Membership entails responsibility
Interview with Sergio Vieira de Mello, 22 April 2003
Entrevista com Sergio Vieira de Mello para Human Rights Features, joint Venture formada pela Asia Pacific Human Rights Network e Alto Comissariado de DH da ONU por ocasião da 59º reunião da comissão de direitos humanos
A SEASONED UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello‘s 33-year long career included stints in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Bangladesh, Sudan, Peru, Cyprus, Mozambique and Lebanon. He also served as Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Cambodia, Director of Repatriation for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), Head of Civil Affairs of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR), as well as United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Great Lakes region of Africa. A major part of his career was spent at the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees; he was appointed Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees in 1996 and promoted to Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. In 1999 he served as the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Kosovo until his appointment as head of the UN’s operations in East Timor.
In September 2002, Mr. Vieira de Mello was appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a job he described at the beginning of his tenure as a “political minefield”.
It is a minefield he appears willing to negotiate, albeit carefully, conscious of the need to balance the sensitivities of States with the task at hand – that of promoting and protecting human rights. With States showing an increased reluctance to take – and dish out – opprobrium when it comes to violations of human rights, the High Commissioner’s recent initiatives just might help steer the debate back on track.
In an interview with Human Rights Features, the High Commissioner spoke about some of these initiatives, about the mainstreaming of human rights, and the application of human rights standards in conflict and post-conflict situations…
Human Rights Features (HRF): The first thing that we want to ask you about is the nascent debate on criteria for the membership of the CHR. How do you look at that debate evolving and is something actually going to come out of it substantively?
High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello (HC): First of all, I don’t use the term ‘criteria’ because governments have in fact objected to that, and I understand why. What I have used is the word ‘minimum standards.’ Why? Because I believe that membership entails responsibilities, particularly in a Commission such as ours. Therefore aspiring to membership or becoming a member entails, as a minimum – in my opinion, and I may be wrong! – ratifying all core human rights conventions, translating those into national legislation and extending a standing invitation to all special procedures which, after all, are the creation of the very commission.
So if you are a member the least one could expect is that you cooperate with your own creation, with your ‘children’, as it were. So, that’s the minimum, I think, we can expect member states to achieve. There could be additional ones like freeing all political prisoners, or human rights defenders, or people who express free opinion to the extent that it does not tantamount to violent speech or hate speech. I think one could add many additional expectations to the list but I would say as a minimum: ratification, implementation and standing invitations.
HRF: In terms of the initial reactions to the discussion that you have been having on minimum standards, what has been the kind of feedback you have got from amongst the various regional groups?
HC: Benevolent silence from the majority, some objections even from developed countries, particularly on the question of ratification, as you can imagine; not all Western democracies have ratified all core human rights instruments. But I would say by and large, positive responses from the majority of members of most regional groups. Whether that will then lead to the membership actually adopting those minimum standards remains to be seen, but I will certainly push for it.
HRF: In terms of the interregnum between the Commission and the next session of ECOSOC and the General Assembly how do you feel this debate can be kept on the front burner rather than going back on the backburner until the next Commission?
HC: With your help, with the help of non-governmental organisations, with help of national institutions. You’ve just given me a good idea, I think I could raise this tomorrow morning at this meeting of national institutions that I will address. I think that pressure must come from within. It’s no good my repeating what I just told you between now and ECOSOC or the General Assembly. I think we need pressure from civil society at the national level.
HRF: Moving on to your implementation of many of the recommendations from the Secretary General’s long-term perspective on how it’s got to be restructured: one of the key areas of emphasis is on national protection systems, and clearly national institutions are going to play a major role in that national protection framework. How do you see the work now in the Office itself in terms of restructuring and of priorities that national institutions will have?
HC: National institutions are obviously a backbone of any plan aimed at consolidating national protection systems. You have read the Kapila recommendations. Not all of them will necessarily be implemented. Or perhaps let me rephrase that: we will implement most of them, but not necessarily in the fashion Mukesh Kapila recommended. But the most important recommendation from Mukesh is that the country team must feel it shares the responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights at the country level, and that obviously includes support from the country team to the national human rights commission in those sectors for which each agency, programme or fund has a particular responsibility. Now, to achieve that, I don’t need to tell you that that is easier said than done. Step One is to get the UN Development Group behind this new approach. And what I’m planning to do – I have written to Mark Malloch Brown last week – is to address UNDG on the 24th which is by no means an ideal date because it is the day on which the SG will be here. So I will probably have to do it by video conference, they will be meeting in Paris. And I will present, not the Kapila report – because the Mukesh Kapila report is one element in a broader equation – but rather this new approach to country-level activities. Basically, what I will be requesting from my colleagues in the UN Development Group is that they adopt this new approach as theirs, i.e., it is not just my responsibility as High Commissioner for Human Rights to promote human rights; it is the responsibility of the system as a whole. And I have the Secretary General behind that. I would suggest that that is the central theme in the Kapila report, which I will try and market to the rest of the system.
HRF: The Secretary General, in an earlier initiative, attempted to mainstream human rights across the UN agencies by using focal points on human rights in the UNDP office, as well as the HURIST programme initiative. How would this be something that is value added to the existing programme or go beyond that?
HC: It is far from me to suggest that what was done earlier was not useful. And I think a lot of progress has been made, if you compare the present state of affairs from what I remember from five or ten years ago. The whole concept of mainstreaming has been successful, perhaps in some areas more than others. It is easier to mainstream in the sectors of health and education than it might be in others.
But I think the approach now is different; it’s no longer focal points at headquarter levels at country level, it no longer a specific project such as HURIST, it is a change of policy at the country level, a different approach by the resident coordinator and the country team to human rights as a cross-cutting concern of the system as a whole. Now I am not saying that this would be easily implemented but I am rather confident that with Secretary General’s personal commitment and support, it will work to overcome resistance, as everywhere else, especially in the UN when you foster change.
HRF: High Commissioner, just to take you away from the CHR a little: we saw the press statement that you put out on the humanitarian crisis and need for greater care in Iraq. Given the political difficulties with that whole question, how do you think one would approach the human rights aspects of the crisis and use that as perhaps one way of ventilating the other major difficulties?
HC: Part of my answer you will hear on Hardtalk later this evening. But let me say first of all that I have regretted the fact that human rights was not a central concern in the Security Council deliberations on Iraq.
You will see in an op-ed that should come out in the next few days that I’m basically suggesting that human rights should be one of the, shall I call it, ‘indicators’ on the Security Council’s ‘checklist’, as it were.
Why? Because I am convinced that a regime that can grossly violate the rights of its own people is ipso facto a threat to its neighbours and to regional and international peace and security.
Since you are asking about Iraq, let me regret that human rights were never – contrary to other countries – a central preoccupation of the Security Council. Weapons were, disarmament was. But why not human rights?
Secondly, you know as I do that apart from humanitarian assistance, which needs no mandate from the Security Council, other UN activities in Iraq will require a UN mandate. So my answer to you is that our role, our Office’s role in Iraq will very much depend on what the Security Council decides to give the UN as a mandate, if any, in the case of Iraq.
Now, we can do many things, in addition monitoring in the preventive sense. We can do what this Office has done in other similar situations or is planning to do in other countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi or Sri Lanka which is: support the constitutional process as Mary Robinson did with me in East Timor. I benefited, I and the constitutional assembly in East Timor benefited greatly from her suggestions and inputs, and we can do the same, obviously, in Iraq as well.
We can be of assistance with others – of assistance in partnership with others- in creating a new justice system, not just for gross human rights violations of the past but a functioning and fair system of justice for the Iraqis, which is a pillar of any democratic form of government.
We can do a lot more than that: we can provide education, training to new institutions such as the new police, the new penitentiary system. We can also play a useful role in ensuring that the Iraqi media – written, radio, television – will in the future provide the Iraqi people with what they haven’t had in such a long time, with objective and free, responsible information which is key, as you know, in terms of restoring a culture of tolerance and respect for human rights.
So the list is very long; again it will very much depend on the Security Council’s mandate and, secondly, on resources. And we should be careful not to try to do more than we can deliver.
HRF: You are going to Palestine shortly, and it is extremely difficult given the logjam at the political level. Do you think that a stronger human rights focus would help clear the air in terms of the political process? How do you see the agenda for your visit?
HC: First of all, I am not visiting only Palestine. I’m also visiting Israel and possibly one or two countries in the region. Secondly, it is very difficult to establish a causal link between a focus on human rights and the peace process.
If I had to establish one from the pragmatic point of view, I would say that a recommitment to the Quartet plan and an early release of the famous roadmap, that is, a refocusing of attention on the political peace process is the only way we can bring the tension down, bring the bitterness down, restore hope and a broader sense of security, not just narrow security but security in the sense of my opening statement to the Commission on 17 March.
Therefore I would suggest that my visit should be seen as an incentive to both sides to transcend short-term preoccupations and recommit themselves to long-term peace goals. But my visit per se will not bring about, I’m afraid, any significant change in the situation on the ground without the peace process being first resurrected.
HRF: In terms of the difficulties that the Special Procedures are facing on discussion, on shifting items from Item 9 to Item 19, of access to and resources – this is clearly a major problem that you are going to address. How do you think this is going to be done internally, with states as well as in terms of the Commission itself?
HC: First of all, I think the Special Procedures have a lot of credibility and, in fact, give credibility to the Commission. They are, I would say, the standing tools, the permanent tools, of the Commission which only meets once a year, a sort of operational capacity that the Commission has for monitoring respect for human rights all over the world on a permanent basis.
Hence my appeal to all governments which whom I have met since my appointment to issue standing invitations to the Special Procedures and not to demonise them. I say this to each and every government I have met with, including this very morning – I won’t tell you with whom! They should take the Special Procedures as a constructive, critical approach to imperfect human rights standards at the national level, not as a threat or as accusatory mechanisms.
So in that sense, I have every interest in supporting them.
You may be aware that I have decided to create a new branch, which will, I hope, provide them with better, more integrated support. I can’t do miracles, receiving, as we do, only 1.54 percent of the regular budget of the UN. I will do what I can to raise additional resources. But I am of the opinion that for procedures that emanate from the Human Rights Commission, those resources should come from the regular budget, and I shall use voluntary contributions to fund technical assistance or other types of projects that could be of help to developing countries, countries in transition or countries emerging from conflict.
But at least by bringing together all the support capacity of the Office into a single branch, I believe we can maximise the modest resources that our Office puts at their disposal. I am thinking of thematic mandates because the geographical ones may have to remain where they are right now, which is in the Activities and Programmes Branch.
What I would also like to achieve – and I was discussing this with Mrs [Hina] Jilani this morning – is a greater empathy, as it were, between the special procedures, rather than having them function in a compartmentalised way, in an insular way, make sure that common denominators are clearly identified and actually brought to bear positively on respective mandates and that we also identify through this new branch ways in which we can be mutually supportive while respecting each other’s specificity and, in their case, independence.
Maybe I am putting too much hope in a structural improvement, but knowing also the commitment of my own staff and how much they believe in the special procedures, I think we will see some measurable improvement in the months ahead.
HRF: Is there anything you would like to convey?
HC: You’ve heard me since day one. My main message is rule of law. The weakness of international society – and you don’t have to win the Nobel Prize or study international relations to come to that conclusion – is the weakness of what binds us together and, in particular, the weakness of the ability to impose respect of international norms, contrary to what is possible within a state, in intra-state relations. The weakness of the rule of law has brought about many tragedies in the history of mankind.
So, militating for the rule of law, for the strengthening of the international system, for multi-lateralism is, I think, more important than ever, particularly at a time when some – and I hope they will remain only some – speak of the irrelevance of the UN. I certainly don’t agree with them, as you can imagine. I believe the UN has never been as relevant and as necessary as today, which does not mean it doesn’t deserve reforms. And certain mechanisms, such as the Security Council or even our Commission can improve their function and their ability to respond to crises in particular.
But the UN as a whole, imperfect as it may be, has never been as necessary as it is today.
HRF: Thank you, High Commissioner.