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Global Challenges to Human Rights

Speech by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered at Vanderbilt Law School, Nashville

5 April 2017

Professor Newton,
Mrs Charney,
Students and friends,

It is an honour to speak to the legacy of Professor Jonathan Charney. His thinking about the need for a standing international criminal court was decades ahead of its time, and his constant advocacy shaped generations of legal minds in this distinguished university.  I believe had he been with us today, he would have been both proud – even delighted ­– over how the Court has emerged over the last fifteen years. And anxious too.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Simply put, a growing number of states parties, albeit still small in number, are now challenging the Court.  In the most extreme examples, through an outright refusal to be bound any longer by the Court's jurisdiction, as in the case of Burundi.  Or, as we have seen with South Africa, through failure to cooperate in the arrest of the indicted President of Sudan Omar Hassan Al Bashir, based on narrow legal reasoning.  And I suspect my own country Jordan, which last week also received Al Bashir, much to my regret and dismay, will adopt the same argument.

Whatever the legal merits of the different interpretations, considering that Al Bashir could roam freely from one state party to another without fear of arrest would defeat the purpose of the Rome Statute, and the affirmation of its state parties that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community must not go unpunished.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now tampering with delicate international mechanisms, and dangerously so. 

Last week I was in the British parliament on the day Article 50 was signed, which formalized the divorce proceedings that are Brexit.  The United States, under the Trump administration, is studying its own withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, possibly even from core human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  There is also the question of the US pulling its funding from international institutions. Last summer, it was reported a number of Arab countries had threatened to withdraw from the UN altogether – an unprecedented threat – if listed in the annex of the Secretary General's report to the Security Council on grave violations against children in armed conflict.  Multiple European actors still threaten withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Other European States, including Hungary, Poland, and now Turkey, contest various findings of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Moreover, several African States continue to call for amendments to, if not withdrawal from, the Rome Statute. 

These centrifugal forces acting on the multilateral system are individual and complex, but taken together they appear to stem from amnesia.  We seem to have forgotten, very simply, why the system came to exist in the first place.  We have forgotten where the classroom is, the classroom of world history; we have forgotten even its most basic lessons.

The principal international and European institutions, built in the second half of the last century, were not constructed by visionaries acting on ideals alone. They were put together because upward of 100 million humans died, hideously, in two global catastrophes.  The international financial institutions; the United Nations; the European Union – in the continent where the two wars began; the International Criminal Court – all these institutions emerged from immense global violence. 

In humanity's subsequent and desperate search for self-preservation, these institutions were pitted as the principal defence against resurgent human stupidity and arrogance – the combination of which had already killed so many. The same is true of the international human rights architecture, anchored by the two Covenants and eight core treaties, including the Convention against Torture.  Undermine them at your peril – the peril of all.  Sadly, we are threatening just that.

I have been amazed by the President's openly voiced personal support for torture. The prospect that torture, or some airbrushed version of it, could be revived in this country, potentially in response to some future terrorist outrage, is profoundly unsettling.

Torture, the infliction of unbearable pain on a defenceless captive, is repugnant.  It is also useless. Napoleon Bonaparte wrote in 1798:  "The barbarous custom of having men beaten, who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal, must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know."

The Convention against Torture, ratified by 159 countries, is possibly the most comprehensive and powerful existing instrument of international law. Its prohibition on torture can never legally be lifted – not even during an emergency that "threatens the life of the nation." But in the aftermath of 9/11, this country did practice torture, no matter how it was packaged euphemistically, and sent detainees to countries employing torture, as part of its global campaign against terrorism.  Not only was this unprincipled; confirming Napoleon, it brought no intelligence benefit whatsoever. As President George W. Bush wrote subsequently, Guantanamo itself became "a propaganda tool" for America's enemies.  Indeed, the orange jumpsuit became a mainstay of the horrific videos posted by violent extremists like Da'esh.

Where then does this lingering embrace of torture come from?  For many people, it also appears to stem from feelings of anger and fear.  Real fear, because what the terrorists perpetrate is monstrous and must be condemned at every turn.  But there is also a cynical manipulation of fear too.  Populists are using words to paint images of hordes of rapacious outsiders stealing jobs, engaged in crime and sowing terror; stories with clear villains and easy fixes.  These are dangerous fabrications. If myths and conspiracy theories become more powerful than facts and consensus, our societies also risk falling into the poisonous soup of propaganda – with its shrug of moral equivalence, its corrupted compass, a soup of guilt-free hate and deadening ignorance masquerading as alternative thought, as cleverness.

The Russian dissident Gary Kasparov tweeted recently, "The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth."

To exhaust critical thinking; to annihilate truth. Is this not a direct attack on all seats of learning?  For what is a university, after all?  If not a place devoted to deeper thinking.  Universities represent aggregated knowledge, gathered from empirical research and deductive reasoning – spurred in the belief that knowledge is essential for the individual, and indispensible for social progress. Critical thinking is what you do; the truth is what you seek.  And in this, I think there is a direct congruence with human rights principles.

The right to education, to freedom of expression, information and opinion: these points of convergence are obvious.  It is also clear we in the human rights community believe in the expression of individual rights as the pivotal contribution to social progress. But in a broader sense, we also share a bedrock attachment to clarity and truth. Among the enormous range of activities undertaken by my Office has been our leadership or support to well over 40 Commissions of Inquiry and fact-finding missions in the past 15 years. Perhaps the best-known is the Commission of Inquiry on Syria; we are now also working to set up and support an international, impartial and independent mechanism on international crimes committed in Syria – and given the latest, barbaric, chemical attack, this now carries even greater significance. We seek to establish the facts about human rights violations – which means we often operate in a zone of official obfuscation or denial.  We do this because only clarity about the facts, respect and redress for victims and just punishment for the perpetrators can enable durable reconciliation – and the prevention of new cycles of conflict. 

I believe your active involvement with the core values of equality and truth underpins your mandate in the larger community, as it does our own. I'm aware of a few courses in human rights law and history taught here at Vanderbilt, but as with many other universities, I would like to learn how practical, how outwardly-focused they are.  

The incomparable Nelson Mandela called education "the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world".  Last September, I spoke at Utrecht University at a conference where the two great Covenants were being celebrated; pillars of an extensive portion of international human rights law. And I asked the audience – apart from your scholarly articles, are you in the media, in all forms of it, defending human rights? Are you brawling with trolls, relaying cases of injustice, combating stereotypes, lobbying for policy, challenging myths and lies? And the response: no, they were not.

Now I also accept all of us need to listen better, be less sanctimonious and admit our own mistakes.  Ultimately, however, these rights are also just too important for us to cede or give way easily.  Indeed, we must advocate for them vigorously – my institution, and yours. We simply cannot allow others to toss them onto some anarchic bonfire along with historical experience, legal landmarks, ethical principles, institutions and decency. And at such a critical time, the work of upholding human rights cannot be left to governments alone.  Universities must pitch in.  Yes, there may be a time and place for solely theoretical work on human rights, but this is not that time, not that place.

 I know that Vanderbilt has taken a leading role in a number of recent amicus briefs on behalf of foreign students. Chancellor Zeppos has advocated powerfully for the right to education, noting that his own grandfather arrived in this country illiterate, and that he owes his career to a system which offered opportunities to those less privileged.  This university now needs to lead a national movement for human rights.  From your key position in the American heartland, you need to seize the space for debate, to transform reality, shift minds.

Human rights is not, as some have argued, a boutique preoccupation of a privileged, lawyerly élite. Our work should not be twisted into this caricature. Upholding human rights means ensuring equal access for the poor and downtrodden to justice, to resources, to decent schools, health-care and jobs.  It is about clawing apart the steel trap of discrimination, which wounds and scars. It is about holding governments accountable to their people.

Law and accompanying principle are our most precious inheritances from past generations, and they are the most valuable legacy you will pass to your children – I hope. The human rights agenda emerged from tyranny, bloodshed and war, in a struggle that was desperate and arduous and filled with reversals. Will it be our generation who triggers a return to injustice, hate, war, imperialism, the extractive and oppressive exercise of naked power?  Will it be you?

Some weeks ago, it was reported that this winter, a crack had begun accelerating across one of the four largest ice shelves in Antarctica. Parts of the crack across the Larsen C shelf are now two miles wide, over 100 miles long, and the massive force prising apart this immense expanse of solid ice is picking up speed. Soon Larsen C will break apart – because ice is really not as solid as all that, just as nothing, perhaps, is as solid and secure as we wish it could be. And once Larsen C has broken and splintered, the glaciers behind it will be exposed – vulnerable to even greater and more catastrophic collapses.

The global institutions which protect us against chaos are cracking, splintering deeper by the day.  If they break, the price paid by humanity could well be so profound, we could be placed beyond recovery. There can be no peace, no development, no safety, no future for any of us if we allow the human rights of the people – all the people ­– to be broken apart.

So we will not wait.  We will move, and march.  We will pull ourselves and each other together.  We will not stop.  Many African countries saw a growing trend of abandoning the ICC, refused it, reversed it.  People in their tens of thousands stood up for principle on the 21st of January, and marched.  They marched for the human rights of women across the globe, and for the equality of all of us.  Because human rights – our cause, and your cause too – must be advanced through struggle. So join us, please. Stand up for human rights.