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Address of High Commissioner for Human Rights
to Non-Aligned Movement Ministerial Meeting,
Tehran, 3 September 2007

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Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed an honour to address the Non Aligned Movement Conference on Human Rights and Cultural Diversity. It is with great pleasure that I also convey to you the Secretary General’s best wishes and congratulations.

Distinguished Participants,

The topic of this conference is timely. The empowering quality of diversity is often reflected in the harmonious and prosperous coexistence of different communities. But at times, diversity is viewed as a threat to the cohesion of a unitary State, or to the values of that State’s majority, or the interests of a ruling elite.

Throughout history, dominant groups within societies, as well as external powers, have instigated or manipulated cultural conflicts in order to carve out unique privileges for themselves at the expense of those deemed to be outsiders or culturally and socially inferior. Furthermore, a failure to understand or accommodate diversity has inevitably led to an erosion of the rights of minorities and vulnerable people within a country, or those of individuals who move across borders, including refugees or migrants.

Particularly alarming is gender-based discrimination, often involving violence against women and girls, poverty and collateral abuse. A concomitant denial of basic rights, such as access to health services, housing, education, and food and water, as well as to work and to own property, overwhelmingly affects women, depriving them of the means and the tools they need to assert their equal rights.

It is undeniable that, despite our best efforts at promoting cultural diversity as an entitlement protected by law and at fostering an understanding among cultures, values and interests remain largely in the eyes of the beholders who may not always uphold and pursue them with fairness and measure.

It is therefore not values and interests, but universal human rights norms and standards that can best provide guidance for managing and protecting diversity in all its aspects and at all times, while shielding us from the ever shifting grounds on which cultural identities are defined and, at times, brazenly exploited.

By placing cultural diversity side by side with human rights at this Conference, you are therefore, providing the appropriate context in which any such discussion should occur. Such context is essential both to expose as a myth the idea that there are irreconcilable cultural divides among civilizations and to emphasize the notion that universal human rights are the pre-eminent vehicle for the promotion, in a contextually sensitive way, of the commonality of human needs and aspirations as reflected in human rights instruments.

To this end, allow me to briefly elaborate first on the notion of universality of human rights in a culturally diverse world, and second on the protection of cultural diversity through human rights law.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. Given a chance to be asked, all people share the same basic ideas about what they need to live a life in dignity, free from want and fear.

As stressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

This particular principle has, since 1948, been reiterated in numerous international instruments. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action forcefully states that “while the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Our common inherited ideas about human rights, which are given expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, derive from a range of cultures, philosophical and religious traditions and value systems. Throughout the processes that lead to the creation of international instruments and treaties—in negotiations, consultations and drafting of documents—representatives of different States, and increasingly of civil society, are involved.

All States have ratified at least one, and 80% of States have ratified four or more, of the core seven human rights treaties, reflecting consent of States which creates legal obligations for them and giving concrete expression to universality. When a State ratifies a human rights treaty it has three obligations vis--vis the rights enumerated in that treaty: to respect, that is not to interfere with their enjoyment; to protect, that is to take steps to ensure that third parties do not interfere with their enjoyment; and to fulfill, that is to take steps progressively to realize the rights in question.

Furthermore, many provisions in international human rights treaties are now recognized as rules of customary international law, which means that they are generally accepted among States as obligatory and are thus binding on all States, regardless of whether they have signed or ratified the relevant human rights treaty.

That brings me to my second point: Developed in a cultural-diverse environment, human rights law not only protects the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all human beings, but it also protects cultural diversity.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” The Human Rights Committee has held that, although the rights protected under article 27 are individual rights, they depend on the ability of a minority group to maintain its culture, language or religion. Accordingly, positive measures by States may also be necessary to protect the identity of a minority and the rights of its members to enjoy and develop their culture and language and to practice their religion, in community with the other members of the group. This is widely regarded as the basis for the recognition of religious, cultural and linguistic diversity on the States parties’ territories.

The 1992 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities represented a further step towards the acknowledgment of minorities’ entitlements and of cultural, linguistic and religious diversity within States.

Excellencies,

As is apparent from what I have just discussed, and contrary to what some seem to think, the principle of universality of human rights is not antagonistic to cultural diversity. Rather, the two principles stand in creative tension with each other. Universality, therefore, need not be considered in an inflexible and rigid manner. While affirming the universality of human rights, we must acknowledge that the appreciation of the nature and scope of most rights must be guided by a universally acceptable analytical framework. At the same time, we must also concede that there is no dominant or culturally superior point of view that yields, in and of itself, the universally correct position.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In closing let me reiterate that human rights norms do not stand in the way of the aspiration of human beings to express their cultural identity. Quite the opposite: cultural diversity is protected by international human rights law. But while both culture and diversity in cultural expression are rights, neither of them defines the scope of rights. No culture and no school of thought stands above the principles of non-discrimination, gender and race equality, the ban on torture, the right to life, and the freedom of religion, belief and conscience. And it is such firm legal ground that debunks notions of cultural relativism. These notions are often used to impeach the universality of human rights standards and norms by those whose true purpose is to reject both human rights and diversity.

Surely, if we accept—as we must—the guiding principle that the preservation of cultural pluralism is in humanity’s best interest, then we should always seek a maximum degree of accommodation for competing rights and find those solutions that can maximize the operative effect of all rights.

These are among the principles that recognize our common humanity beyond artificial divides and to which human rights jurisprudence gives effect. Seven hundred years ago Iranian poet Saadi of Shiraz beautifully expressed those ideas as follows:


Of one Essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.