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“The Universality of Human Rights”

organized by Weltachsen 2000
Bonn, 11 November 1999




Statement by Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights




Lady ...,
Oberburgermeister,
Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests,


I am pleased to be in Bonn for this important and timely congress. The holding of the congress in this city at such a historic moment and here in the Plenary of the Former German Parliament reminds us of the special place which Bonn holds in the history of Germany and of the Rhineland. The 50 years during which Bonn served as capital of the Federal Republic have perhaps overshadowed its long, distinguished history as a famous university town and a seat of learning and research. The establishment of a Centre for European Integration Studies and a Centre for Development Research are proof of Bonn’s determination to continue to play a vital role in the intellectual and political life of the country.

Inevitably, the events of ten years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall are in our minds this week. Time can lessen the memory of the flagrant human rights abuses which the Wall symbolised - the lives lost, the denial of freedom, the splitting up of families. But we should not forget that what happened in 1989 was one of the most remarkable democratic achievements of recent times. The unification of the German people was a victory for human rights, for democracy and for the right of people to determine their own destiny. It sent a positive message to the world that change, even major change, could come about in a peaceful, democratic way.

The aim of this congress is to examine the most challenging issue facing mankind. Human rights certainly fall into that category. Human rights are at centre stage in the world and are the subject of intense debate. Over the past half century there has been a gradual but steady advance in the direction of the internationalisation of human rights. There is increasing awareness that human rights must be respected and defended irrespective of whatever nationality a person has or where they live or what place they have in society.

In addition, there have been marked advances in the codification of human rights laws and norms. A large body of legal instruments now exists which embody the common understanding of human rights by the international community.


And there have been important improvements in the international machinery to monitor human rights situations in all parts of the world and to ensure that human rights are protected as stipulated in the international instruments.

The emphasis now must be on implementation. We have moved from the era of standard setting to putting the agreed human rights norms into practice. And that is where the greatest challenge presents itself. Because, as anyone can see in looking around the world, there remains a huge gap between the ideals of the human rights movement and the reality on the ground. The most extreme abuses are those we see on our television screens - in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in East Timor - but there are many less spectacular examples where the human rights performance falls well short of the ideal.

Yes, human rights are high on the international agenda. But there must be practical results, improvements in people’s lot, if there is not to be an erosion of the credibility of human rights and a rise in cynicism.

The Universality of Human Rights

One of the questions that has been raised is whether human rights are truly universal. The implication is that the fundamental rights set out in the Universal Declaration and other human rights instruments may not apply in some countries or societies. If we look at the text of the Universal Declaration we see that the drafters certainly intended the document to be universal. The Preamble describes the thirty articles that follow as; “A common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, ...”

The Preamble also declares that; “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalterable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The preparatory work on drafting the Universal Declaration demonstrates that it was not simply a product of Western thought as is sometimes claimed. Representatives of African, Asian and Latin American countries contributed substantially to the drafting which took place in the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly. The record shows that the drafters sought to reflect in their work the differing cultural and religious traditions in the world. The result is a distillation of many of the values inherent in the world’s major legal systems and religious beliefs including the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish traditions.

The World Conference on Human Rights which was held in Vienna in 1993 carried out a major review of the state of human rights and gave detailed consideration to the question of universality. The Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by all of the 171 participating States, gave a ringing endorsement to the full range of rights as set out in the Universal Declaration. Article 1 of the Vienna Declaration says that; “The World Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the solemn commitment of all States to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for and observance and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, other instruments relating to human rights and international law. The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.”

Further evidence of the concept of universality, if it is needed, can be seen from the fact that the Universal Declaration has inspired regional instruments for the protection of human rights throughout the globe, all of which have reaffirmed its precepts. I think of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981 and the Arab Charter on Human Rights of 1994, both of which reaffirm the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration.

Cultural Diversity

In championing the cause of universality I should emphasise that universality does not negate cultural diversity; on the contrary, I believe that it reinforces and protects cultural diversity. One of the most interesting activities of my Office last year was to organize a seminar on Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which took place in Geneva. When I addressed the experts I said that the search for cultural diversity is a particular responsibility of the United Nations. And I quoted Secretary General Kofi Annan’s belief that “alongside a global diversity of cultures, there exists one worldwide civilisation of knowledge within which ideas and philosophies meet and develop peacefully and productively.”

I noted that in all of the discussions no one expressed doubts about the Universal Declaration or denied the legitimacy or universality of international human rights standards. Rather, we heard about the relevance of international standards, including the Universal Declaration, to promoting and protecting human rights at the national level.

And our attention was called to how human rights are actually lived. The principles of Islam relating to human dignity and social solidarity are a rich resource from which to face the human rights challenges of today. Islamic concern with human dignity is old; it goes back to the very beginning.

The seminar on Islamic commentaries brought home to me the importance of dialogue between cultures so as to get away from the tendency to be deaf to, and even to demonise, cultures different from our own. I am inviting a number of scholars to meet with me again to continue the dialogue which I hope will be beneficial to all of us.

A final point in this context. I do not believe, as some have argued, that human rights is a substitute for religion or a new form of secular religion. As I said, the drafters of the Universal Declaration drew on ethical principles from many of the world’s great religions - and from different areas of secular thinking. But their aim was not to replace religions. The great documents of human rights spell out the individual’s fundamental rights and show how these can be achieved and how they ought to be protected. To read more into the texts of human rights would be to force them to carry an excessive weight.

All Countries Subject to Scrutiny

For human rights to be universal it follows that the performance of every country in the human rights field must be open to scrutiny. The charge is sometimes made that only weak countries are criticised for human rights abuses while bigger countries get away with serious violations.

My position on this is simple: I aim to see human rights observed everywhere and I will go on campaigning to that end. Much of my work with governments will necessarily be carried out confidentially; that is often the best way to achieve results. But it does not always work and if the situation calls for it, I will not hesitate to speak out. I will call attention to great breaches of human rights and humanitarian law wherever I see them, whether it is in Kosovo or in Chechnya - where the situation is extremely greave - at the moment.

Because the fact is that the aspiration to a culture of human rights is still very far removed from the reality. If anyone is in doubt about the scale of gross human rights violations in the world they need only read the Report on Civilians in Armed Conflict which the Secretary General submitted to the Security Council last month. This year alone I have seen some of the worst violations which are taking place - murder, expulsions, maiming, rape. I have assumed a burden of listening: to the pain and anguish of the victims of violations, to the fears and anxieties of human rights defenders. I intend to go on listening to those who suffer in this way, and to be a voice for them. That applies wherever violations occur.

A promising development in recent years is the movement towards making those guilty of grave human rights violations accountable for their actions. The principle of universality applies here too: all such violations should be accounted for - wherever, whenever and by whomever they were committed. The adoption of the Rome Statute providing for an International Criminal Court is a major step forward. I urge States to ratify the Statute without delay so that the Court can get on with its vital work.

More attention must be paid to addressing the root causes of human rights violations so as to prevent them from taking place. There is no shortage of studies which show the value of prevention but the international community still does not to place sufficient emphasis on prevention. The tendency is to wait until a situation has become so inflamed that open conflict has broken out. Prevention is a normal part of our lives in so many ways so why should we not apply it to conflict situations? .From the point of view of cost alone, the burden of reconstruction can dwarf the cost of prevention. From the point of view of the victims of conflict, action taken after the situation has exploded is too late.

Nor should we think of human rights violations as being something that affects only faraway countries. There are human rights failures here in Europe, in the treatment meted out to asylum-seekers, in hostility towards people of different nationalities and cultures, in discrimination against minorities, indigenous people and migrant workers. Racism and xenophobia are not hard to find and they are taking new forms such as hate-filled messages on the Internet.

Racism is on my mind because I have just been appointed Secretary General of the World Conference against Racism which will be held in two years time. We are launching the information campaign for the Conference on 10 December next, Human Rights Day, in Geneva. The Conference will provide a valuable opportunity to devise new strategies against this fundamental violation of human rights - hatred of a person on the grounds of their race. I would appeal to all of you to help me make this Conference a practical, productive event which restores to us a sense of appreciation of how sterile and destructive the forces of racism and xenophobia are and the immense value that there is in diversity.

Let me pause here and share with you one of my deepest concerns as High Commissioner for Human Rights. It goes back to ten years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall - the end of the Cold War- the excitement of a new beginning. This should have resulted in a break-through in our shaping of the debate on what we mean by the term human rights.


During the Cold War the West emphasised civil liberties and the communist block emphasised progress on economic and social rights. But, ten years later, there is still - deep divided - the developed world still seeing human rights as primarily protection of civil and political rights - freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of religion and so on.

Developing countries put emphasis on how extreme poverty is a fundamental denied of human rights - the right to food, basic nutrition for children, education, basic health care. It is important to bridge the divide.


All Human Rights for All

As well as being universal, human rights are indivisible. The Universal Declaration refers to “common standards of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” What this means is that civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social and political rights, on the other, are both demanding of protection on the same plane. The two sorts of rights are interdependent and interrelated. Economic, social and cultural rights need to be realised with the same degree of affirmation and conviction as civil and political rights. Freedom of speech and belief are enshrined but also freedom from fear and want. Fair trial and the right to participatory and representative government sit shoulder to shoulder with the right to work, to equal pay for equal work, and the right to education.

I have sought to place more emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development because there has been this imbalance over the years in favour of civil and political rights. In fact, I believe that rich countries are sometimes guilty of a kind of double-speak: they are strongly - and rightly - critical of human rights abuses in the civil and political field. But they are much less vocal about economic, social and cultural rights. The right to decent living conditions, food, basic healthcare, education, are laid down in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and which have been endorsed repeatedly by governments - at the summits in Vienna, Cairo, Beijing and Copenhagen, for example.

Yet the record in securing these rights has been poor. Any number of statistics are available to show how the gap between rich and poor is ever widening. The case was eloquently put recently by the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelius Sommaruga when he said:

“It is more crucial than ever that we reflect on the humanitarian principles that alleviate the suffering of the vulnerable, the weak, the defenceless. Poverty, like social injustice and massive human rights abuses, is one of the causes of armed conflict. In the limbo of contemporary history are any number of regions with hardly any economy - except the arms market.”

Rich countries should abide by their solemn undertakings to assist in development. It is simply not credible to talk about human rights and preventing conflicts and at the same time to cut ODA budgets. There is a new focus on the human-centred, rights-based approach to development which deserves all our support.

All Actors should be involved

Embedding human rights in society calls for the active involvement of all the different players - governments, international organisations, developmental bodies, non-governmental organisations, human rights defenders.

In the global world we now inhabit the role of business corporations is particularly important. Businesses can in some ways exert more influence on national economies than governments. That power can be a potent force for good or for ill. There are signs that business leaders are recognising their responsibilities in this regard and that they are prepared to take positive action. Last week I addressed a meeting of Business for Social Responsibility in San Francisco and I quoted the words of the new Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Mike Moore who said:

“Increasing numbers...feel excluded, forgotten and angry, locked out and waiting for a promised train that may never arrive. They see globalisation as a threat, the enemy. A central policy challenge for governments is to make the prosperity that flows from globalisation accessible to people.”

I sincerely hope that the upcoming Seattle Ministerial Conference of the WTO will be able to contribute to the aims Mr. Moore has set for himself: an outcome which benefits the world’s most vulnerable economies, a more open trading system that can contribute to better living standards and a safer world; a World Trade Organisation which reflects the needs of all its members.

Germany’s Role

We are coming to the start of a new century with a strong momentum behind the international human rights movement. There may never be as opportune a time again to translate the goodwill towards human rights into reality. We must all play our part in bringing this about - at community at national and at international level.

Germany is well placed to make a significant contribution to the championing of human rights. It can do so by example. The Basic Law of the Federal Republic, which was adopted 50 years ago, has been described as a model of its kind and its human rights provisions inspired other countries’ constitutions. It has been consistently interpreted in broad terms by the German Constitutional Court and is testimony to Germany’s commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights.

Germany can promote human rights both nationally and within the European Union. And Germany’s Official Development Assistance programmes enjoy a justifiably high reputation. I hope that Germany will continue to play a strong part in this field even at a time of financial constraints. I was particularly appreciative of the symposium hosted last year here in Bonn on the strengthening of human rights field presences. That meeting produced very valuable insights into this important topic.

I will conclude be recalling the words of Konrad Adenauer when he addressed the first meeting of the Bundestag 50 years ago:

“Those values - protection of the law, protection of individual rights and freedoms - of which we were deprived for many years, are so precious that we must be thankful for recovering them.”

The words could be applied to all of us, wherever we live. We are fortunate to live in an era when respect for human rights is accorded the highest priority by the international community. The challenge we face is to translate that interest and commitment into genuine human rights for all.