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Statements Commission on Human Rights

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31 March 2000

Commission on Human Rights
56th session
20 March

High Commissioner, distinguished delegates,

This morning, the chairing of the Commission on Human Rights passes to my successor. As I step down, I would like to do two things. Firstly, to give you an account of my stewardship during the inter-sessional period and secondly, to share a few valedictory reflections.

The Inter-Sessional Period

At the outset, I would like to express my thanks to the High Commissioner and her team. I saw close up during the year the High Commissioner’s tremendous courage and commitment. I also benefited greatly from the advice and assistance of the Deputy High Commissioner, the Commission secretary Ms. Ize-Charrin, and many other members of the Office staff.

I knew by the end of the last session that I was fortunate in my Bureau. The experience of the inter-sessional period has amply confirmed that. The Vice Presidents - Ambassador Simkhada of Nepal, Ambassador Padilla Menendez of Guatemala, Ambassador Baumanis of Latvia - and the Rapporteur Mr. Raouf Chatty of Tunisia, were unstinting in their efforts and commitment throughout the year. We met on all occasions as an expanded Bureau and were able to draw fully on the wisdom of the regional co-ordinators: Ambassador Morjane of Tunisia, Ambassador Palihakkara of Sri Lanka, Ambassador Skogmo of Norway and then Ambassador Fuller of the U.K. I am deeply grateful to all the members of the team and to the colleagues in their missions who assisted them.

As a Bureau, we tried to be engaged, active and at all times transparent. We met fifteen times inter-sessionally; minutes of our discussions were made available on all occasions. We debated all the issues that came to our attention during the 55th session and left a legacy in the form of a Reflections document which we have passed to our successors.

We sought to strengthen the links within the ECOSOC family - in meetings with the Bureau of ECOSOC and in contacts with other Bureaus, notably the Commission on the Status of Women.

Our biggest challenge came on the issue of a special session on East Timor. As I said at the time, none of us - irrespective of our views on the substance - would have wished for the procedural complications that arose. Within the Bureau, we sought to deal with the issues fairly, as a team who fully trusted each other even when our views diverged.

I tried to bring the same attitudes of openness and fairness in discharging the responsibilities that fell specifically to me as Chair. I appointed five Rapporteurs in the course of the year, all to important posts and some to extremely sensitive ones. I believe all five are individuals of integrity and substance. They come from countries belonging to different regional groups: 2 from GRULAC and 1 each from Africa, Asia and Europe. There are three men and two women.

I tried also to be available to everyone who wished to have contact with the Chair. Among others, I had discussions with the Rapporteurs at their annual meeting, the Chairs of the Treaty Bodies, the Sub-Commission and the NGO consultative forum. More formal contacts were supplemented by a range of informal contacts with individual rapporteurs and individual or small groups of NGOs.

I learned a great deal in all my contacts. My respect has grown further for human rights defenders around the world who have such strength and courage but also - as the year has shown - are often so vulnerable. I hope it will prove possible to take concrete steps during this session to strengthen their protection.

The chairing of the Working Group on Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Mechanisms was a separate but related task. I will have the opportunity at a later stage to comment in more detail. But I would refer back to my closing remarks at the end of the session last year. I said then : "All of us have a huge interest in seeing that the working group we established succeeds. It can become a meeting ground or a battle ground; the choice is ours".

We made our choice on 11 February when the Working Group agreed its report by consensus. Inevitably it is a compromise document, leaving some hopes unfulfilled. There is more work to be done in the future. But acknowledging the need for future work should not lead us to undervalue what has been achieved. The choice we have made - to meet each other on common ground - will I hope begin a new chapter in the Commission, enabling us to leave behind some of the tensions over working methods which have characterised recent sessions.

In looking back at the inter-sessional period, I also want to mention the important progress made in relation to children’s rights - the subject of our special dialogue last year. Work on the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict has been brought to fruition and a successful outcome seems within reach on the Optional Protocol on Sale of Children. These will be landmark achievements, owing a great deal to the skill and determination of the Chairs of the two Working Groups.

Relevance and credibility of the Commission

The question that continues to challenge all of us, and in a particular way every Chairperson, is how to assure the relevance and credibility of this Commission. That is the issue on which I would like to address a few valedictory remarks.

The theme I suggested at the outset of the 55th session was “taking responsibility”. The past year has reminded us - if we needed reminding - that defining and meeting those responsibilities is sometimes neither easy nor comfortable. Shifting the burden elsewhere will always be a seductive option. But the United Nations is truly the indispensable organisation. As custodian of universal values, ours is a unique responsibility.

The minimum credibility of this body requires that we acknowledge the problems where they exist, that the victims of human rights violations know that we are not blind and deaf to their suffering, and that as a global body we do whatever is possible to reinforce the mechanisms that may be available at national and regional level.

We need to find a better marriage between deep solidarity with those who are suffering and a rigorous objectivity in analysis and in framing solutions. It is a sad comment on our culture that the term "bleeding heart" should have become a pejorative one. It ought not to be so - there are acts of cruelty and inhumanity which should make every heart bleed. I believe the NGOs have much to teach us in the vocabulary of empathy.

But empathy is only the starting point. The credibility and effectiveness of this body requires the most exacting professionalism . The output of the session must be built on reliable and accurate information. The responses we offer must be adapted to the requirements of specific situations. The special mechanisms must work to the highest standards, and must be resourced to do so.

And the selectivity question is one we cannot ignore. At the end of the last session, I said "I still feel without a convincing answer to charges of selectivity on the part of this Commission. I also believe we need to challenge ourselves to ensure that the moral outrage rightly provoked by the Kosovo crisis does not become blunted when we confront conflict situations in other parts of the world."

I would make the same point as strongly today, as the 56th session opens under the shadow of another conflict in Europe.

There may be genuine reasons to differentiate between situations in terms of analysis and response. We should recognise such reasons where they exist. But we need to be clear as to the ground on which we stand. If a discomfort about criticising the powerful nations of the world is sufficient to blunt our conscience, then that is bound to be corrosive of the authority of this Commission.

There is also another type of selectivity I had in mind in speaking last year - the selectivity that is so easily induced by the arbitrariness of media coverage of situations of human rights abuse. If suffering seems to matter to us less when it is far away, when it is borne by the poorest and those with least access to power and publicity, then what claim do we have to cherish human life equally ? Being forgotten by the media must not mean being forgotten by the Commission on Human Rights.

Despite the setbacks, I profoundly believe that history is on the side of human rights. Women and men in every part of the world are asserting more strongly than ever before the sense of human worth and the claim to human dignity. The communications revolution, and the slow but steady development of international law are among the most powerful agents of change. The challenge to our Commission is to help shape rather than follow the process. It is perhaps salutary to remind ourselves that being on the wrong side of our conscience may also mean being on the wrong side of history.

In the end, the responsibilities go beyond the professional to the personal. Many of you will remember that last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC mounted an exhibition on humanitarian law in the hallway outside this room. Each morning, on my way to the Chair’s office behind the podium, I passed a particular display. One photograph with an accompanying quotation kept catching my eye. It was a photograph of a conflict survivor and the quotation was "During the war, each man has to act as a human being for himself, because he must live with himself after the war".

The Commission of course is not a war and we should not treat it as such. But the imperative is the same - to be true to human values so that we can live with ourselves into the future, when our professional responsibilities have come to an end.

I would like to thank all of you for the honour to my country and the trust you placed in me. Chairing the Commission on Human Rights has been the greatest privilege of my diplomatic career.