FAREWELL SPEECH IN GENEVA BY MARY ROBINSON, HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
I would like to thank all those involved in organising this occasion. Yesterday I bade farewell to our New York colleagues and this is the last time I will address you as High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is both a sad and proud occasion for me.
It is sad because the past five years have been both difficult and eventful and I have had the privilege of working with so many wonderful friends and colleagues. I feel a deep sense of pride in what you represent. People outside Palais Wilson do not realise how hard you work or the dedication which you show to the cause of human rights. But I have seen that for myself and I appreciate your dedication and hard work. I wish to express my deep gratitude to all of you. It would simply not have been possible to do the job without your support and cooperation.
Somebody wrote that the High Commissioner should wake up each morning thinking of human rights. In my experience in the job, it has been difficult not to wake up in the morning thinking of all that needs to be done – even to avoid lying awake in the middle of the night thinking about that has not been easy! I know that for you, too, the burden has been heavy and that many have gone the extra mile for the human rights cause.
One great consolation to me as I leave Geneva is that I am leaving a strong, invigorated team in place in the Office of the High Commissioner. The fight for human rights will not be over next week or next month or next year. So we need to have the best people in place, committed to carrying on this vital work. And it has encouraged me greatly to watch the team here grow in strength and efficiency. The Office is well placed now to carry on the fight.
I think that a lot of progress has been made in recent years in strengthening human rights. But I will not conceal from you that my concern about the future of human rights has grown over the past year. I am conscious that this is an uncertain time for those who champion the rights of the individual. Some voices are heard suggesting that after the terrible attacks in the United States on 11 September, human rights are somehow less important, that the security imperative outweighs other considerations. I do not believe that.
On the contrary, in combating terrorism the full range of human rights must be observed.
It is a time for those who believe in human rights to keep their nerve. Human rights are not expendable, whatever the circumstances. And I strongly believe that human rights will endure.
It has been a privilege to serve as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Ever since the General Assembly approved the Secretary-General’s nomination, I have been deeply conscious of the trust that the international community placed in me. I have tried to live up to that trust. This job is not an easy one.
Whether as High Commissioner or as a colleague working in this Office here in Geneva, in New York or in the field one shoulders a heavy responsibility. The hopes of the desperate land on our desks. Often they cannot find a remedy from their own national courts or administrations. Their only hope of justice lies with the international community and institutions such as the Office of the High Commissioner. They look to us as their last hope. That is a basic reality that has guided me during the five years in this position and has motivated me in speaking out when the occasion required, even if what I had to say was not always popular.
There is a saying that if want to succeed you should speak softly but carry a big stick. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has no big stick except the appeal to the moral conscience of the world. I have tried to speak softly, but clearly, to governments, though from time to time I have found that the only way to get a result is to raise my voice a bit!
At the same time, I have urged from the start that the full range of human rights – economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political – must be our goal. We need a rounded human rights agenda which takes account of the needs of all. That agenda, I may add, is a most valuable asset in the fight against terrorism.
I will return to the impact of 11 September because the implications of that terrible event must be faced up to squarely. But I would like to spend some time identifying those areas where it seems to me that progress has been made over the past five years and to look at the potential for building on that progress - and the obstacles - that lie ahead.
When I take stock of where human rights stand today, the first thing I would mention is the fact that human rights are now firmly on the agenda of the international community. If one thinks back twenty years to arguments about whether human rights were universal, whether they could be made operational, whether they have a serious place in the conduct of international relations, one would have to conclude that human rights have indeed come a long way. Most governments today will at least acknowledge that human rights have a role to play. Unfortunately that does not necessarily mean that they will observe human rights standards. You will often still hear governments arguing that they must place other factors first. The difference is that today those sorts of claims go against the tide of opinion. There is much greater recognition now of the centrality of human rights and the immense benefits a rights-based approach brings. That is a big step forward.
Our mandate is to give leadership in human rights, and I am glad we are doing so by being operational in the field. We are a small UN Office, so it is necessary to be strategic. But I am conscious of the different ways in which we have become operational. Last month I was able to assess the impact of the work of our colleagues in the Office in Cambodia, to visit East Timor again and see how the human rights unit in UNTAET had developed, and to meet Nick Howen in Bangkok and hear his views as regional representative for Asia on what our priorities should be.
After that I travelled with colleagues to the WSSD in Johannesburg. Thanks to well prepared speeches and speaking notes, I was able to make substantive and relevant interventions on issues such as the right to water, HIV/Aids, human rights and sustainable development, corporate responsibility and human rights and the environment. The human rights message was getting across – and it was badly needed. When I met civil society NGOs – environmental and development activists, as well as human rights activists – they expressed deep appreciation of the leadership our Office was giving. The civil society message was clear: no sustainable development without human rights.
Another advance I see is the consolidation of international human rights legislation. The momentum in this area was clearly shown at the Millennium Summit which saw 273 signatures, ratifications of or accessions to major human rights treaties and instruments undertaken by 84 States. The entry into force of the Optional Protocols to CEDAW and to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict and sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography were particularly satisfying examples. It is worth recalling how difficult the process was in each of those cases and that many thought success would never come. But it did come and that is further proof that determination and perseverance can achieve results which make an enduring impact. It would be a wonderful advance if the one remaining ratification needed to bring the Convention on Migrant Workers into effect could be obtained in the coming weeks.
Getting treaties enacted and ratified is, of course, only the start. We must re-double our efforts in the time ahead to ensure that the legislation is put into practice, and that civil society plays its full part in ensuring implementation of these commitments.
I would like to say a special word here about the International Criminal Court. All of us should warmly welcome the fact that the ICC has become a reality. I find it particularly welcome that the statute contains provision for the prosecution of rape as a war crime. Having an independent court will bring the perpetrators of human rights violations to account. Above all, it will have a deterrent effect on those contemplating such violations. As I said yesterday in New York, I regret the current attempts to undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of the ICC, but I believe they will be short term, and that the ICC will prove its worth many times over.
A further area of progress has been in the mainstreaming of human rights in the work of the United Nations as a whole and in that of other international organisations. As in the other areas I have mentioned, there is room for improvement here also. But it is remarkable to see bodies such as UNDP and the World Bank take on the human rights dimensions when in the past they might have tended to regard these as difficult and sensitive. I am convinced that mainstreaming of both human rights and strong gender perspective is the key to making human rights acceptable everywhere, and I hope that the beginnings we have made will be built on.
Let me say a word about the role of the United Nations in protecting human rights which I believe is absolutely crucial. When I first took on the job of High Commissioner I expressed misgivings about the UN. Over 5 years as High Commissioner I have seen some positive developments, though I will say frankly that I would like to have seen more. What I am more and more convinced of is how important it is that the world have a United Nations that is efficient, aware, responsible. The UN is unique because it, alone among international organizations, can claim universal legitimacy.
I have made a number of proposals for strengthening the role of human rights within the UN. One specific proposal is that human rights guidelines be drawn up for use in implementation of the Millennium Development Goals agreed in the wake of the Millennium Declaration. Another idea I have suggested to the Secretary-General is to mark next year’s anniversary of the Vienna Conference by devising a methodology to monitor progress made in reaching human rights goals. An Annual UN Progress Report on Human rights, carried out by independent experts, would bring an external view to bear on progress and on the challenges for the implementation of the Millennium Declaration human rights goals.
And the UN needs to look ahead to issues such as bioethics and the human rights dimension of scientific and technological developments, to issues which deserve more attention such as the rights of the disabled, to the use of the internet and information technology to promote respect for human rights.
As in all of its activities, the UN must demonstrate that its approach to human rights is effective and can bring real improvements to peoples’ lives. I wish my successor well in pursuing this goal.
I want to make special mention of human rights defenders. I need not stress to you the pivotal role that human rights defenders play. But this is a good time to put on record how much I, and the international community, owe to the thousands of women and men who have stood up for the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Progress has been made through the appointment of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Human Rights Defenders, and Hina Jilani is doing excellent work in that capacity. Human rights defenders need our special care and attention as they stand in the front line of the struggle. It has been a privilege for me to get to know so many of them, to see their courage and perseverance, and to hope we can maintain the link in the future.
The chief threats to human rights can be seen in those forces which are the opposite of its strengths. For example:
- That governments will only pay lip service to their human rights commitments but will not live up to them.
- That international organisations may falter in their mainstreaming of human rights and gender.
- That the vigilance of civil society will be relaxed, the security argument bowed to.
I am confident that, together, we can deal with all of these threats. The continued vigilance of civil society is a key factor. I have always found it natural to link my work with civil society and I was glad to have the occasion in New York, yesterday, to express my deep appreciation for the support I have received from the NGO community over the past five years. I was concerned at the last session of the Commission on Human Rights that the voices of NGOs were not allowed to be heard as much as in the past. I urge NGOs to carry on their work and to focus activities, not only on governments, but on other key players such as the business community who have such a powerful role.
Returning to 11 September: I said at the start that I was apprehensive about the impact the aftermath has been having on human rights, At the annual meeting of the Special Rapporteurs and Chairs of the Treaty Bodies which took place recently in Geneva it was striking how many reports had come in from around the world of the erosion of civil liberties in the guise of combating terrorism. And it was noticeable and worrying at the last session of the Commission, that the pressure for action in some of the worst cases of human rights abuses was less strong this year.
Responding to terrorism will remain a major focus of international affairs over the coming years. But we must all continue to insist on respect for basic rights and fundamental freedoms in countering terrorist threats. We should not hesitate to draw attention to the relevant international standards and in particular to the non-derogable rights that must be protected at all times.
The happier side of my departure from Geneva is that I will take away with me so many precious memories. As a private citizen, I will remain committed to the cause of human rights. An area I am particularly interested in is the place of human rights in the globalised world and how we can work towards ethical standards of globalisation. A related issue of vital importance is national capacity building. When we look back at the history of the human rights movement, it is inevitable that we pay tribute to the extraordinary vision of Eleanor Roosevelt who recognised that what the world needed was a universal, indivisible law on human rights. Now what is needed above all is the building up of national protection systems to ensure implementation of agreed human rights law. That fits well with one of my favourite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes: that human rights begin “in small places, close to home.”
Ethical globalisation, national capacity building – these are linked areas where I see great challenges for all who are interested in human rights. I intend to devote time to developing ideas for strengthening these areas as part of the overall goal of embedding a culture of human rights.
Once again, my thanks to all of you for your support and my best wishes to my successor Sergio Vieira de Mello, and to you all in the struggle that lies ahead. As High Commissioner I have been conscious that the human rights mandate, more than any other, reflects who are the source and who should be the focus and inspiration of the United Nations, as reflected in the opening words of the Charter: We the peoples…