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FOCUS September 1999 Volume 17

Robinson's Message to Asia-Pacific

(Opening statement by Ms. Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Seventh Workshop on Regional Human Rights Arrangements in the Asian and Pacific Region, New Delhi, India, 16-18 February 1999.)

It gives me great pleasure indeed to return on this occasion to New Delhi, capital of a country with such an ancient history and culture, and which, from the very outset of the United Nations has championed the cause of freedom and human rights internationally. I am deeply grateful for the efforts made by the Government of India in hosting this Workshop and for all the cooperation extended to us.

As we assemble here today, I am conscious of the diversity and richness of the civilizations and cultures of the countries of Asia and the Pacific, of the historic contributions they have made to the development of the concepts of law and human rights, and of the role they have played in shaping the first-ever global document on human rights, the Universal Declaration.

The principle of cooperation on behalf of human dignity, welfare and rights is an inherent part of the Asia-Pacific experience in general and is exemplified by their participation in the United Nations, including in the Commission on Human Rights. It is this principle of cooperation that brings us together here at this Workshop, the seventh in a series begun in 1990. I am confident that participants in this meeting are united in the beliefs that:

  • International human rights standards are universal. Governments are to make every effort to ensure that civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights are respected and promoted;
  • All possible efforts must continue to be made to enable the peoples of the region to lead lives in dignity, peace and freedom, consistent with the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
  • Efforts for the promotion and protection of human rights in the region, building on international standards, must be informed and inspired by the richness of the cultures and heritages of the peoples of the region.
  • Exchanges of information and experience among Governments in the region on progress and problems being encountered in the implementation of international standards can be helpful. The United Nations, regional organizations and governments of the region can reinforce their mutually beneficial partnerships on behalf of human rights .

Mr. Minister, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to parti-cipate for the second consecutive year in this important regional forum which has become a central focus for discussion of initiatives for regional cooperation.

From the documentation before you, it is striking how many initiatives are underway at the national and the regional level for the promotion and protection of human rights. This is precisely the value of these workshops: that countries of the region can come together annually to exchange information on their efforts to identify best practices and to promote regional cooperation on the basis of national experiences. It is particularly gratifying in this regard that national human rights commissions and non-governmental organizations are also participating in this process.

In Tehran, participants agreed to develop regional arrangements for the advancement of human rights through a step-by-step approach and established a framework for regional technical cooperation which emphasizes initiatives at the national and regional level designed specifically to develop: National plans of action; Human rights education; National institutions; and Strategies for the realization of the right to development and economic, social and cultural rights.

With regard to National Plans of Action, my Office is committed to assist, upon request, all governments from the region to identify strategies designed to develop or strengthen national capacities to promote and protect human rights. This will reflect each government's willingness to translate into action its commitment to the enjoyment of human rights. Such plans can be the concrete reflection of a deliberate policy to promote and protect human rights as well as a useful tool to coordinate between different government departments and authorities in this area.

I should like to emphasize at the outset that my Office is committed to strengthen its capacity to support national governments and institutions in their efforts to promote and protect human rights. To this end I have decided to make available, to the governments of the region, the services of a regional human rights adviser. Based in your region, the regional adviser will, upon request, pay particular attention to actions for human rights education, the development of national plans of action, the enhancement of national capacity in the area of human rights and the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development.

I will also continue to pay particular attention to ensuring that your region benefits from all the activities under the programme of technical cooperation in the field of human rights. In 1998, we recorded the highest number of technical cooperation activities, about 200 in over 40 countries worldwide, and the highest level of financial support ever achieved for the voluntary fund for technical cooperation (about $ 10 million). For 1999, my Office has technical cooperation projects in an advanced stage of formulation in an even larger number of countries, including those of this region, with some of which we have recently signed memoranda of understanding or of intent. It is currently envisaging activities ranging from needs' assessment and formulation missions, support for national human rights plans of action, support for establishing and strengthening national institutions and systems of administration of justice, and support for participation in workshops and other regional and national activities. New methodologies and greater transparency and access to information are also marking the evolution and expansion of the programme in the context of the work of our Office.

The second theme is human rights education: during the Decade, covering the period from January 1995 to December 2004, Governments, international organizations, national institutions, non-governmental organizations, professional associations, all sectors of civil society and individuals are asked to establish partnerships and to concentrate their efforts on promoting a universal culture of human rights through human rights education, training and public information. As coordinator of the Decade on Human Rights Education, I am committed to furthering its objectives.

In order to accomplish these objectives, efforts have been made to work together with different UN agencies, governments and national institutions. Only last week, my office was represented at the Asia-Pacific Conference on human rights education, organised by UNESCO in Pune, India. On 10 December 1998 - the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - my Office together with several partners from governmental and non-governmental sectors launched a new section of the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, containing more than 250 language versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which many are from the Asia-Pacific region.

This project provides us with an example of what "global partnership for human rights" is about; this partnership whose importance I have stressed repeatedly. In September 1998, the Director-General of UNESCO and I jointly wrote to all Heads of Government, encouraging them in developing national human rights education plans and offering our support; and I am pleased to inform you that our offices have started receiving positive feedback from various countries on their commitment to this important effort and on action taken in this regard.

Regarding National Human Rights Institutions, my Office is currently working to support and strengthen national human rights institutions in more than 40 countries. We are now actively engaged with an increasing number of States in all parts of this vast region: in West Asia; East Asia; South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific. I have therefore decided to strengthen the efforts of my Office in the area of national institutions to cope with this continued rapid growth in requests for assistance.

National institutions have a critical role to play in human rights education. I have been particularly encouraged by their efforts in this regard and by the attention paid to the human rights aspects of economic and social rights and the various implications of the recent financial crisis in this region at the recent meeting of the Asia-Pacific Forum - an increasingly important focal point for exchange of information and experiences among national institutions. My Office is currently working on resource materials and training programmes aimed at facilitating the integration of economic, social and cultural rights into the work of national institutions. The contributions of national institutions in this region will be especially important to the success of that project.

Working with governments and civil society, national human rights institutions of the Asia-Pacific have a significant role in protecting those who suffer human rights violations and addressing their root causes.

One area of great concern to me is the trafficking in women and children for purposes of sexual exploitation. I encourage the Governments and institutions present here, and also the Asia-Pacific Forum, which I know has previously focussed attention on this subject, to take up this issue with renewed vigour and commitment. My Office stands ready to work with you in every appropriate way.

Finally, when looking at strategies for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, my hope is to support pragmatic efforts, based on national experiences, to advance the implementation of these rights concretely. I believe that the Asia-Pacific region has much to offer, I would therefore particularly encourage you to highlight distinctive aspects of your experiences in the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights that can be brought to the attention of the international community. As agreed in Tehran, we intend to organize a series of regional and sub-regional meetings focusing on national experiences with a view to collecting and disseminating the best practices that are to be found in different parts of the world.

This should help make the discussion on the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights more concrete.

One of the highest priorities of my Office is the promotion and implementation of the right to development.

I am aware, in this regard, of the policies being developed for the protection of disadvantaged and deprived segments of the population.

A number of significant initiatives have taken place since our last meeting in Tehran:

  • the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between UNDP and my Office in March last year, immediately following the Tehran workshop, which has allowed both organisations to better coordinate their activities, especially in the area of development co-operation.
  • the adoption by many entities of the United Nations system of a "rights-based approach" to operational development activities and programmes will also, I hope, have a significant impact on the promotion of the right to development.
  • the president of the World Bank's recent statement that "development is not just about sound budgets and fiscal management. Development is not just about education and health. It is also about empowering people, recognizing the role of women in the society, eliminating corruption, educating the girls and inoculating children. Development is about putting all the component parts in place - together and in harmony".

Mr. Minister, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, In concluding, let me reiterate that I attach great importance to this workshop and its ability to achieve tangible results for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Asia Pacific region. I would in particular emphasize the following:

  1. The strong commitment of my Office to support the implementation of the regional activities foreseen in the framework of cooperation of Tehran and my decision to allocate USD 730,000 for that purpose. The services of the regional adviser will hopefully facilitate progress in these areas.
  2. My encouragement to all participating Governments to consider both regional and national initiatives within the broad framework of cooperation agreed upon in Tehran. In this connection, I welcome the intention of the Government of Thailand to jointly host a regional meeting in the middle of this year on one of the four major areas identified in Tehran. A meeting on national human rights action plan would in my view be most timely.
  3. My invitation to all of you to identify here in New Delhi - if possible - a candidate for hosting the next Asia-Pacific workshop which will take place in the year 2000 and to consider having inter-sessional consultations by the open-ended working group in Geneva so as to follow-up on the concrete proposals emerging from this meeting.

The goal that has brought us here is to concert our efforts on behalf of the dignity, welfare and rights of the peoples of this region. Let us, by what we do here, help to improve the quality of their lives concretely. Let thus development and progress go hand in hand with freedom, security and the tangible realization of all human rights in their daily lives.

I believe that this regional workshop can help us to advance significantly in the achievement of these objectives.

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