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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human Rights in a Turbulent World: Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Rights In A Turbulent World

17 May 2016

17 May 2016

Excellencies, Friends,
Thank you for this invitation to speak at Brookings, an institution I’ve always admired. It has been one hundred years since you began developing policy ideas to address national and global challenges.

Today the world, and this country, are caught up in a very tense and difficult period of history. The generation that lived through the horror of the Second World War – and which, in its aftermath, built a framework of laws and institutions to keep the peace -- is leaving the scene. We are witnessing policies and posturing that hark back to an earlier period. A period of unprincipled land-grabs and the shelling and strafing of defenceless cities. A period of brutal, nationalist bullies, scapegoating the vulnerable. A period marked by the strutting, boastful sneering of the demagogue, prepared to whip up violence if it will further his agenda.

Tolstoy tells us, in War and Peace, that it is a mistake to look back at history only as a series of clear decisions and sharply defined turning points. It is often, rather, a blur of shifting events, in which half-aware actors never fully grasp that they are making choices at all. Only with hindsight can we see with clarity that at some specific moment we teetered on the cusp of tragedy – not yet hurtling towards it, still able to pull back, and yet blindly swept on, caught up in the lethal churn of events.

My point today is to query whether, in a few years time, we will not be identifying the year 2016 as such a moment.

The task of learning to live together, in equality and justice, is humanity's oldest and most essential challenge. It is, very literally, the difference between life and death – between conflict and peace; between destruction and prosperity; between suffering and safety, pain and joy. And as the world lurches from one crisis to another, I suggest we take a closer look at this process, because when we achieve it – and this is a task that can, and frequently is, achieved – we do so with very practical steps.

How is security constructed? How do we build, piece by piece, the architecture of well-being and co-existence?  We need to begin by building trust. Rule of law institutions, which offer the confidence of impartial justice. Equality: every individual must be clear in the knowledge that regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, opinions, belief, caste, age or sexual orientation, her equal rights are fully acknowledged. Trust can only build up if government is transparent and accountable, and people must feel certain that they are entitled to contribute to all decisions in which they have a stake. We must ensure fundamental economic and social rights – such as the right to clean water, to education, to adequate health-care. The freedoms of expression, association and belief must prevail, together with strong and independent media, in order that people be fully informed and free to contribute ideas and experiences without fear of attack.

Step by step, these elements of justice, participation, conflict resolution and power-sharing build into a deep and broad  process of confidence, mutual respect and minimal, resolvable grievances. It is a process that embraces diversity and nourishes  the resilient bonds of human dignity. It is deeply principled -- because the value of human life is the same for all of us, and all of us deserve to live in such a way. And it is also the most effective way of governing, because human rights are not sappy notions but sound policy choices, which build strong, economically healthy societies where there is peace.

Nations thrive when they build institutions that empower their people and enable them to develop their full potential in freedom. That broad inclusion immunises society against violent conflict and extremism. But if we fail to maintain this architecture, allowing it to crumble, or to be picked apart, piece by piece, by profiteers, then we face nightmares. Places where an iron fist crushes all criticism. Where arbitrary violence and discrimination stands in place of law. Where hate bubbles up and is crushed into hiding, so that it festers and metastases into appalling, inhuman shapes. Where a régime kidnaps, tortures and murders children who scrawl slogans on the wall of their school; then fires on their parents and relatives, protesting their abduction; and goes on to shell and bomb millions of its own people, their fields of mulberry trees and the intricate mosaic of their neighbourhoods, into a blasted landscape of alienation and hate.

Conflict, discrimination, poverty, inequality and terrorism are mutually reinforcing man-made disasters that are hammering too many communities and individuals. They are constructed. They are contagious. This is true for all parts of the world, but we see a striking example in the Middle East: Spreading out from the destruction of Iraq and the tyranny of Syria, much of the region is now engulfed in violence, and this ferocity is further spreading, with severe extremist threats in almost every State. Widening outwards, to Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, we also see horrific abuse of human rights by terrorist groups that feed on the grievances of the people. Further repressing human rights is not a solution to these conflicts: it is a contributing cause.

The work of undoing this construction of conflict, and building in its place the processes which lead to human dignity, safety and peace, is the most urgent preoccupation of my Office. We exist to assist States to uphold the human rights norms that safeguard human dignity, and which States themselves laid down. Our aim is to build up both their will and their capacity to protect human rights, and to ensure accountability for any violations or abuses – in order to prevent future violations.
The unique value of our work rests on our dual role: we monitor – to identify and analyse problems -- and assist, to help those problems change. Through reporting, in-depth assessment and investigations, our field offices identify and prioritise the gaps in law and institutions that cause wrongful suffering to individuals – whether torture, land grabs, the oppression of women or discrimination against people because of ethnicity or caste. Then, based on that fact-finding work, we try to assist States to change those factors.

We train prison guards and police to question people without torture. We help judges apply the principles of fairness and rights that are upheld by binding international law, and to maintain fair trials and due process guarantees. We strengthen grassroots actors and amplify their voices, including minority and indigenous groups. We help to train military forces, especially when it becomes their duty to protect civilians. We build programs for human rights education. We develop technical cooperation programmes, guidelines and other tools that assist government officials and civil society to build legitimate and accountable democratic institutions and a diverse ecosystem of strong civil society actors and independent media.

In particular, policing and security forces must embody the rule of law – or fail. It is they who are often seen as the face of the State. When security forces act with contempt for people’s rights, treating them as enemies, then enemies are what they may become. Every act of torture contributes to extremism; and every arbitrary arrest and abusive crackdown – every act that represses civil society and legitimate dissent – is a step towards further violence.

This is the story of hundreds of quiet successes, some of them small, but all of them significant. Peace, development and human rights are built around each other, and this work, which builds, piece by piece, that triple architecture is deeply appreciated. My Office cannot respond to the many requests for our assistance, because of our miniscule resources. It is a continuing source of surprise and dismay for me to note the extraordinarily tiny budgets that we must rely on – and your help in changing that situation would be a meaningful step for the many people who count on our work.  

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. We can help them replace institutions that have been constructed to enable a political elite to monopolize power, to extract economic resources, and to act in detriment of the common good – because such institutions inevitably generate instability. Groups will struggle to seize that power, and the élites will live in fear of their own people; that fear will breed obsessive surveillance systems and mistrust, hampering every kind of progress including economic growth, and driving discrimination.

Respect for human rights offers States a path towards greater stability, not less. Dialogue and respect for human rights, including the rights of minorities, build confidence and loyalty as well as thriving political and economic institutions.

Conflict can be prevented. Peace, security and development can be built. Brick by brick. Equality.  Dignity. Participation. Respect.

Human rights are the DNA that links peace and development work. They are not expensive: they are priceless. They are not luxuries, for times of peace: they are the workhorses, the load-bearing bricks and mortar which build peace. Human rights prime the virtuous cycle of increasing freedom, increasing resilience, and greater security throughout the international system.

That is the essence of the mandate of the United Nations, and of my Office. From preventing torture to fighting discrimination and upholding the rights to education, housing and much more, it is the work we do. And our task today – your task, at Brookings, as you enter your second century -- becomes the need to strengthen the clarity and moral courage of our political leaders in supporting this work.

There is no time to lose.