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  4. March 2003 - Volume 31
  5. Opening Statement by Sergio Vieira de Mello UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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FOCUS March 2003 Volume 31

Opening Statement by Sergio Vieira de Mello UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

We live in a time when many around the world have profound feelings of insecurity and fear. There is a sense that no one is safe. This insecurity has been heightened by acts of terrorism that have affected us all.

It may sometimes feel as if we no longer have any stable points of reference to chart our way through the uncertainties of the world. But I am firmly convinced that a comprehensive strategy for security can and must be guided by upholding the rule of law and respecting human rights.

The security of States and the region flows from the security of the human being. This security, in turn, is guaranteed by the rule of law and respect for human rights, both of which form a unifying force, a force that can serve to chart a path across difficult terrains.

What do I mean by the rule of law? Under the rule of law, conflict is resolved and wrongs are righted by applying objective, impartial, democratically established rules. An independent, impartial judiciary is the cornerstone for the rule of law in any democratic society as are checks and balances such as independent national human rights institutions. The rule of law means that those in power are accountable - that there is no impunity for violation of the law and individuals have remedies when their rights under the law have been violated. The rule of law means that everyone is equal before the law, that no person or group is outside the protection of the law or faces discrimination.

The rule of law is a constant; it applies at all times to all States to all persons. The sophisticated, intertwined body of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law refined over the last half century guides States in times of peace and war. It sets minimum standards for governance. It protects the internally displaced. It protects civilians in times of conflict. It protects those who cross borders in search of refuge from persecution. Even a state of emergency declared to meet an exceptional threat to the life of the nation should be an extension of the rule of law and not an abrogation of it.

Most importantly, it is human rights ­ the rights that attach to us all ­ that infuse the rule of law with values, and ensure that we live with the rule of law and not a sterile, dangerous rule by law. It is human rights standards that tell us what are the basic rights of all people that must be protected by the law. The long struggle for social justice in this region is inspired by the desire to live in full freedom; it is inspired by the desire to exercise all rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social.

The rule of law: bringing security to the lives of people

I believe there are a number of important ways in which the rule of law and respect for human rights can help to bring security to the lives of people and therefore to the lives of nations. Here, I would like to focus on six specific areas, which I feel deserve particular attention.

1. Combating terrorism without violating human rights

First, I firmly believe that it is possible to take appropriate action in response to terrorist acts, or to prevent them, while still respecting human rights. No cause can ever justify a terrorist act. Indeed, terrorism seeks to destroy human rights and States have the duty to protect those within their territory from such acts. However, as the Secretary-General said at last year's session of the Commission on Human Rights "… we cannot achieve security by sacrificing human rights. To try to do so would land the terrorists a victory beyond their dreams."

In fact, human rights standards already strike a fair balance between freedoms and national security. After all, the standards were drafted by States themselves, who had a keen awareness of their own security concerns.

Exceptional measures by States to tackle terrorism must therefore be compatible with the rule of law. This legal framework provides that such measures must be of a short duration, be absolutely necessary, proportionate and not discriminate against people because of their identity. Accordingly, you will understand that I have been concerned to note in Asia-Pacific, as in other regions, that a number of States have adopted anti-terror laws that are vaguely and widely-worded, that may suspend rights without proper justification and which erode fair trial and other hard-fought-for civil rights.

As you know, some rights can, of course, never be suspended, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how grave the provocation. I have been appalled at the resurgence of debate in certain parts of the world as to whether resort to torture may be justified to tackle terrorism. It may not. The right to be free from torture was recognized a long time ago by all States. There can be no going back, no matter, I repeat, how grave the provocation. A commitment to freedom from torture is fundamental to our world civilization.

2. Tackling underlying grievances, injustices and human rights violations

Secondly, human rights violations create a ripe environment for conflict, terrorism and war. Force alone does not stop terrorism nor end armed conflict. The resort to violence ­ which often ends up with the oppressed becoming the oppressor ­ is often a response to a sense of complete hopelessness because of long-standing injustices that have not been remedied through democratic channels.

Poverty and marginalization are common challenges for States in Asia-Pacific. For the poor the overwhelming reality of their lives is the indignity of being denied almost all their rights ­ to food, water, health, education, housing, personal security, political participation, governance, justice and equality. It is often marginalized groups who suffer the worst ­ minority, ethnic and indigenous groups, migrant domestic workers, women, children, lower castes, slum dwellers, people living with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS.

A human rights approach to development and poverty eradication seeks to understand the long-term political, economic, social and cultural reasons for the marginalization of groups. It seeks to give them a voice and a way of claiming their rights. This approach will not only help to avoid conflict - it is essential if States are to achieve the targets they set themselves in the Millennium Development Goals.

A priority for my Office is elaborating what a human rights approach to development means in practice. Last year we commissioned a group of experts, including the well-known Bangladeshi economist Siddiq Osmani, to produce Draft Guidelines on a human rights approach to poverty reduction strategies. I encourage you to test these draft Guidelines. They are an excellent tool in formulating, implementing and monitoring poverty reduction strategies, especially in regard to economic, social and cultural rights.

The logical conclusion of applying the rule of law and human rights to poverty eradication is development. I congratulate States in Asia-Pacific for having championed the right to development. The significance of this right is reflected in it being one of the four pillars of cooperation under the Teheran Framework. You will recall that in Beirut last year, Asia-Pacific States reaffirmed that the right to development means the enjoyment of all rights ­ civil, cultural, economic, political and social ­ and that good governance and popular participation in the development process is essential.

The right to development also puts a spotlight on the inequalities of the international economic and trading system. Globalization and trade liberalization have brought wealth to many, but the gap between rich and poor ­ rich and poor countries and rich and poor people within countries ­ is increasing. The right to development says that international action, including by wealthier States, to remedy the inequalities is an obligation and not charity.

3. Building human rights into post-conflict peace-building

Third, where conflict does erupt, human rights should be the foundation upon which a sustainable peace is built.

During my tenure as High Commissioner, I intend to do my best to ensure that human rights are truly at the center of peace agreements, be that in Asia-Pacific or in other regions. The UN's peace-building role includes assisting the reconciliation process, ensuring a credible process of accountability for serious human rights crimes committed during the conflict, and helping to build systems of accountability that help to prevent conflict [from] re-emerging.

In Afghanistan, my Office is working with the Government, civil society and our colleagues in the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan to build a strong post-conflict human rights culture in the area of women's rights, human rights education and transitional justice through support to the newly-established Afghan National Human Rights Commission.

In Sri Lanka, a newly-appointed senior human rights adviser will work with the UN country team to help provide human rights capacity-building needed to underpin a permanent peace.

In the Solomon Islands, we are maintaining an office supporting the human rights aspects of the peace-building process in that country.

As part of a broad United Nations effort, my Office is also engaged in Nepal, where well-targeted human rights measures could play a crucial role in building confidence between the parties and could help turn the welcome ceasefire into a stable peace process. Tackling underlying social justice and human rights grievances in Nepal would also help transform a political process into a sustainable peace.

And in Timor-Leste - whom we warmly welcome for the first time as a Member State of the Asia-Pacific Framework - the United Nations established a Serious Crimes Unit and Serious Crimes Judicial Panel to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. The United Nations, and in particular, my Office, continues to support the work of the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

4. Tackling racism and religious and other intolerance

Fourth, I have been increasingly concerned about what appears to be growing racism, xenophobia and intolerance, exacerbated by the events following 11 September 2001. The rise of the phenomenon of vilifying Islam is particularly disturbing, as are practices such as racial profiling. I have been concerned in Asia-Pacific about attacks on religious and ethnic minorities that fuel increasingly bitter relations between different communities and pit one group against another.

I urge all Governments to be active in tackling manifestations of intolerance. The rule of law imposes a heavy responsibility on States to protect the rights of minority and of indigenous groups, to ensure there is no impunity for violent attacks. Human rights law is also clear in prohibiting advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that incites people to violence or other hostility.

More positively, I believe we need to reaffirm our common humanity and the dignity of all human beings. There is a need to reaffirm the universality of human rights in the face of new attempts to breakdown and divide the world afresh. Perhaps this is needed more now than at any time in living memory. In Asia-Pacific we should celebrate the richness and diversity that thousands of different ethnic, religious, linguistic and national groups bring to the economic, political and cultural life of this region.

This is the message from the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the Durban World Conference Against Racism. My Office is playing a leading role in encouraging States to implement this agenda for tolerance ­ an agenda to which this group of States renewed its commitment at the Beirut annual workshop last year. The commitment of Asia-Pacific States to work on the pillar of human rights education under the Asia-Pacific framework will be a key vehicle in the long term to build links between communities, to break down discrimination, to end the idea of "us" and "them."

5. Reinvigorating democratic governance and build institutions

Fifth, I believe that a reinvigoration of democratic governance is the most effective way of ensuring that the conflicts and tensions natural in any society are resolved peacefully and do not escalate into violent conflict. I welcome the repeated reaffirmation in the Teheran Framework of the vital role of democratic governance. When I say democracy I mean the continuum of democracy in an interconnected world, from the local community, to the nation, to the system of international relations.

While there is no single model of democracy, and imperfect as the ship of democracy may be, no other vessel has proved as sea-worthy in bringing us safely to the shores of human dignity. I felt this strongly as I watched the cheering crowds in Dili last May 2002 usher in the newest democratic state, Timor-Leste, to our family of United Nations.

Beyond free and fair elections to ensure that government is based on the will of the people, democracy is a rich, holistic concept that brings together values, processes and institutions. Without democracy, there can be no rule of law.

Democracy is about participatory politics, not just for the majority, but for the marginalized, the excluded. Democracy is about ensuring accountability of those who govern. It is about denying impunity and tackling the cancer of corruption.

Democracy is about ensuring that citizens have a real and not illusory access to justice to right wrongs. My Office therefore puts considerable emphasis on working with States to help build the institutions that guarantee accountability: the courts, prosecutors, lawyers, police, and the prison system. Democracy is about exercising the human rights guarantees that underpin the system and give it content, from the right to freedom of expression, assembly, association and information to the demand that democracies take reasonable steps to provide their people with basic education, health care, food and shelter.

Democracy is about a protected space for civil society to act as a watchdog, a source of constructive recommendations, and a voice for the underdog.

I am concerned that in the new insecurity of our world there is a tendency to clamp down on dissent and to gradually reduce the space for peaceful expression of views and defense of human rights. Today, your voice may be suppressed; tomorrow it will be mine. My Office is firmly committed to defending this essential right.

6. Building an effective system of international criminal justice

Sixth, international criminal justice is an essential part of a rule of law and human rights approach to international security. Two weeks ago the General Assembly elected the 18 judges of the new International Criminal Court. This is a landmark in the creation of an interlocking system that will bring to justice those responsible for crimes considered so heinous by the international community, such as crimes against humanity and war crimes, that they should be subject to international jurisdiction. I urge States to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and thereby join this crucial mechanism aimed at preserving security and guaranteeing justice in the international system.

Rights of women

The rights of women deserve considerable specific and energetic focus and I have made this one of my major priorities. I am conscious that two of the highest caliber experts appointed by the Commission on Human Rights are from our host country, Pakistan. Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and Ms. Hina Jilani, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, represent the very best of Asian civil society.

Running through all these elements of a human rights approach to insecurity, terrorism and conflict, is the essential role that women play as peacemakers, as breadwinners, as sources of creative ideas. We all know well that it is indeed generally women who, as heads of household, have to pick up the pieces after conflict, and lead their family into a brighter, more optimistic future. Yet, while a disproportionate part of the world's poor, displaced and exiled are women, they remain underrepresented in public and political life. Women suffer routine violence in the home and marginalization as foreign migrant domestic workers. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy from Sri Lanka, has played a huge role in drawing attention to the responsibility of States for violence that takes place in the private sphere, including domestic violence and honor killings, two issues that have darkened the skies of this region for too long.

The Asia-Pacific Framework for Cooperation

The Asia-Pacific framework was inspired by a desire to build common human rights foundations in this region and to find ways to work together across borders and sub-regions. I would encourage you in five directions:

First, international human rights treaties and standards provide a common road map to tackle together the challenges you face. I am encouraged that since 2001 there have been twenty signatures and seventeen ratifications of core human rights treaties and their protocols, by States in Asia-Pacific. You are building common foundations. It is time that all core human rights treaties were ratified by all States in Asia-Pacific. I also encourage States to consider lifting reservations made when they ratified some treaties. My Office stands ready to provide technical assistance to help States that are considering ratifying human rights treaties or withdrawing reservations. I also hope that Asia-Pacific will be the driving force behind the proposed international convention on the rights of people living with disabilities, an initiative that the People's Republic of China has already taken a welcome and positive lead.

Secondly, the Secretary-General, in his second set of reform proposals launched last September, put particular emphasis on the UN helping States to establish national human rights protection systems. Progress at the national level will be the ultimate measure of success of cooperation under the four pillars of this framework. I am committed to stepping up my Office's technical assistance to Asia-Pacific States, through our field presence in individual countries, my Regional Representatives in Bangkok and Beirut and through my teams in Geneva.

Thirdly, this framework is about cooperating together to bring about incremental progress and change. I encourage you to measure that progress; every year to take stock of what concretely has been achieved since the previous year in the protection and promotion of human rights. Ask not just what activities have been undertaken, but what lasting changes have happened and what will be the impact on the lives of people in this region?

Fourthly, I welcome the growing and constructive role national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing in this Asia-Pacific process. I am pleased to see both are well represented here today. Many of the national human rights institutions present here have been supported by my Office over the years. As independent and professional institutions they are essential in building national systems for the protection of human rights and the rule of law. They are a bridge between government and civil society. I warmly welcome the NGOs. Asia is rich in experienced and committed NGOs, many of whom have world standing. My Office seeks to work closely with NGOs, drawing on their expertise and views and seeing them as implementing partners in our common goals.

Finally, the human rights work of my Office is characterized by its partnerships with other UN agencies and with international financial institutions. No one agency "owns" human rights. It is the mission of the entire UN system. The main thrust of the Secretary-General's reform process has been to integrate human rights approaches into all agencies, especially in the field. My Office is a catalyst for this process. Increasingly other agencies are developing capacity and enthusiasm in bringing a rights-based approach to their work and my Office is stepping up its level of human rights support for UN country teams around the world.

In short, I encourage you to deliberate over the next three days about how your four pillars of cooperation will, in reality, help to build the rule of law and human rights. This is nothing less than a reflection of the pledges already made in the Millennium Declaration and the very specific Millennium Development Goals. In doing so I believe you will be building security for all. Remember the wisdom of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: " It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."

Thank you.