Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights,
    meets the press

    Transcript of the briefing
    Geneva, 25/09/01

    I am very glad to have this opportunity for a press briefing because these are difficult times and very worrying times. Yesterday, I had the opportunity with my colleagues to brief the missions here in Geneva and international organisations on the Durban Conference. We were able to distribute to them the unedited, but pretty well final text, of both the Declaration and the Programme of Action and to begin the important discussion of the follow-up to the very significant, substantial results of the Durban Conference.

    Today, as you know, we had the informal meeting of the Commission, the second year in which we have had this. Both yesterday and today, it was impossible not to begin with the events of the 11th of September. In fact, every meeting I have attended here both here in Geneva and last week in New York, the agenda somehow did not seem so relevant unless you began with the event of the 11th of September, which tells us a lot. I think we are recognising more and more it has changed a great deal and it poses huge challenges to the agenda of human rights. So it is right that the Commission this morning would stand for a minute of silence to honour the victims and their families and that we would begin by taking account of the issues.

    Nonetheless, as the Secretary-General himself has acknowledged, as well as the UN in so many different ways addressing the issues, we also must continue with our work. Part of that work, of course is to have a very real focus on the realities for vulnerable populations. I think it is fair to say that there is not a more vulnerable population in the world at the moment than the population of Afghanistan. Some 60% women and children, already very vulnerable to famine and conflict over so many years. And now, reading the entrails and fleeing minimal shelter and food supply to total insecurity, mastered borders desperate for help. It was in that context, together with the heads of the humanitarian agencies I signed a statement yesterday drawing attention to this already apparent humanitarian catastrophe for those people. It is true that in the short term, if they can get access, the humanitarian agencies can provide basic food and basic tents and basic support. But, nonetheless, the situation is extremely worrying and one that is on the forefront of their minds.

    I think the only other thing I would add, because I would prefer to respond to your questions, is that the immediate response of the Office of the High Commissioner, to the events of the 11th of September, was to brainstorm over considerable sessions, about what the human rights community had to say about the scale of such attacks against a civilian population. The fact that a civilian aircraft would be hijacked, with full gasoline tank, and deliberately directed against buildings that hosted thousands of innocent civilians. What did the human rights community have to say about this? I think it was important that we drew attention the fact that the Commission on Human Rights has been concerned about issues of terrorism for a considerable time. In 1998, the Commission appointed a Special Rapporteur from the Sub-Commission, Professor Kalliopi Koufa (Greece), to undertake a comprehensive study. She submitted an official report in August, which gives a good background on the difficulties in coming to a definitional agreement on what constitutes terrorism, the ways in which the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Commission itself have been addressing the issue, the various conventions, and also the ways in which other regional organisations have been addressing the issue.

    As part of that process, we concluded in the Office of the High Commissioner, that the events of the 11th of September undoubtedly constituted acts of terrorism, but they also crossed a line. We thought it was important to mark the crossing of that line. To us, the line that was crossed brought those acts in to what we would characterise as crimes against humanity. The significance of that is two-fold, I think. One, it immediately rallies the whole global community. If these are crimes against humanity, every country would owe a duty to work with the United Nations, work with the United States, to bring the perpetrators to justice. Also, it helps in many different ways to indicate that it is not acceptable that that line has been crossed and that the world community working together is going to prevent the kind of widespread scale of terrorism against the civilian population that would amount to a crime against humanity.

    The Commission on Human Rights in this session today has already, I think, recognised that its work will be more challenging and will affected by the events. The next time that the General Assembly will examine the issue from a human rights perspective is of course before the 3rd Committee, and it was in the context of that that we were addressing it.

    Notwithstanding these events of the 11th of September, and this is the last thing I will say, I did want, and did welcome the opportunity to bring home to the members of the Commission on Human Rights, the importance now of the practical follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. The first point I made was that in any case, this Declaration and Programme of Action from Durban would be a highly relevant to the human rights agenda. But in the context of the 11th of September it has become even more significant, even more relevant to exactly what we need to be doing. It requires that we address the evils of Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment, anti-Semitism, that we have concern for minorities, be they Roma, Sinti, travellers in Europe, be they African descendants in the Americas, the indigenous peoples, migrants, economic migrants, undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers. What I said this morning in my presentation to the delegates was that this agenda can help us to retain a very important balance in harnessing global abilities and capacities to address acts of terrorism and terrorist organisations. We don't make the mistake of eroding civil liberties, of having the situation of refugees and asylum seekers greatly worsened, that is one dimension.

    But there are also practical aspects of the Durban agenda that I think is important to draw attention to. There is the recognition of the central role of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the need to have a universal ratification by the year 2005, the need to have resources to the 3rd Committee. There are the educational programmes and teaching materials that are advocated. There is the new analysis of the impact of globalisation. The link of poverty and racism and much ground for further study by the Commission itself and others in addressing these issues. There is the requirement on our office to develop and fund specific technical co-operation projects aimed at combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The requests to our office to establish a database containing information on practical means to address racism etc., good practices, information to be shared, that we should widen the circle of goodwill ambassadors, the reference to much more support for the indigenous peoples in the context of the Permanent Forum coming on screen. And support, I am glad to say, for the Anti-Discrimination Unit, which I had already decided to establish, which I am now taking practical steps to establish on an interim basis, in order to greatly increase our own capacity in the Office of the High Commissioner, to take forward the important Durban agenda. Then there is the specific new mechanism that has been recommended, the establishment of five independent eminent experts, nominated by the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, to follow the implementation of the provisions of the Declaration and the Programme of Action. And on the basis of co-operation with them, as High Commissioner I would report twice a year, once to the Commission on Human Rights and secondly to the 3rd Committee, on the stage of implementation by governments of their commitments to introduce national plans of action against racism and discrimination, if they haven't done so to ratify the CERD, if they haven't done so to implement Article 14, and so on.

    So we have the means to move forward and of course in order to oil the wheels of that we do need resources. When I was in New York, I was discussing with the head of the Department of Management, Joe Connor, and also with the Controller, how we will as an office set in a supplementary application to the regular budget for this biennium to give us additional funding which we would need for the follow-up to Durban. So, on that practical note, we have to stop and I would be very happy to answer your questions.

    Asked about the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Mary Robinson said:

    I think it really is worth noting with appreciation the very measured and very thoughtful response of President Bush and the administration of the United States. I think there has been a concern to address some evidence of anti-Arab, anti-those who come from Islamic to South-Asian countries. The visit of President Bush to the Islamic Centre in Washington, also the messages that have gone out this being a measured response looking to the long-term. So, that I very much welcome, I believe that it is a very appropriate response. I am aware that the Secretary-General Koffi Annan, in his speech yesterday to the General Assembly, focused on the central role that the United Nation should play and is seeking to play in countering the kind of terrorism which, unfortunately, the world is facing. I don't want to anticipate any future events, as I said with my colleagues yesterday joined in addressing the very high level humanitarian concerns already, and the hope that these would not be worsened. I think I will leave it at that.

    There is a very real wish at the UN level to see greater support for the existing conventions that are relevant, and I think there will be more drawing these together in a particular way. Also, on the first and second of October, the Sixth Committee will be dealing with the progresses we have been seeking to make on the International Convention against Terrorism, and maybe this would be a stimulus to help that.

    Asked about the concerns for civil liberties that could result from stepping up the fight against terrorism, the High Commissioner said:

    There are very real concerns, and they are general for the global coalition that is forming to address issues of countering terrorism and acts of terrorism. We already saw last week a meeting of European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers, and the outcome of that could be worrying for the further erosion of certain liberties in European countries and a harsher climate and context for refugees and asylum seekers. In other words, potentially a further hardening of the fortress Europe mentality, this time in the name of tackling terrorism, but in reality making life for difficult for the vulnerable populations who desperately seek to escape from the harsh realities of their lives.

    I know also from NGOs in the United States that I met during my visit there, that they are very deeply concerned. Particularly about the use of the existing immigration laws, to erode the normal checks and balances of the United States system that can be very real, by holding people for longer periods under the immigration laws and potentially on evidence that can't be produced from a court because of security reasons. These are the concerns that were expressed to me by NGOs. I have no doubt that there are countries who are gearing up to tackling terrorism by clamping down on human rights defenders and I am very worried about that as well. So it is better to say it very openly at this stage, that these are concerns and they are very wide spread. This is a difficult time for human rights and civil liberties.

    Asked about the situation in Macedonia, the High Commissioner said:

    I certainly follow very closely the human rights situation there and I welcomed the opportunity to discuss it with the President when he came to address the Commission on Human Rights. As I said in my report on what I would be reporting to the 3rd Committee in my general report shortly, I do focus on the situation in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. I sent a representative there recently, Ambassador Amneus of Sweden, and I have just received his report and spoken to him indeed yesterday. On the basis of his discussions on the ground I would hope that it will be possible for our Office to have a presence in Macedonia. Obviously I don't want to say too much at the moment, we are in discussion with the Government. But there are concerns, both of allegations of violations of by the Macedonian authorities and by the Albanian rebel forces, the NLA. There is an instability, a lack of human security. Other bodies, regional organisations, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, have a certain role to play, but there is a sense, as it has been reported to me, of a gap of that needs to be filled, that we can bring the added value of the human rights standards and instruments and it would be helpful to have a presence on the ground. I don't want to say anything more about any wider context, I prefer to concentrate on the human rights situation. But I am very concerned and we are following as well as we can practically how we can help with situation.

    Asked to elaborate on the characterisation of the terrorist attacks from the 11th of September as Crimes Against Humanity and the possibility of dealing with the crimes in an international court, the High Commissioner said:

    First of all, the jurisprudence and thinking on crimes against humanity is comparatively recent, but we have two working tribunals that have added to that jurisprudence; the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, who try perpetrators against genocide and crimes against humanity. The statute of the International Criminal Court defines Crimes Against Humanity and one part of the definition is the widespread targeting of a civilian population. It is in that context that it is hard to argue against the proposition. When you deliberately hijack aircraft with full gasoline tanks, with people onboard and direct them towards buildings where you know millions of people have just come in to work and where you result in the reality of over six thousand people missing and we know that they are in fact dead in New York. The International Criminal Court, which will hopefully come in to operation in the next year or eighteen months, can not deal with events of the 11th of September, because it can only deal prospectively with situations of the future. By designating, if we choose to do that, if the United Nations chooses to characterised the events of 11th of September as Crimes Against Humanity, initially it probably has no greater significance than to mark the crossing of the line and immediately evoke a response legally from all countries, that they should work with the United Nations and the United States to address the situation. It has the tactical advantage, in my view, that it clearly distinguishes these as being, as I say, of a scale and of a deliberate depravity as to constitute Crimes Against Humanity. Those who perpetrate those crimes can hardly invoke any high motive, much less that they do it in the name of Islam. That would be helpful, it narrows, and therefore removes the broad sense of distrust against anyone from Islamic countries or Islamic states themselves, largely Muslim states. I think that would be very healthy. I think it would be very healthy if the Organisation of Islamic Conference could confidently join under the UN auspices in addressing the situation, of being a Crime Against Humanity. It is one way of approaching it. I don't want to get in to the more political. This is a human rights characterisation.

    Asked to clarify the implications for terming the acts of terrorism Crimes Against Humanity, the High Commissioner said:

    Again, the jurisprudence is at an early stage. But, in the context of Rwanda, in the context of the former Yugoslavia, that is the whole background. That is why there were calls for the handing over of Milosevic, that is the idea. That will be the case if and when we have the International Criminal Court that can deal with future potential Crimes Against Humanity. We are now in a middle stage where we would be, in a sense by so characterising, also making jurisprudence. But there is no doubt in my mind, that the legal weight of opinion internationally would immediately evoke a responsibility on all member states. That responsibility I think is accepted by states anyway on the basis that these were terrible acts of terrorism. But I personally see a merit from a human rights perspective in going that step further and characterising this as crimes against humanity because in a way, if we don't do it with these very serious acts of terrorism, we are potentially acknowledging that for the future this is the world we are in, and it is still only acts of terrorism. I think it is another way of doing it to actually have the global community stand together against crossing that line and by designating it in a particular way.

    I think it is worth recalling that the Security Council in its resolution on the 12th of September has already called on states to co-operate in finding the perpetrators and the Secretary-General has emphasised the role of the United Nations in this. So, it is a new challenge to the international community and there are different ways of approaching it. I first recognise that the human rights perspective is not the only perspective, but it is my responsibility to offer that perspective and do it from very much the viewpoint of human rights and humanitarian considerations and that a line was crossed that must be acknowledged.

    Do you mean there is a need for the international community to establish special courts?

    I am not necessarily suggesting that. It certainly would be a possibility if the Security Council so thought down the line. I suppose the first focus would be on ensuring the identification through the production of clear-cut evidence, prima facie evidence, of the main perpetrators. The primary suspect at the moment is Osama bin Laden, it is alleged that there is very strong evidence against him. If that is the case then in due course that might be a route that could be followed. But, I think the point that I would really like to emphasise is that it is possible to proceed to characterise it as a Crime Against Humanity and deal with it in a national court, but it is also possible to envisage an international court or a hybrid court as we are in the process of developing in Cambodia.

    Asked about the implications for previous crises of September 11th, Mary Robinson said:

    I think perhaps your question addresses some of the complexities of mounting a serious coalition, which is in the process of being formed against terrorism and perpetrators of acts of terrorism. Again, I encourage those who want to reflect on that complexity to read the preliminary report of Professor Koufa. I think she has, in fact, identified some of the real difficulties. But there is no doubt in my mind, as High Commissioner, that this is a worrying time, that we have to have regard to human security, that populations do rightly demand both of their national leaders and of the United Nations that we seriously address these issues of human security. Staff security fears have been greatly raised in the UN itself, both in the headquarters in New York, but also in the field, after the events of September 11th. I am acutely aware of these problems, but I don't want to go back in a kind of speculative way over previous crises that may well be what scholars or commentators might wish to do.

    I am really focused on the very real challenge that we face, and if I may say so, because that is the purpose of my briefing to you, the relevance of the Durban Declaration and the Durban Programme of Action is finding a way forward that is balanced. Both the Declaration and the Programme of Action could be criticised as being a bit over long and a bit repetitive, but what is really striking is that there is good new substance and new language about the past, about slavery and colonialism, new addressing of the fountains of hate, the phobias, of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab feeling that have never been put in an international document before. Identification of minorities, not just migrants and indigenous peoples, but the Roma, the Sinti, the traveller, those of African descent in Latin America, South America and North America. These are important frameworks to move forward, I believe.

    On the question about the present state of the Declaration and Programme of Action, Mary Robinson said:

    I have sympathy for you having difficulty until now, but hopefully from now on it won't be so difficult to get clarity on the final text. We have the unedited, but pretty well final, version of the Declaration and the Programme of Action, at the moment only in English. That version will be edited in all six languages within the next two weeks and we will have it up on our web site and widely available. It is correct to say and important to say that there were serious reservations to certain portions of the Declaration or Programme of Action by certain states. Because of the time factor and the interpreters, although they volunteered to continue for many hours, had come to the end of their participation. So, the Chair, the President of the Council, the distinguished Foreign Minister of South Africa, Dr. Zuma, ruled at a certain one point that there was not time to hear all the reservations, but that they could be submitted. It is quite clear that those that were handed in that day or those countries that said we want to hand it in and did so immediately afterwards, all of those will be in the report of the Durban Conference. It is important that countries that made reservations know that these reservations are also in the final reckoning, if you like, of the Durban Conference.

    I think it is also worth recognising that there were serious reservations in a number of other world conferences. I remember in particular Beijing, at which there were many countries were reserved about certain aspects. I think that after a certain period of time, if, as I believe it is the case, the actual Declaration and Programme of Action are relevant, practical, make sense and should be supported, the fact that there were reservations becomes less significant. It is my earnest hope and wish because the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action were important on the day we left Durban, but on the 11th of September they took on a new significance, and I hope we can now rally as a world, all countries of the world, no more nit picking or looking back, but actually move forward with this agenda and recognise just how important it is. That is the best outcome we could possible have of the Durban Conference.

    * *** *