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Theo van Boven: a tribute

Brussels, 8 December 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

When we were approached by the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the European Union and Human Rights in the Picture about being a part of this event, our only regret was that we hadn’t thought of it ourselves first. It is an honour and a pleasure to be here, with a number of other colleagues from the the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – an office which Theo van Boven helped to develop, as the first director of the UN Centre for Human Rights, its immediate precursor.

He is remembered as a sincere and kind person who wanted to be seen, above all, as a good colleague. And he was! While being a leader – but an accessible leader whose commitment to human rights was the motor of his work.

When Mr. van Boven left the Centre, he led the call for the for the creation of the post of High Commissioner – a call which at the time was left unheeded, given the Cold War and the politicization of the human rights debate. At the time, he stated his belief that 'It is inexplicable and indefensible for the United Nations not to react urgently to situations of gross violations of human rights.”

  • Mr. van Boven went on to become, amongst other things, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Reparation to Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights. During this time, he and Cherif Bassiouni drafted the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. These guidelines, which adopt a victim-oriented perspective, clarify the scope of the right to a remedy and outline what can be done to realize it. They were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 – a milestone for victims’ rights everywhere in the world.
  • From 2001 to 2004, he was Special Rapporteur on Torture.
  • Earlier, in 1994, he was named the first registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
  • He has also been a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Today, the Theo van Boven Fund to which he has given his name contributes resources and guidance to studies in the field of human rights. The number of scholarly articles, reports and studies which he has written is vast. They have contributed to the ever-growing role and recognition of human rights research in academia and as a policy-making tool.

As director of the UN Centre for Human Rights, and in his subsequent incarnations, Mr. Van Boven always maintained that the UN’s human rights efforts should not be sidelined or compartmentalized into a small, stuffy corner or niche of the system, but rather that it should come out of  the margins and into the mainstream – it should become the notion underpinning all United Nations efforts, from development to peacekeeping, from policies to programmes. He was, in a sense, a pioneer of later efforts to adopt a human rights-based approach within the whole United Nations System – an approach which is increasingly being adopted by States as well, including by the Netherlands, other EU Member States, and, most recently, in the area of development cooperation, by the European Commission.

He recognized – long before the end of the Cold War – the need to consistently interlink economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights.

He has also been a consistent advocate for internal-external coherence in human rights policy, both with regard to the Netherlands but also in the context of the EU as a global actor. Also here, progress has been made, and there is a renewed push amongst EU Member States to take this question into greater account.
Lastly, Mr. van Boven understood the importance of reaching out beyond States to civil society organizations – again, long before this became accepted currency in the international system, he was at the forefront of calls
to give non-State actors and individuals a voice. The passing of time has proven him right.

While substantial progress has been made over the past decades in advancing the cause of human rights, both normatively and operationally, it is clear that much remains to be done. As Mr. van Boven has said himself, the hope is that all these activities will have an effect in the long run. Working for human rights is not so easy. You don’t see immediate results but we still have hope and a certain degree of confidence.

So it is appropriate that today, on the eve of Human Rights Day, and just after commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Convention Against Torture – we pay tribute to Theo van Boven as a legendary figure of human rights. His perspicacity, commitment and steadfastness are examples to the rest of us – both here in Europe, and beyond. Thank you for being here with us this afternoon to honour his work. And thank you for joining us in continuing this work – there’s still so much to be done! And thank you for your attention.