Statement by the high commissioner for human rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello para a 59ª sessão da comissão de direitos humanos
Geneva, Friday, 21 March 2003
Pronunciamento do alto-comissário de direitos humanos da ONU para a 59ª sessão da comissão em Genebra, 21 de março de 2003
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
When I addressed you at the beginning of this week, I noted that we would be tested by the pressures of world events. So the much anticipated war has begun: so the testing has begun. We think now of the people of Iraq. The prospect of their suffering crowds out other thoughts.
I urge all parties to the conflict to honour their obligations under international law. Human rights norms must be respected at all times. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life and no one shall be subject to torture. No one shall be subject to arbitrary detention. Every person shall be presumed innocent. There must be no attacks on civilians, and every effort must be made to minimize incidental civilian deaths and injuries. The sick and the wounded must be cared for, whether or not they are combatants. Minorities must be protected, sectarian persecution prohibited. Humanitarian workers must have access to those who are suffering and must be protected.
For some two decades, the people of Iraq, who can be proud of their long and rich history, have been subjected to so much: wars, internal conflicts, economic sanctions and denial of a broad spectrum of their rights. One can only feel a great solidarity with them and hope their ordeal will soon come to an end.
This conflict reminds us of how great the challenges are to making human rights a reality for everyone. On Monday, I presented to you my thoughts on the many facets of the concept of security and its acute relevance to both the advancement and the erosion of human rights. I would like to turn now, briefly, to how my office is trying to meet those challenges around the world. In orienting our work, I have tried to emphasize practical activity. This is as difficult as it is important. The key to it, as I said on Monday, is national protection systems based on the rule of law. I have decided to place special emphasis on the adoption of national legislation that creates mandatory human rights standards. Secondly, I will emphasize the critical role of the judiciary – through helping national judicial systems consolidate their independence and implement international and national human rights norms. Thirdly, we need education and communications strategies: the former is, no doubt, a long-term objective; the latter, a medium term, achievable goal.
I am also inviting governments to prepare brief descriptions of their national protection systems. These reports will be summarized, analyzed and published, so that we can all see where we are and learn from each other’s experiences. This should help us in the critical work of finding ways for states to cooperate in the protection and promotion of human rights.
And of course, at the international level, the cooperation of all states is crucial to the success of the International Criminal Court.
One issue that I have repeatedly stressed as being at the centre of my priorities, not least because in today’s world it continues to cause so much concern, is the status of women’s rights. My experience in East Timor demonstrated to me – unequivocally – that if societies are going to have a chance to succeed, to show the world their true majesty and to flourish as fully as they should, then women must be fully emancipated. Too often, in too many places, we see not emancipation but the psychological, social, educational, and at worst, physical denigration of women. Economically, legally, morally – this makes no sense.
To give a practical edge to this emphasis, I am pleased to announce that I shall soon be appointing, in my immediate office, a senior adviser on gender affairs and women’s rights to reinforce existing capacity. This is a humble step, but an important one.
Just as discrimination against women undermines the progress of all, so racial discrimination continues to hold us back: to undermine the dignity of us all. Today, as you know, marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I very much hope that you will be able to join me for a lunchtime discussion my office has convened today on how best to continue to combat this repugnant manifestation of baseless prejudices. I will be speaking then, in some detail, on how my office is helping in this fight.
My emphasis on practical activity has extended, of course, to the structure of my office. I have been implementing many of the reforms recommended in the report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services. I recently received the final report of a senior consultant, carried out at my request, which suggests a number of steps for taking more and more of our activities out of Geneva and to the field thereby increasing our tangible impact at the country level. As I have repeatedly said, not least in my introductory statement to you last September: as important as the work is that we do here in Geneva, its true value lies in the extent to which it can be practically implemented for the benefit of those who need us most – to the extent that it cannot be, or that we fail to do so, it amounts to nothing more than dreams; empty promises.
With the creation of an office-manager post in Geneva – a function that has been sorely lacking – we shall have the capacity to implement, in earnest, this new policy and the structural, managerial and administrative changes it requires. We now know our strengths and weaknesses. The studies are done and they are sufficient. We know where we need to go.
To ensure that my office is able to keep the commitments it makes – and to fulfill all mandates
from this Commission and its bodies as well as the many requests I have received from Member States – I have been emphasizing to governments the worrying condition of the office’s finances. Although there is widespread agreement that human rights is at the core of the United Nations’ mission, the share of the regular budget allocated to our office remains well under two percent. Two-thirds of our budget comes from voluntary contributions by Member States. I ask you, as Member States whose special interest in human rights is made manifest by your presence in this room today, to bear this in mind in your deliberations in New York.
Let me be blunt: either Member States provide the Secretary-General with the managerial flexibility to increase our share of the regular budget – which is, of course, impossible under the current requirement of zero growth – or they should support me in my efforts to broaden the financial basis of the office. It is pointless to criticize my office for relying so much on voluntary contributions, unless you wish me to reduce – perhaps discontinue – many of our activities at the national level and regional levels and with civil society.
If the problem some Member States have is with the geographical balance in our staffing, I am ready to discuss that openly and frankly with you. If, however, the problem is the ratio between regular and project posts, then I have no solution apart from that which I have outlined.
Of one thing you can be assured: as international civil servants, my staff and I proudly serve all the world’s peoples, following Dag Hammarskjold’s principles of Independence, Integrity, and Impartiality. I hope that each of you, and all of you, will help to make our budget better reflect those principles. But whatever our sources of funds, our independence will never weaken. This is too important a principle, particularly at a time when some commentators have questioned the “relevance” of the United Nations. Our independence, I would suggest, is the best insurance policy Member States can have; it guarantees them a secretariat and staff that serve the interests of the membership at large, and can therefore embody, reflect, defend and promote our common interest.
I thank the Ambassador of Algeria, my friend Mohamed-Salah Dembri, for the confidence he has expressed – his confidence in me, which I trust extends to all my staff. Let me repeat that as long as I am High Commissioner and Bertie is Deputy High Commissioner, no one will control or undermine our independence.
This independence is beyond any ideology. As I noted in my Report, citing the words of Abdul Rahman Pazhwak at the General Assembly that he presided over in 1966: if the United Nations could be said to have any ideology, it must be that of human rights, and I salut him because he was definately a rather far-sighted President.
I have been immensely heartened to hear so many speakers in our high-level segment express their support to my office and its mandate, not least our promotion of the rule of law. It seems to be a fruitful principle to guide us toward agreement and results. It is a touchstone for us in spreading the culture of human rights. The rights-based approach must inform all our endeavours, whether in trade or security, finance or education or development, in both the private and the public sectors. At some point, I hope, the rights-based approach will become so common that we will no longer have to debate its practicality: it will simply be our daily practice.