Their dignity will be mine,
as it is yours
Essay on Human Rights and the
role of the United Nations
Ensaio sobre Direitos Humanos e o papel das Nações Unidas
I view the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a daunting challenge that I face personally, that the United Nations face collectively, to make our work in the field of human rights have true meaning. Collective effort is not only the best way to make a difference for those who need us most, it is the only way. It is individuals who will have my foremost attention during my term as High Commissioner. Their dignity will be mine, as it is yours.
Human rights are about ensuring dignity, equality and security for all human beings everywhere. These three formidable notions are at the core of our vision. They are closely interlinked. Dignity, which reflects both autonomy and responsibility, concerns the individual. Equality is the cornerstone of effective and harmonious relationships between people; it underpins our common systems of ethics and rights, whether we are discussing equality before the law or the need for equity in how States and international systems conduct their affairs. Neither dignity nor equality, of course, can take root in the absence of basic security.
These notions are not ideals and aspirations that are impossible to achieve. They translate into benchmarks to measure conduct. More than half a century of collective hard work has provided us with norms that provide content to these notions. We have a universal human rights framework embedded in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the two International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other core human rights treaties. These instruments have inspired provisions in many national constitutions and laws and led to the creation of long-term national infrastructures for the protection and promotion of human rights. Ensuring that these rights are attainable by those who need them most–the victims of human rights violations–is what gives the United Nations meaning.
It is, to be blunt, the only point behind our being here today. If the Commission on Human Rights, and my Office, cannot protect the weak, what value do they have? Dignity, equality and security require systems of justice that can maintain and uphold these values. I therefore intend to focus on justice and the consistent application of the rule of law as an overarching theme. This rich concept provides that law should operate as an instrument to protect the dignity and worth of the human person, not as a tool to permit arbitrary rule or cruelty or an abdication of a State’s basic responsibilities towards its citizens.
We will address violations, whether deliberate or the result of lack of awareness, weak structures or insufficient resources. We will help States to integrate and implement the international norms that they have framed–and that they have accepted–through treaties’ ratification, even as it is States that must fully assume their responsibilities to uphold human rights. We will urge them to bring human rights fully to their people and to advance their national protection systems. We will work with leaders and officials, the judiciary, national parliaments, national human rights commissions and with civil society. We can help educate and build capacity, we can assist, we can exhort, and we will speak up when necessary to ensure that excesses are remedied: one thing we must not do is compromise on our end goal.
Let me now say a word about terrorism and the measures that are taken by States to address this scourge. Although terrorism is not a new phenomenon, any discussion of this subject nowadays must begin with what happened last year, on 11 September. The victims of those horrific attacks have a basic right to justice. This traumatic episode must be looked at unequivocally by all as one of the more repugnant instances in which the rights of the innocent were trampled on without pity. We owe it to them that we all respond with determination and vigour to end the evil of terrorism. We must also recognize that States have not only a right, but a duty to protect their citizens from such forms of international crime. A brutal attack and an exceptional threat may require an extraordinary and unequivocal response.
But these measures must be taken in transparency, they must be of short duration, and must respect the fundamental non-derogable rights embodied in our human rights norms. They must take place within the framework of the law. Without that, the terrorists will ultimately win and we will ultimately lose–as we would have allowed them to destroy the very foundation of our modern human civilization. I am convinced that it is possible to fight this menace at no cost to our human rights. Protecting our citizens and upholding rights are not incompatible: on the contrary, they must go firmly together lest we lose our bearing.
We have also to work on other pressing sources of insecurity. Armed conflict, discrimination, poverty and ignorance to name but only some of the major ones. Rights have no meaning, however–and you cannot be secure–if your family starves, or if you cannot protect yourself or those closest to you from the most preventable or easily curable illnesses, or provide your children with basic education. This is a truism, just as it is to say that rights have no meaning if your life is held to have no value or your voice is perpetually silenced.
To deny someone’s dignity is to humiliate them. We need to be acutely aware of this: ‘more so than I think we already are. To be humiliated risks insecurity. It is a needless risk; it achieves nothing that is positive. If people are stripped of their sense of their own decency–whether physically or psychologically, by omission or intentional act–or if they lack or are denied basic recognition either as an individual or as a people, or are denied their most fundamental entitlement to live in safety, the result is loss of confidence, lethargy, despair, radicalization. In such scenarios–and we see this all too often–lives are lived that are full of nothing but anger and years of missed opportunities. In other words, we need to look at security in its broadest sense, not only within an explicit framework of the indivisibility of rights, not only as a condition free from violence and terror, but also recognizing our growing inter-connectedness in a globalized world.
We need to bring security to all individuals and peoples around the globe by protecting their rights to life, to identity, to liberty, to think freely and believe whatever they want; their rights not to fear torture or exile or arbitrary detention; their rights to express themselves, to associate peacefully, to move freely within their country and return to it; their basic right to development; their rights to primary education and to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being–adequate, in other words, to bring them, and us all, dignity. This will never be achieved other than through mutual pacts, among individuals, communities, States and regions.
A full range of human rights violations are invariably revealed during conflict; not just violations of the rights of those directly involved, but also the indirect–and more far-reaching–impact on security, stability and economic and social progress. Throughout my career, I have seen men and women, young and old, stripped of their rights and their dignity as a result of conflict. I am determined that we work together to see that humanitarian law is fully implemented and that we move forward urgently to develop and enhance the frameworks and strategies needed to protect civilians caught in the maelstrom.
We need to bring closer together human rights and humanitarian issues. The plight of refugees and the internally displaced must not be seen as falling only under the rubric of the latter. We must provide intergovernmental bodies that have international legal supervisory mandates with unequivocal political backing and resolve. They are entrusted by States with the ultimate and overarching t ask of ensuring that international law is upheld.
I would like to see human rights truly at the centre of peace agreements, of our efforts to prevent conflict and of our peacekeeping endeavours. No peace is real unless the most fundamental concerns of justice are realized. On how many occasions, including in recent times, have alarming signals of human rights violations been ignored with only the resulting crimes against humanity waking us all from inertia? The establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) marks a major landmark in this regard; however I can within my remit, I will work to assist in ensuring that the ICC is well supported and in a position to achieve its stated aims, free from manipulation and in the absence of all other judicial avenues. It is to me axiomatic that for those who commit the most heinous crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, there must be genuine international accountability. The concerns of all States, particularly those who lead the struggle for justice, have been–or can be–accommodated. I w ould also like us to be equipped to assist societies emerging from conflict to build democratic, representative, participatory and accountable institutions to heal their wounds, to work for reconciliation and ensure a credible process of accountability for the serious crimes and violations committed during conflict.
I know all too well from our work in Kosovo and East Timor how onerous this task is, but I also know how vital and worthy of support it is. Frequently, a conflict has its origins in patterns of discrimination. We need to address these basic root causes through advancing the principle of equality. We need to strengthen our work on this bedrock of justice that is at the core of all human rights. We need to pay particular attention to racial discrimination, minority rights, indigenous rights, the rights of the disabled–for too long an area that has gone unaddressed–children’s rights, and gender equality.
The question of the rights of women merits specific and energetic focus: I shall make it one of my priorities. My experience in East Timor (now Timor-Leste), as with other places, has taught me that it is all too often women who forge the greatest drive for peace in conflict-ravaged societies. They are, as a rule, a source of restraint, reason, reconciliation, stability and democracy. While great progress has been made in the last decade to place women’s rights high on the human rights agenda, much is still to be desired, particularly at the national level. The basic treaty in the field, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), has wide reach with some 170 ratifications. At the same time, the problems that it addresses have exceptional depth and complexity.
We need all the above–and more–and we will seek to do it, but we cannot do it alone. We need to work with all members of the human rights family and expand it. I will work with the Secretary-General, whose trust and political leadership will be paramount, and in close solidarity with my colleagues in the Secretariat and throughout the United Nations system, with other intergovernmental and regional organizations, and with the media. The role of the business community will also be of particular importance.
But let me single out two actors: States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We will work in partnership with States. I can never repeat it enough: the primary responsibility to promote and protect rights lies with them. In recent years, States have started to realize and accept that sovereignty is a responsibility that not only provides rights but also entails duties to those living under their jurisdiction, as well as to the international community as a whole. They have, in the words of one recent report, a “responsibility to protect”. My Office will be supportive and constructive, assuming good faith on all sides even and particularly when disagreements arise.
We will continue to work with NGOs. My experience in many countries left me with deep appreciation for the irreplaceable contribution, on the frontlines of our endeavours, that international, regional and national NGOs have made to enhance respect of rights, whether they are working on human rights, humanitarian or development issues. It is hard to imagine where we would be now without their expertise, energy and dedication.
In his report of 23 September on the second phase of his reform, the Secretary-General has highlighted the importance of international cooperation in assisting States to establish or strengthen national systems for the promotion and protection of human rights. He also places emphasis on the efficient servicing of Special Rapporteurs of the Commission and of the treaty bodies. These bodies constitute the backbone of the UN human rights system and their deliberations must undoubtedly be considered as the basis upon which all other developments must proceed.
Another area on which I intend to place emphasis is in enhancing our capacity to communicate our message. Human rights are not lust for discussion in rarefied chambers. Human rights have universal ownership; we must make this rhetoric a reality. Despite impressive efforts in the past years, the level of awareness of the work of the numerous components of the UN human rights machinery remains alarmingly low. And this is particularly true for the targets of our efforts: the systems and individuals who violate rights, and those who have their rights violated. Only recently, it was eloquently put to me that our universal human rights should be as well known by children in the most impoverished and remote regions of the world as by our brightest students at our best universities. We need to find innovative ways of multiplying the impact of our work and ensuring that it is more vigorously supported by the public at large.
The Commission on Human Rights is central to United Nations action to promote and protect human rights. As one of the oldest UN intergovernmental bodies, it has a history of solid achievement in both defining the content of international human rights norms and in their promotion and protection. But that is not enough-far from it. The Commission remains a vital international forum for discussion of human rights issues. In particular, it continues in its role as the pre-eminent drafter of international rights instruments, as evidenced by the adoption this year of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, as well as by the decision to commence consideration next year of an Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The effective functioning of the Commission is a legitimate concern for all of its participants-and more importantly for all those who rely on it, consciously or otherwise-for the protection of their basic entitlements as it continues its quest to promot e the indivisibility of human rights by devoting increased attention to economic, social and cultural rights. We will support this process-this logical imperative-to the fullest extent of my and my Office’s capacities. We will work toward the realization of the right to development so that all can fully seize their entitlements to participate in, contribute to and enjoy such systemic rights, just as much as we will work with you to ensure their civil and political rights.
Another balance to be struck in the work of the Commission is that between its protection and promotion roles. The protection role of the Commission is one of its core functions and one that calls for measurable results. The importance and effectiveness of its protection work is evidenced by the ever-increasing size and sophistication of its system of special procedures. However, protection goes hand in hand with promotion and we must stand ready to respond to requests by Member States for the provision of advisory services, in particular as a consequence of deliberations of human rights organs, as long as they are not a substitute for tangible improvements to domestic situations. Equally, the Commission must live up to its responsibilities and be prepared to call an abuse an abuse wheresoever these occur.
What I am saying is not revelatory. It is nothing more than a reaffirmation of the obvious: human rights go to the heart of our collective sense of humanity, as well as of our sense of politics, in its original Greek meaning: a social order that is for one and all. It goes to the heart of how we want to see ourselves and of the ideal we are striving to attain: we should not-must not-shy away from idealism. Whatever our culture, we share a common impulse to improve the individual and the common good. We often codify this ideal aspiration in our national laws, just as we do in our international laws. This vision of human rights as the fundamental and most commonly understood prism through which we view our own humanity is the central guide for all our work.
In other words, we know where we are heading. By now we should all be in agreement. Disagreements we must view within that framework. Discussion will only get us so far; action will get us further. You will find in me a tireless and an honest partner in helping to achieve that end. This privilege that the Secretary-General and the General Assembly have given me is one that I do not take lightly. A special word goes to human rights defenders, particularly at the national level: you will find in me a friend and ally who is willing to act to protect your rights. Equally, however, my sense of responsibility is outweighed by a sense of excitement. We are, once again, at a crossroads: we will make the most of it and regret nothing. Unless we aim for the seemingly unattainable, we risk settling for mediocrity.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2000. He was Special Representative of the Secretary-General and UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor from 1999 to 2002. Mr. Vieira de Mello also served as Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and as Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees.
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