I am happy and honoured to have been invited to speak to the Leadership Summit of the UNA-USA, which I’ve just heard described as the “conscience of America”, aptly enough. I would like to go straight to a short video before engaging on how to mobilize ourselves and others on “standing up for someone’s rights today”
Like Chaeli in that video, I’m here to pass on a simple message. We can all make a difference for human rights. Every day, everywhere, at school or the workplace, commuting, or on holiday. It starts with each of us taking concrete steps to exercise our rights and our responsibility to protect and defend the rights of others.
Because let there be no misunderstanding. Human rights around the world are currently under major attack. I joined the human rights movement as an annoying teenager at the end of the 70s. Not that we knew it then, but it was the start of a human rights revolution that lasted more than three decades. A period when enormous progress was made. But now we have come up against a serious backlash, one that takes many forms but all of them counter to the values of rights, freedoms and tolerance.
In Europe and America, but also Russia, Philippines and elsewhere, the backlash against rights tends to take the form of populism. Which is often demagogic, cheap and xenophobic, with leaders and the media claiming to speak “on behalf of the will of the people”. This form of populism tends to be anti-foreigner, anti-minority, seeking out victims to blame, usually from the most vulnerable groups in society.
In Europe, these worrying trends have fortunately hit their own roadblocks, with the defeat of hate-mongering candidates in the Netherlands and France. And in my own country, the UK, the right-wing tabloids have been screaming against refugees, migrants, liberals, judges and urged people to vote Conservative. But that’s not exactly what happened last week. Last year, despite having the most at stake in the outcome, and despite being more open, tolerant, and internationalist than their elders, British youth failed to come out and vote last year against Brexit. But last Thursday they did vote – and the result was the biggest swing against a ruling party in the history of British politics since polls began.
This just-demonstrated mobilization and power of youth is one of the reasons I’m so pleased to learn that since 2012, UNA-USA has experienced an astonishing 10-fold growth in youth membership, with over 60% of your members now under 25. The lesson just learned by the British Government was: ignore the aspirations of youth at your peril. And I would like to think that the lesson over here will be: ignore UNA-USA at your peril!
But despite some setbacks in Europe, populism and intolerance are still very much alive. Along with attacks on vulnerable groups and also international institutions, starting with the UN, but also the EU, and even NATO and the World Bank. Populists essentially dislike parts of civil society (OK they like groups like the National Rifle Association, but not groups `who support human rights and internationalist causes). They don’t like independent judges, free media and international institutions – because all of these dare speak up for rights and challenge the alleged “will of the people”.
I have to leave here a few minutes earlier because at 10 am I am addressing the UN Security Council, by video, on my recent trip to the Central African Republic. And to present a huge report we have compiled covering 13 years of unspeakable atrocities – whole villages burned and massacred, gang-rapes, torture, mutilation and pillage. I will also brief on the overwhelming cry of everyone I met there for justice, for the authors of those barbarities to be put on trial not just for the sake of justice for past crimes but also to discourage future atrocities and promote reconciliation. We are sending a message that the “gros poissons”, or fat fish, as they are called, must start to understand that we have been watching and carefully documenting their crimes, that our information will be handed over to the special criminal court, and that one day justice will be served.
In recent weeks I’ve also briefed the Security Council on recent trips to South Sudan, Congo and Somalia, as well as on Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Burundi and other places. Human rights are of course under threat in many places. None more so than in Syria, where after six years of conflict, up to half a million people killed and 11 million displaced, atrocities, torture on a truly epic scale by the government (both in numbers and the savagery of the methods used), chemical weapons, starvation by siege, airstrikes. This is probably the greatest human rights challenge in the world.
Last Tuesday saw the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war in the Middle East, and the start of half a century of suffering for an entire population under an occupation maintained by military force, the suppression of Palestinian rights for all this time, and often in stark violation of international law.
And countries like the Philippines, where thousands of people – both petty criminals and bystanders – have been mercilessly gunned down in the streets and their homes by state agents, with a President who ghoulishly celebrates their murders, boasts of having personally participated in some of them, and encourages his soldiers to rape village women.
Or countries – so many of them – where citizens are the victims of terrorists: Israel, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, just last week Britain, and many others.
As well as those innocent people – huge numbers – killed in the name of counter-terrorism. What we find time and again – governments simply refuse to learn this lesson – is that when you fight terrorism in a way that abuses the civilian population and leads to human rights abuses and marginalized communities, then you end up with more terrorists than there were in the first place. No less an authority than President George W. Bush recognised this when he conceded that the orange-suited prisoners in Guantanamo became “a propaganda tool for our enemies”. And this is absolutely right.
What human rights needs to survive and to resist is a strong civil society, in the form of courageous NGOs and human rights defenders. So this is what is being targeted in country after country. In recent years, many Governments – including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, India, Kenya, Ethiopia - have enacted laws restricting the activities and funding of NGOs, and tarnished them as enemies of the state. Civil society is crucial for us. Yes, the UN is primarily an organization of Member States, and therefore it is governments who tend to run the place (despite the words “we the peoples” in the Charter), but the human rights arm of the UN is especially reliant on civil society – hence the importance for me of UNA-USA.
Now I’ve mentioned the countries that I’ve recently briefed the Security Council on, but human rights are not just under threat in countries in conflict. In my own country, since Brexit, there’s been a worrying rise in violent hate crimes against minorities and foreigners. As well as media attacks against judges and human rights defenders.
But there are similar trends in this country too, and many of you will know more about them than I do. They include:
- The vilification of entire groups – such as Mexicans and Muslims – and the totally false claim that migrants commit more crimes than US citizens.
- Talk from some leaders about “liking torture”, believe it or not, and claiming that “torture works”. But torture is 100% illegal, it’s 100% immoral, and astoundingly ineffective too. This is because, as study after study has shown, people under such duress will say absolutely anything – true or not – to stop the diabolical pain that is being inflicted on them. So it is immoral as well as useless. In some ways, there is no more elemental human right than the right not to be tortured. So the glorification of torture in some quarters is profoundly troubling. It is also against what America has always stood for. In 1775, at the start of a conflict that even a Brit like me has to concede was at root largely a struggle for human rights, George Washington wrote a letter saying that any American soldier found mistreating or torturing prisoners should be heavily punished – possibly even by death. But this goes beyond the US. There is a very serious knock-on effect as we have found (as we did after Abu Ghraib) that other countries who we are leaning on to stop torture respond to us that “look the Americans are using torture too, so leave us alone”. So this has to be combatted in every way possible.
- Another concern is the recent justification of some executions in Arkansas on the grounds that the lethal drugs used to kill prisoners are about to reach their sell-by date. Now I’ve heard some weak arguments for executions, and I’ve heard some obscene arguments for executions. But I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a weaker or more obscene argument than the fact that the death drugs to be administered to someone are reaching their expiry date – especially given the fact that in some cases the reason the drugs can’t be replaced is that the drugs companies themselves refuse to sell new supplies for the purpose of execution because they know how cruel the deaths are as a result of those drugs.
- And then there is the extraordinary phenomenon of mass incarceration. 2.4 million Americans in jail on any given day, at a per capita proportion that is six times higher than in the 1970s, and far higher than any other country in the world – and a source of astonishment outside the US. Along with a substantial racial imbalance in the prison population, with a similar racial imbalance among the victims of police shootings.
So I may focus at the UN on situations of conflict when it comes to human rights, but there are things going on here too.
Next year is the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which as everyone knows, the Americans played a key role in its drafting and adoption – at a time when the world was still learning the full extent of the crimes, cruelty and carnage committed in the previous 10 years. Eleanor Roosevelt was a key drafter of the Universal Declaration and also one of the founders of the predecessor of the UNA. So we hope that this organization will celebrate that anniversary as far as possible. Because you will be reaffirming those values precisely at a time when many of the human rights enshrined in the declaration are under threat.
But let’s not wait until next year. The essence of our “stand-up campaign” can in fact be found in a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt. “Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. So close and so small that they can’t be seen on any maps of the world… Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Although human rights are clearly not in a good place anywhere right now, it’s still far easier to stand up and be a human rights defender in this country than in many other places of the world. This isn’t after all a country where LGBT activists get picked up, tortured and killed. Nor one where peaceful demonstrators are shot in the street, nor where investigative journalists are murdered, nor where human rights organizations are closed down and their members beaten.
But our UN office, under High Commissioner Zeid al-Hussein, is working in many countries where all these things are happening – trying to reason with the authorities, to investigate what’s going on, and do what we can to stop those things – all while our resources and budgets are being cut.
Here in the US – where our office doesn’t need to be so active, though we do need your support to be active in other countries – there have been some truly inspirational moments of people standing up. The most tragic instance was just last month, in Portland, Oregon, where three men bravely intervened to protect two Muslim girls threatened by a right-wing racist terrorist, who then murdered two of those heroic men. Fortunately this isn’t representative – the US on the whole is not a country where standing up for someone’s rights means risking your own life. But that act, and the decency and courage of those men, should be held up and commemorated. Another extraordinary event was the massive women’s marches of last January.
But for me, the ultimate “goosebumps” moment took place at the end of January, when thousands of Americans - human rights defenders and lawyers – flocked to airports all over the country in order to protect and to offer solidarity and support to those refugees caught up in the “Muslim ban” executive order. I regard that as an amazing event – reaffirming the faith of millions of people in humanity and in America, at a moment when there were some questions. And though, unlike my children, I myself am not an American citizen, I felt huge pride in being almost American as those airport scenes unfolded.
The good news is that there will be surely be many other “goosebumps moments” – as Americans stand up for the rights of others. But the bad news of course is that we know there will be a growing need for such actions. As we all – the UN Human Rights Office, UNA-USA, and millions of concerned US citizens – seek to combat the growing worldwide phenomenon of a push-back against fundamental rights freedoms, combined with a pull-back towards some earlier time when women, sexual minorities, racial groups, religious minorities, all had fewer liberties than they have now. And that’s why we value our alliance, our association with you so deeply. I hope we can strengthen it still further.
Thank you very much for listening.