Skip to main content

"Stand up for Someone's Rights Today": A celebration of Human Rights Day

In remarks delivered at the occasion of Human Rights Day 2016, the Acting OHCHR Regional Representative of Europe, Paul d'Auchamp, spoke out against populism and demagogues that threaten hard-won human rights. In his speech, he emphasized the though challenge ahead in confronting a world whose political and societal realities have become more difficult.

On 13 Dec 2016

Standing up for human rights will require in the near future a firm, unwavering stance upholding principles: "If we want to spread human rights, we have to get much better both at reaching out, but also at sparring with the fear-mongers." Above all, a good grasp of what the causes of the challenges are will be critical to a successful response, both for the UN and the wider civil society.

The remarks were delivered during an event organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Ciné-ONU and the European Union at Bozar, Brussels’ Centre for Fine Art.

"Stand up for Someone's Rights Today: Remarks of the Acting OHCHR Regional Representative of Europe at the launch of Human Rights Day ceremony in Brussels"

Someone I know recently posted a picture on Facebook - a glossy, beautiful picture of a wave. Written across it, it said: "If you can't break the wave, ride it". You know the kind of feel-good posts I’m talking about?

I first thought “yes, that's that's pretty cool, ride the wave". Until I realized that it actually wasn't. At least not in today’s context. I juxtaposed that message to what's going on in the world today. And there's a big, ugly wave coming our way.

It's a wave of nationalism and xenophobia, and it's sweeping across Europe and beyond. And that's a wave we simply cannot afford to ride. It's a wave we must break.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't adapt to changing circumstances - Darwin had a pretty good theory about what happens to species that don't. So of course we should adapt.

We should do more to understand where this wave is coming from. We should get better at listening to the legitimate concerns of many people who feel their voices aren't being sufficiently heard.

But at the same time, we should not shy away from arguing, in a far more determined and forceful manner, against the easy and ultimately false solutions proposed by demagogues and populists.

Solutions like “we’ll just close our borders and re-industrialize”. Or “throw out the foreigners - they're taking our jobs”; or “throw out the foreigners - they're taking advantage of our generous unemployment benefits so that they don’t have to work”. Which is it, by the way - surely they cannot both steal our jobs and our unemployment benefits?

Other crazy solutions are being proposed: Ban the Koran. Ban halal food. Register all Muslims. A rhetoric of scapegoats and easy targets, striking out at the most vulnerable.

The fact is - once this sort of language becomes normalized, once it takes hold - in some countries helped along by sensationalist media peddling lies in what some people are calling a "post-truth world" - other groups will be placed increasingly into the line of fire. Why not the Jews again, or Roma? Or LGBT persons, or persons with disabilities? Or people with curly hair...basically, anyone who's different!

So if we want to spread human rights, we have to get much better both at reaching out, but also at sparring with the fear-mongers.