Helsinki, 26 February 2015
Your Excellency Minister Henriksson, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be here with you today and to address this important event on Defending Human Rights in a Multipolar World.
We are discussing here at a time when there is intense questioning about the universality of human rights in a world which is undoubtedly multipolar. Just before Christmas, I participated in a similar conference where another EU Member State was contemplating a change in orientation of the human rights element in its foreign policy. The central question of that conference was not unsimilar to the title of today’s event: it reflected the uncertainty of how to continue promoting the message of human rights across non-Western contexts? And indeed, is it legitimate to do so at all, given the acknowledgment of European and other Western countries’ own unresolved human rights problems and challenges?
Second, we are discussing here at a time which is seeing dramatic human rights challenges in Europe itself – not in the European Union, but in a country neighboring its member states, Ukraine – and just outside Europe, in the context of the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the worrying breakdown of governance in Libya, not to speak of the persistent Israeli-Palestianian stalemate. With the emergence of ISIS, we are witnessing what hardly anyone expected even just a year ago: the existence of a significant territorial power base of a fanatical, hateful ideology that is completely opposed to the very notion of human rights and maintains that those who think or worship otherwise than its adherents should simply be beheaded or burnt alive. We are witnessing mass displacement of millions of Syrians to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And the geographic proximity of these events to Europe has meant that the EU is dealing with unprecedented numbers of Syrian – and other – refugees and migrants risking their lives in attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Finland, of course, is as far from the Mediterranean as any EU member state can be, but it is not exempt of the stark choices that emerge from this dramatic situation: European countries are on the record as supporting universalism in terms of human rights, meaning that Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans and others do have the same human rights as Europeans themselves. So what are they going to do to help them enjoy these rights – starting with the most basic right, the right to life, which is under threat in the current crisis? What is the policy response? Offering generous resettlement opportunities, at least to displaced Syrians, or just leaving the countries of Southern Europe to cope alone? Or simply further investment in ever-tighter border control and police sweep operations targeting those who have managed to come into Europe nonetheless, having barely escaped the horrors of war and the dangers of the sea, and are now labelled as unwelcome „irregular“ or even „illegal“ migrants?
The third challenge is that of security. This year itself – the few first weeks of 2015 – has brought another unexpected turn of history, with the terrorist attacks in France and Denmark which once again raised the ugly specter of anti-Semitism (at a time which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz) as well as representing perhaps the most dramatic attack on freedom of speech in democratic European countries in living memory. How should countries deal with such challenges without once again over-reacting – without themselves infringing on human rights as we saw in the reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 which brought us Guantánamo, waterboarding, secret detention and renditions, excessive surveillance and infringements of privacy, religious intolerance against ordinary Muslims, and racial profiling..? Have States that are confronted with the terrorist menace, both inside and outside Europe, learned the right lessons?
I have raised a whole host of questions and there is probably no one in the world – let alone myself – who would have all the answers to them. Answers need to be found in dialogue between many stakeholders: duty bearers such as States or regional organizations such as the EU and the Council of Europe, but also civil society organizations and, to the highest extent possible, the involvement of rights-holders themselves – including those who come from groups who are at greatest risk. The whole narrative of human rights is an interactive and open-ended one; nobody has all the right answers that can be delivered from a piedestal.
That being said, I would like to emphasize that there are mechanisms that have been entrusted by the international community to provide guidance on human rights – mechanisms that have long been extremely helpful in stimulating progress and avoiding error; and that in times of uncertainty and new challenges, the guidance provided by these mechanisms is particularly valuable. I am speaking, of course, of the recommendations to UN member states by the Treaty Bodies established under the core international treaties on human rights; of the recommendations provided by Special Procedures Mandate Holders established by the human rights council; and of those generated in the process of the Universal Periodic Review. They are, in a way, the best answer to those who question the universality of human rights or are even actively trying to undermine their universality from the position of cultural relativism (which, by the way, is often just based on expediency). As the EU Special Representative on Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, often reiterates, „cultural relativism“ tends to be evoked a justification for human rights violations by the violators, not by the victims of the violations.
Are there inconsistencies in the recommendations of the international human rights system? Occasionally, indeed, there are inconsistencies; but these tend to be linked to the overlaps between various subjects of scrutiny rather than to cultural or regional differences. In fact, what is remarkable is not so much the existence of minor inconsistencies, but the overall consistency of the guidance they provide across the whole scope of civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Indeed, it is noteworthy how even in such a sensitive area as freedom of religion, we see that there is a genuine continuity of guidance provided by the mandate of Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion, from one mandate holder to another.
While a lot of Europe’s immediate neighborhood is in turmoil, across large parts of Asia, the African continent and the Americas the message of human rights has been making quiet progress. Regional systems of human rights protection, of which the European one has been an important forerunner, are playing an increasingly important role in ensuring adherence to human rights standards. In recent days, the trial of the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, by a special African court in Senegal, has started – a potential landmark in the struggle to guarantee that there is no impunity for massive human rights violations, even for heads of state, and that this can be achieved in Africa itself. At the same time, the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt for genocide in his own country is, despite all the setbacks, already a milestone in the history of overcoming impunity at national level. In Colombia, the long and tragic history of extra-judicial killings in the context of internal armed conflict is in the process of being overcome – with a major contribution of our Office’s field presence. And despite many difficulties, the last years have seen more or less promising developments in the area of transitional justice in a number of countries, often drawing on the guidance of the Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non- Recurrence.
At UN level, human rights have become mainstreamed in the United Nations post-2015 agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals – in a way in which they were not there in the previous Millenium Development Goals. The UN Human Rights up Front Agenda has emphasized the role of serious human rights violations as a trigger for armed conflict and the need to address such human rights violations in conflict prevention as well as when a conflict is already under way. And the UN Human Rights Due Diligence policy has been adopted, with the aim of ensuring that when the UN cooperates with armed forces, there are adequate measures to prevent the re-ocurrence of human rights violations, particularly by known previous violators.
Finally, despite the sometimes heated debates about alleged „conflicts of values“ at various international fora, there is in fact at least circumstantial evidence of the human rights message, in form of universal standards, making quiet progress. The fact that the number of National Human Rights Institutions is growing across the world is a case in the point because NHRIs represent the interface between national and international systems - though it has to be noted that less than half of EU Member States have a so-called „A“ status NHRI, and that some European
NHRIs are rather short of adequate resources – so there is considerable room for real improvement even in Europe.
The fact that all UN member states have submitted themselves to the Universal Periodic Review is another reason for moderate optimism. The process has been praised for giving more political urgency to the expert recommendations coming from the Treaty Bodies and the Special Procedures. It has also sometimes been criticised for having been politicized, with Governments using it to praise their friends or target their enemies. That may well be at least partly true: but even that is an implicit admission of the universal acceptance of human rights standards. States tend to respond to criticism by efforts to persuade their critics that and that the measures taken by them are constistent with international human rights standards, not by contesting the validity of such standards. And this, indeed, has been the case of many other States with (more) problematic human rights records. While EU member states are often unhappy at receiving criticism and recommendations from States whose human rights records they see as less impressive, this, too, is a sign of acceptance of the human rights message – and the proper response, in our view, is for EU member states to take their own human rights obligations seriously.
This, perhaps, is also the response to the questions raised, as I mentioned earlier, by some Member States. When faced by criticism from other states or from mandated international bodies for their own human rights record, the EU Member States should not reject such criticism on the basis of a feeling of superiority; they should not be defensive and deny existing challenges and problems, but lead by example.
On the other hand, the admission of imperfection on part of European States should not be a reason to reduce their human rights engagement in the foreign policy domain: Quite on the contrary, European States – and the EU itself, which has been paying increased attention to internal- external consistency - will be all the more credible in vigorously supporting human rights abroad if they display genuine efforts to address their own human rights problems.
Todays complicated world needs a continued active engagement of European states, including Finland, for human rights through their foreign policy – an engagement which does not use „double standards“ for more
or less friendly countries, and which is not selective, addressing not just civil and political rights issues but also those of economic, social and cultural rights, through a human-rights-based approach to development aid policies. This is important, because selectiveness as well as double standards can also undermine human rights universalism.
But European States also need to ensure that they address internal human rights issues such as the extreme social exclusion, discrimination and segregation suffered by Roma in many countries of Europe (an issue still associated with enormous degrees of denial and blaming of the victims), - that they change the policies, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, that have long provided inadequate responses to disability and child vulnerability by placing them in segregating, impersonal institutions, while they should be supporting families and creating community-based care to ensure their inclusion in the community (it is important that all but three EU member states have ratified the CRPD but ratification is not an end in itself – it should be an impulse for real policy change); and, what might be the biggest political challenge, that European States change the current restrictive discourse and policy vis-a-vis migration, address the dramatic needs for resettlement of displaced populations (particularly in the context of the Syrian conflict) and the developing tragedy in the Mediterranean by creating alternative, legal channels for entry into Europe; and that States resist the temptation to react to recent terrorist attacks by restrictions of freedoms or by measures that unfairly target migrants and minorities.
In short, Ladies and Gentlemen, even in the current difficult situation, there is no place either for complacency or for fatalism. The human rights narrative, born out of a struggle, will continue progressing through difficult efforts, overcoming obstacles and setbacks; and our Office, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stands ready to be a constructive partner to Governments, NHRIs, civil society activists and above all, the rights-holders themselves in that effort.
Thank you for your attention.
In the context of all the challenges that I mentioned earlier on, we not infrequently encounter a tendency to pessimism or fatalism about human rights. But this is not new: it has happened many times in the past. There are very concrete reasons for concern – but not reasons for defeatism. In fact, it can be argued that human rights universalism is progressing worldwide, despite all the bad news that so often makes headlines, and despite the very real dilemmas around us.