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Human rights: building a common future

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights commits to preventing human rights abuses and to bringing abusers to justice. 

"The age of prevention": this is the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's challenge to the world for the coming century - a view wholeheartedly endorsed by Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In her address to delegates she reviewed this century, highlighting the Commission's achievements and the terrible challenges it has had to face.

   UN/DPI Photo by J.P. Laffont

"It is no coincidence that states where children have become combatants should be among the states where it is most difficult to create enduring peace."

"Protection and prevention must define the Commission's work in the years to come," she said. "In the last decade, many governments and UN agencies have reviewed how they can respond to conflict, both to provide humanitarian support to victims, and to rebuild war-torn societies after the conflict ends. When the Security Council created the first criminal tribunals to prosecute war crimes in Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda it recognized the imperative of international prevention. Last year's decision to create an international criminal court represents a major breakthrough by governments to end past cycles of impunity, and establish individual criminal responsibility. Once states ratify the Rome Statute the Court can begin its job, which is the job of any national criminal court: prosecution, education, punishment and deterrence."

Special Rapporteurs

The Commissioner went on to outline the work and effect of measures to prevent the violation of human rights. She detailed the task of, for instance, the Commission's Special Rapporteurs, human rights monitors who can prevent violations and also 'diagnose' institutional and human weaknesses which might underlie violations. Mrs. Robinson included as vital a 'post-conflict phase' in which authorities could be aided in promoting human rights, by providing protection for the vulnerable, together with re-training and restructuring police and other armed forces to reduce the likelihood of continuing cycles of violence.

The Commission's reporting mandate is unique: it can identify situations likely to deteriorate into conflict; it can give early warning signals so crucial to possibly defusing tension or preparing for escalation of unrest. The Commissioner also referred to other equally important human rights issues, such as the need to eradicate racial discrimination and to guarantee the rights and protection of children. This year, 1999, marks the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has achieved almost universal acceptance although Mrs. Robinson pointed out that the further inclusion of a protocol against conscripting child soldiers should be made without delay. "It is no coincidence that states where children have become combatants should be among the states where it is most difficult to create enduring peace. Children without education, economic security and family life, often the poorest of the poor, whose only security has been the gun, do not find it easy to build the institutions of peace when they leave childhood to become the adults of the next generation."

"I am convinced that we can engage in constructive international co-operation to rid our world of the gross violations of human rights (to which I have referred) and to set in place the foundations for every child, woman and man to be able to enjoy decent life chances in peace and freedom, and with dignity and respect for human rights. I am encouraged by the constructive regional co-operation that is taking place around the globe to help human rights take root and to chart practical courses of action at the national level.... As we enter the new century, we do so with the knowledge that enjoyment of all human rights, including the right to development, is the cornerstone of peace and security, and the key to preventing future conflict and building a common future."

Promoting democracy

The German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Fischer, speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU) at the conference said that while much had been achieved much still remained to be done. The link between peace, democracy and human rights is evident: "The promotion of democracy and human rights is the best means of safeguarding peace." Mr. Fischer quoted the Indian winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Professor Amartya Sen, who proved that famines occur much less frequently in democracies than in dictatorships because governments subject to democratic accountability usually take much more care of the welfare of their people.

The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the Conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva; his statement was subtitled "I have made human rights a priority in every United Nations programme."

It was inevitable that the speakers at a conference on human rights would refer to the current conflict in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. In that context, said Mr. Annan, it was essential to try to ensure a firm foundation for the protection of human rights of future generations.

"I believe human rights are at the core of our sacred bond with the peoples of the United Nations," he said. "Perhaps more than any other aspect of our work, the struggle for human rights resonates with our global constituency, and is deeply relevant to the lives of those most in need -- the tortured, the oppressed, the silenced, the victims of 'ethnic cleansing' and injustice."

"Impunity is unacceptable"

Mr. Annan also issued a warning: "In the age of human rights, the United Nations must have the courage to recognize that just as there are common rights there are common enemies. We should leave no one in doubt that for the mass murderers, the 'ethnic cleansers', those guilty of gross and shocking violations of human rights, impunity is unacceptable. The United Nations will never be their refuge ... They are our enemies, regardless of race, religion or nation, and only in their defeat can we redeem the promise of this great organization." Such crimes against humanity would be brought to justice.

Despite the present strife in the world Mr. Annan nevertheless saw cause for hope and optimism. While the strengthening of organizations and all the forces and resources needed to defend human rights comes, regrettably, too late for the victims - murdered, repressed, displaced and denied -- "it will not have come too late for the United Nations if it emboldens us to enter a new century with a renewed commitment to protecting the rights of every man, woman, child."

(The 55th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights met in Geneva from 22 March-30 April 1999.)

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005