Human Rights Council
Opening statement and global update of human rights concerns by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at 38th session of the Human Rights Council
18 June 2018
[Excerpts; Editor’s text bolding]
Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues and Friends,
As this is my last global update to the Human Rights Council in a regular session – and before I turn, once again, to the important matter of access and cooperation – I wish to draw on some final reflections.
I heard recently a UN official telling others there is really no such thing as universal human rights, musing that they were picked from a Western imagination. I remember thinking to myself that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most translated document in the world – was negotiated by the same political leaders who poured universal values into the Charter, creating the United Nations. Is the UN also then somehow not universal? Were its values sourced only from a Western tradition – unrepresentative of the rest of the world?
No. A clear rejection of this comes from a look at the negotiating record itself. The San Francisco Conference, which established the UN, was a circus of sound shaped from many tongues; its result was not a solo tune from a Western instrument. Had that been the case – had the countries that joined the organization believed they were being pinned to alien, Western values – why then did they not stream toward the exits? Why did they not withdraw from the UN?
But then why is the Universal Declaration, and the whole body of human rights law that followed it, the object of so much attack now –- not only from the violent extremists, like the Takfiris, but also from authoritarian leaders, populists, demagogues, cultural relativists, some Western academics, and even some UN officials?
I have spent most of my career at, and in, the UN. What I have learned is this: the UN is symptomatic of the wider global picture. It is only as great or as pathetic as the prevailing state of the international scene at the time. I also have come to understand how weak human memory is. That to many people history matters only in so far as it can be unsheathed and flung into political battle: they do not view it as a service to deeper human understanding.
There is a dangerous remove and superficiality to so many of our discussions, so much so that the deepest, core issue seems to have been lost on many.
Is it not the case, for example, that historically, the most destructive force to imperil the world has been chauvinistic nationalism – when raised to feral extremes by self-serving, callous leaders, and amplified by mass ideologies which themselves repress freedom. The UN was conceived in order to prevent its rebirth. Chauvinistic nationalism is the polar opposite of the UN, its very antonym and enemy. So why are we so submissive to its return? Why are we in the UN so silent?
The UN’s raison d’être is the protection of peace, rights, justice and social progress. Its operating principle is therefore equally clear: only by pursuing the opposite to nationalism – only when States all work for each other, for everyone, for all people, for the human rights of all people – can peace be attainable.
Why are we not doing this?
Those of us in the UN Secretariat, originating from all the 193 Member States, work collaboratively and we do not answer to any State. In contrast, too many governments represented at the UN will often pull in the opposing direction: feigning a commitment to the common effort, yet fighting for nothing more than their thinly-thought interests, taking out as much as they can from the UN, politically, while not investing in making it a true success. The more pronounced their sense of self-importance – the more they glory in nationalism – the more unvarnished is the assault by these governments on the overall common good: on universal rights, on universal law and universal institutions, such as this one.
And as the attack on the multilateral system and its rules, including most especially international human rights law, intensifies, so too will the risk increase of further mischief on a grander scale. The UN’s collective voice must therefore be principled and strong; not weak and whining, obsessed with endless wrangling over process, the small things, as it is the case today.
If my Office, of which I am very proud, and I, have gotten one thing right over the last few years, it is our understanding that only fearlessness is adequate to our task at this point in time. Not ducking for cover, or using excuses or resorting to euphemisms, but a fearlessness approaching that shown by human rights defenders around the world – for only by speaking out can we begin to combat the growing menace of chauvinistic nationalism that stalks our future.
I appeal to you to do more, to speak louder and work harder for the common purpose and for universal human rights law, to better our chances for a global peace…
People do not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing a border without a visa. I deplore the adoption by many countries of policies intended to make themselves as inhospitable as possible by increasing the suffering of many already vulnerable people. In recent weeks, I have become increasingly alarmed by two issues regarding access for civil society organisations to migrants.
In Hungary, I am deeply concerned about a bill presented to Parliament last month which, if adopted, would effectively criminalize human rights monitoring at borders and within border zones, as well as criminalizing the provision to migrants of information, legal aid and assistance.
The bill would also eliminate or impede judicial review in many cases. It is essential that independent monitoring bodies – including not only all international human rights bodies, but also national human rights institutions and civil society – be able to monitor the human rights situation of migrants without fear or obstruction. These prohibitions, and related measures adopted by the Government of Hungary in recent months, stigmatize and harm migrants in vulnerable situations and those who seek asylum, as well as punishing the admirable work of human rights defenders who seek to help them.
In the United States, I am deeply concerned by recently adopted policies which punish children for their parents’ actions.
In the past six weeks, nearly two thousand children have been forcibly separated from their parents. The American Association of Pediatrics has called this cruel practice “government-sanctioned child abuse” which may cause “irreparable harm,” with “lifelong consequences”. The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable. I call on the United States to immediately end the practice of forcible separation of these children, and I encourage the Government to at last ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in order to ensure that the fundamental rights of all children, whatever their administrative status, will be at the centre of all domestic laws and policies.
We request access so we can better work to help bring States’ laws and practices in line with the commitments which they themselves have made. Every decision to engage more productively with the human rights system is a decision to create openings towards a more harmonious society – one where there is greater justice, more sustainable peace and better development.
I am heartened by the new areas where access has been achieved over the past year. It is not easy to highlight conflicts which have been averted, violations which have been warded off, and spiralling violence that has been interrupted and diminished. But every step towards greater implementation of the human rights agenda is an act of prevention, which gathers and strengthens the bonds between communities and reinforces inclusive development and peace.
I am convinced that the human rights ideal has been the most constructive movement of ideas in our era – and among the most successful.
Over the past 70 years, a sustained peace has been achieved in and between many societies. Conflicts have been resolved, with respect and through law; a vastly increased number of people have been able to meaningfully express their views, and access education, healthcare and opportunities for development, without discrimination. Some may take these achievements for granted. But they are the enactment of policies – policies and laws that uphold the universal principles of human dignity and equality. And they are not the norm. Every society’s history is bloody with conflict and deprivation: we need only look back a little way to grasp the dangers, which our work averts.
When leaders undermine human rights, and human rights law, this is in no way an act of patriotism. They are eroding the structures which can ensure the safety of their people ¬– pitching their societies backwards into violence, destruction, exploitation and disaster. They are recreating the rule of brute force and exploitation – within countries and between them. True patriotism consists in viewing every State, and humanity as a whole, as a community of mutual responsibility, with shared needs and goals. True patriotism consists of the work of creating tolerant communities, which can live in peace.
I depart an Office which is strong, absolutely committed to its gargantuan task, and which, in the face of heavy headwinds, has made progress. These new areas of access are a testament to the credibility of our operations and the justice of our cause. I remain convinced that the monitoring and reporting we have achieved; our capacity-building for civil society and States; and our clear, steady and impartial advocacy have been significant contributors to governance that is more inclusive and respectful of the rights of the people; societies which are more peaceful; and development that is broader, deeper and of more benefit to all…