of shared principles embodied in the law.

What, then, is human rights law? By laying out the fundamental freedoms and rights of every person on our planet, international human rights law describes the meaning and the values, which bind us. It expresses some of the very powerful core requirements for every human being – that we share our basic nature, and must care for each others’ destinies; that we are intrinsically equal; and that each of us is equally deserving of dignity, well-being and freedom.

But human rights law is not an idealised image, pretty yet meaningless. It is a robust and practical tool.

With human rights norms, standards, jurisprudence and mechanisms, we build societies that are truly strong -- because they are fair. We freely elect leaders, who are powerful because they are accountable: they serve the people, not themselves. We enjoy a more resilient and beneficial development, because it seeks the contributions of everyone.

To rule BY law is to impose injustice from above. Apartheid, and many contemporary forms of discrimination -- including refusal of women’s rights – have been based on laws. Today, in a growing number of countries, legislation enables governments to crush the voices of their critics. This, too, is typical, as the laws produced through rule BY law are rarely applied to those people who have power; they are by essence arbitrary, because they are a tool of power, not of justice.

In such cases, where the laws themselves are unjust, they generate resentment and inequality. This weakens social harmony – the unity of values and respect at the base of resilient societies. It also erodes the legitimacy of the authorities; saps the innate strength and resilience of society; and weakens social unity, respect, and shared development.

In contrast, the rule OF law fulfills fundamental rights, and ensures fair access to resources, as well as openness in government.  No one is above the law, and everyone has access to the law’s protection.  By imposing limits on the exercise of power by agents of the state, and protecting the human rights of all people, the rule OF law serves the public interest.

What then is the Art of the Law? It is that gesture which extends beyond the narrow concept of laws as arbitrary rules. In that amplitude and resonance, the code of national laws, which may arise from quite specific – and even diverging – philosophical, historical and ethical approaches, creates out of those factors a body of principles which reflect real justice.

That moment of Art may be guided by the great international declarations and treaties, which have universal resonance, expressing codes of principle that are common to all human beings.

In fact, in our world today, every country has ratified at least one international human rights treaty.

Today, digital technologies are poised to alter almost every aspect of our lives – healthcare, education, employment, privacy and more. The Prime Minister spoke at length today about these aspects. The role of the State must be to ensure these technologies benefit human beings. I was recently visiting Silicon Valley in the US with the view to discuss exactly these aspects and their connection to human rights – their impact on the human rights of people across the globe. We have already identified some flaws in even the most advanced technologies, and their in-built bias, including racial bias and gender bias, due to the influence of discriminatory views in the construction of IT and AI systems. It is no coincidence that the majority of the IT developers in the Silicon Valley are white males.

Some of the dilemmas created by the new connective technologies hark back to very ancient challenges – such as the spread of false propaganda, and speech, which incites violence against minorities, such as extreme violence against Rohingya in Myanmar. Other digital challenges, such as the potential for a completely unprecedented scale of surveillance, are new. My Office is working on how to address these new challenges for human rights, and specifically, how to avoid built-in bias and hate speech.

Law-making is not the only tool at the State’s disposal; still, it may be a very useful tool. But the laws which are drawn up must reflect the deeper urge of justice. Those most directly impacted must have a say in shaping the law – including not only members of Parliaments, but also non-governmental experts and civil society. Here again, human rights law, grounded in long experience, and shaped by deep-seated, principle, can be our guide.

Your country has been a leading force in the development of much international law. And its commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is unquestionable. Within that Agenda, Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for "the provision of access to justice for all", with "effective, accountable institutions at all levels".

I look forward to the work of this Forum, and many other distinguished bodies, to promote that vital endeavour.

Thank you.