Commission’s structures are sound, problems can be surmounted, high commissioner says as main UN human rights body ends session
25 April 2003
Texto do pronunciamento de Sergio Vieira de Mello durante o encerramento da 59ª sessão da comissão para direitos humanos da ONU em 25 de abril de 2003
Following is the full text of the statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira De Mello to the closing meeting of the fifty-ninth Session of the Commission on Human Rights on 25 April 2003. The High Commissioner delivered a shorter version of the statement due to time constraints.
Madam Chairperson, Excellencies, Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations, Human Rights Defenders, and Members of the Press,
It is a very clever idea to have the Commission begin in winter and end in spring. We end the Commission in the season of new beginnings.
In the practical spirit of a working commission, I will keep my remarks today both concise and, I hope, constructive, conscious, as I acutely am, that this is my first Commission and that I therefore lack historical perspective.
First, let me thank Madame Najat Al-Hajjaji for her work chairing this commission and managing its difficult, at times slippery agenda. She is a consummate professional, with great dignity and evenness of temperament. Madame Najat, please accept my gratitude for your excellent work.
I would also like to thank the secretariat and all the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) conference services support staff, translators, précis writers, security and, last but by no means least, our interpreters, whose professionalism and generous flexibility I applaud. Many of these are from my office as well as UNOG, so perhaps it is not for me to thank them. But I cannot let their devotion and sometimes superhuman attention to detail go unremarked upon. It is a great pleasure to be amazed by the talents of your own staff; they are exemplary international civil servants. It is, of course, not just Sergei Ordzhonikidze’s and my good fortune but that of governments and nongovernmental organizations to have the able staff we do, in the field as well as here in Geneva. From my faithful deputy, Bertie Ramcharan, to our offices around the world, my staff daily demonstrate their independence, integrity and objectivity, despite regrettable intimations to the contrary in one resolution of this Commission. It will be a privilege to work with them as we carry forward our mandates in the coming year.
All of you have accomplished much in this 59th session. The high-level segment was, in my view, extremely successful. The number of dignitaries, including many at the ministerial level, attending the Commission has reached past seventy. This Commission has become their premier global forum to develop the human rights consensus, and that is a fact to be celebrated as well as to be cherished.
It is easy to see why they come. This is the center ring. There is not a single major human rights issue that is not brought to this forum by governments, nongovernmental organizations, national institutions, special rapporteurs or independent experts. Governments take note of these issues; journalists report them; civil society plays the critical role of defending the underdog. All this, too, we must nurture.
Interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteurs provided a remarkable forum for both rapporteurs and governments. Country and thematic rapporteurs have demonstrated their great value over many years now, but this was the first year in which that contribution had been so brought to life in the Commission’s meeting itself. The dialogues brought the mechanisms and substance of protecting and promoting human rights into your work here, and helped keep the discussion from becoming too distant from the real lives of victims of human-rights denials and abuses. As High Commissioner, I place great value on the work of our independent Special Rapporteurs and other special procedures. Their efforts are vital and often courageous. To help them carry out the mandates you give them, and in line with the emphasis placed by the Secretary-General on special procedures in his second report on reform of the Secretariat, I have created – using existing resources – a dedicated Special Procedures Branch to provide them with better support in the pursuit of their mandates.
Similarly, if on a different plane, national institutions found this year a greater place within your schedule of deliberations that reflects their absolutely critical, and visibly growing, role in advancing the cause of human rights. I would suggest that next year the Commission might bring both the special procedures and national institutions into their schedule earlier, and accord to the national institutions the time, importance and attention they deserve.
The Commission has negotiated and passed an impressive set of resolutions, particularly of a thematic kind. We have encouraging resolutions on, for example: human rights defenders; women’s equal right to land and housing; good governance; impunity; and torture. The rule of law has been strengthened by your adoption of a resolution on independence of the judiciary. Item 9 once again proved its usefulness by giving the Commission a way to urge improvements by individual states. There has been increased use of treaty bodies and special procedures in the resolutions: that, too, is a positive development.
The success of such basic Commission structures should be celebrated by all of us. Conversely, the Commission has had its setbacks. We must strive for greater unity on how to deal with human rights. To help move us in that direction, I would like to venture some remarks on how to improve the deliberations of the Commission and the work that occurs between sessions.
Let me take the second issue first. I believe that our experience this year shows that the better resolutions are prepared, the better they are. Preparation takes time. And so I would urge you to consider having more discussions, however informal they may be, prior to the Commission’s meeting. Now may be the wrong moment to talk about more work. I simply hope everyone will remember next year what a difference advance preparation can make in leading to more successful resolutions and, therefore, less divisive debates and wasted effort. My office will provide whatever help it can, appropriate to our mandate.
By the same token, there needs to be improved follow-up on Commission resolutions after the session has ended. My office will be looking for ways to better measure the implementation of resolutions so that they do not become dead letters. The Commission must mean what it says, and we must help you to achieve that goal. The proof of its seriousness must be in the tangible effects of its resolutions.
This brings me to what, in my opinion, has been a cause for concern at this Commission: a lack of directness and openness. In addressing this, I will myself be direct, trusting that you will take my remarks in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. Let me suggest, first of all, that the word “politicization” and its variants be retired from active service. I have used the word myself, so I will try to lead by example. Let me be frank: most of the people in this room work for governments or seek to affect the actions of governments. That is politics.
For some to accuse others of being political is a bit like fish criticizing one another for being wet. The accusation hardly means anything anymore. It has become a way to express disapproval without saying what is really on our mind. The Commission could use with plainer speaking. This, rather than charges of politicization, will truly help us get beyond politics to the strengthening of human rights in all countries.
The accusation of politicization is related to another phenomenon I believe the Commission would be better off without. I have heard in these halls some resolutions and statements referred to as “traditional denunciations” that feature in each and every Commission. I would suggest to you that when a denunciation has become traditional the Commission needs to take a longer, harder look at why that has come to pass. You may find that such language should perhaps be abandoned or revised. Maybe something new will be more effective.
Some language, traditional or not, ought to be abandoned entirely: those words that serve no purpose other than to shock and offend – and which should have no place in this chamber.
We should also take a harder look at repetitive language: those various paragraphs that recur each year mainly because no one can be mobilized to retire them. This can give the impression, to people observing your proceedings from a distance, that the Commission is, at least on some issues, stuck in an earlier time.
In other instances, the Commission has not succeeded in finding consensus language. What we have seen too often in this Commission is one side floating a resolution and the other side sinking it. On occasion, this has come close to making a virtue out of the failure to reach consensus: en effet, la politique du pire. This is not, to say the least, the most effective way of operating; it means running the risk of gravely weakening the Commission’s purpose, because it leads to a perception of hypocrisy, cynicism and resignation. The topics being dealt with are of surpassing seriousness. There really is nothing more serious than the protection of human rights. Yet at times I have felt that, in the course of competitive debate, delegates were losing sight of the noble goal of protecting human rights, in the very body whose duty it is to promote them. Such moments were, of course, the exception not the rule. Still, they must be addressed, because of an intrinsic obligation to do so, but also to guard the Commission’s image before the global public.
Finally, there is the question of balance, or fairness. When a charge of partiality – of failure to recognize the indivisibility of human rights – destroys a resolution on an important question, this is not to be celebrated. It is a disaster. It is a failure to take up the burden. At worst, it may even be a betrayal of the hopes of people who desperately need you. It would appear that some very controversial topics of past Commissions have been dealt with this year. That should provide us all with the confidence that today’s controversies can be resolved as well.
I feel certain that the problems of this year’s Commission are surmountable. Pessimism is abdication. It confirms the opinion of those who seek to discredit multilateralism and international law. I feel confident because, at the end of the day, these are not structural problems of the Commission on Human Rights. The structures are sound. Results are improving. Acceptance of the importance of human rights continues to grow. The responsibility to protect human rights, held by both states and the international community, is increasingly seen as a central aspect of the rule of law. Human rights instruments gain ever more acceptance – and here I would like to recognize the five states who recently agreed to issue a standing invitation to the special procedures, bringing the total of such invitations to forty-seven.
I feel fortunate that my first Commission should have so many advances and accomplishments to its credit. I hope that governments and non-governmental organizations will join me in looking ahead to the next Commission and working with you, Madam, and with the Expanded Bureau to bring about further procedural and substantive improvements to your work.
As to my office, I expect to bring you much news in a year’s time. With your support, here and in New York, we hope to make the office have a much greater impact in the field and in the building of national protection systems. In advancing the mechanisms of this Commission and through other efforts, we hope to further the rule of law. We will quicken our response time to emergencies, in the knowledge that rapid protection is also prevention. We will spread the culture of human rights through media and education, with the intention of taking human rights beyond the law books and these walls into the popular culture of new generations. In a season of new beginnings, my staff and I will turn with renewed purpose to the work to which we are all dedicated.
Thank you all very much.