From Rhetoric to Reality

©UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

The United Nations has come a long way since it was established, 70 years ago, by sovereign States to resolve inter-State disputes. Its massive efforts in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and setting global standards compel me to wonder what we would have done without it. Like everyone, I recognize the magnitude of the crisis that the United Nations—and indeed, the world—faces today. First, though, I want to focus on a few of the many achievements that I consider to be impressive.

Throughout the dark days of apartheid in my native country, South Africa, I was firmly convinced of the need to be guided by a system of universally recognized values of what is right and just. The United Nations provides us with such a standard of values and norms, together with the tools to implement them. It has advanced resoundingly from a State-centred system of traditional international law, based on the pre-eminence of State sovereignty, into a norm-based institution. Its goals are clear: while respecting the freedom of sovereign States, it is also dedicated to protecting and promoting peace, security, development, rule of law and human rights for the people of the world.

International law increasingly plays a role in shaping state policy, as well as domestic law, to advance protection of human rights. There has also been marked growth in international criminal law, with its emphasis on the criminal responsibility of the individual. Progress in international criminal justice lay dormant for half a century after the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. But the landscape has shifted rapidly over the past 20 years. The establishment of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, was followed by ad hoc international courts in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the courts for Iraq and Lebanon. With the adoption of the Rome Statute in 1998, the International Criminal Court, the world’s first-ever permanent international criminal court, was established.

Yet the idea of developing universal standards of human rights is relatively new. And this use by the international community of judicial power backed by punishment to deter serious violations of human rights is an even more recent development. As witnesses in the ICTR genocide trials—where I was a judge—said, “We have longed for this day, to see justice being done.” Setting up a system of international criminal justice was a real milestone for the United Nations.

International law sets clear standards of equality, freedom from discrimination and human dignity for all persons. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundational framework for human rights, and today all the countries of the world subscribe to its principles. Most constitutions and national legislations embody them, and they have been strengthened over 70 years of steadfast United Nations activity involving the adoption of conventions, treaties, resolutions and declarations.

In accordance with the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, States accept that it is they that carry the foremost responsibility to protect the human rights of their people—civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights—and to fulfil their demand to be free from fear and want.

At the same time, the United Nations subscribes to the principle that when States need assistance in implementing their responsibility to protect their own people, the international community should assist. This is critical where States confront armed groups committing atrocities against the people, and where a country is ravaged by natural disasters or lacks the resources essential for delivery of services.

International law is also clear that where a State manifestly fails to protect its population against massive violations of human rights, the international community must intervene to protect, using the means prescribed and circumscribed by the Charter of the United Nations.

Unfortunately, State sovereignty is often invoked to deflect United Nations action to prevent serious human rights violations. And Governments themselves, by their actions or omissions, are often culpable in tolerating abuses.

It is a bitter paradox that as we celebrate 70 years of achievements by the United Nations, the Organization faces its greatest challenges in current times. The conflict in Syria has entered its fifth year—spreading its tentacles across borders into Iraq; causing the loss of more than 200,000 lives and displacing millions of Syrians now cramped in United Nations shelters and in various temporary quarters.

The atrocities being perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rebel group particularly shock our collective conscience. Thousands of men, women and children have been executed or forcibly recruited, girls sold into sexual slavery and women raped. Imposing their own extreme form of Islam, they offer no other option to their captives but to convert or be slain. Employing sophisticated modern technology of the digital era, ISIL has managed to recruit young fighters across the world in a most insidious manner. The Government of Iraq, unable to contain this massive conflict, confronted by Syrian and foreign insurgents, has asked the United Nations for assistance to protect its people.

Other complex and potentially highly eruptive conflicts are underway in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen. These crises hammer home the full cost of the failure of the international community to prevent conflict. They combine massive bloodshed and devastation of infrastructure with acutely destabilizing transnational phenomena, including terrorism, the proliferation of weaponry, organized crime and spoliation of natural resources.

None of these crises erupted without warning. They built up over years of human rights grievances; deficient or corrupt governance and lack of independent judicial and law enforcement institutions; discrimination and exclusion; inequities in development; exploitation and denial of economic and social rights; and repression of civil society and public freedoms.

Early detection systems such as the then 51 special procedures experts (currently 55) of the Human Rights Council, and systematic scrutiny by treaty bodies repeatedly alerted us to these shortfalls. Thus, although the specifics of each conflict could not necessarily be predicted, many of the human rights complaints that were at the core of a confrontation were known. They could and should have been addressed.

This was, in the first place the duty of relevant States. But when Governments are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, the people look to the United Nations—through its various system bodies, but specifically through the Security Council, to intervene, invoking international law and deploying the range of good offices, support, inducements and coercion at its disposal to defuse the triggers of conflict.

Sovereign States established the international human rights framework precisely because they knew that human rights violations cause conflict, and this undermines sovereignty. Early action to address human rights concerns protects States, by warding off the threat of devastating violence and forced displacement. Recognition of this urgent truth, and a broader conception of national interest, would be more appropriate to a century in which a growing number of challenges face humanity as a whole.

In August 2014, when, as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I addressed the Security Council, I stated this view, pointing out that use of the veto to stop actions intended to prevent or defuse conflict is a short-term and ultimately counterproductive tactic. The collective interest, defined clearly by the Charter of the United Nations, is in the national interest of every country.

Human rights are always central to conflict prevention. Patterns of violations, including sexual violence, provide early alerts to escalation; this truth has never been so clear as it is today. But the human rights agenda is also a detailed road map for ways to resolve disputes. The years of practical experience of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), through its presence in more than 58 countries and via human rights components of peacekeeping missions, elicit a number of good practices that address both proximate triggers of conflict and root causes.

These include strengthening civil society actors, increasing participation by women in decision-making and dialogue, and addressing institutional and individual account- ability for past crimes and serious human rights violations.

While it is disheartening that conflicts rage unabated in a small number of States, an increasing number of countries are nonetheless making serious efforts to implement the United Nations agenda to advance human rights. Credit for that should go to the countless brave and committed civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and government personnel, who, over decades, have slowly succeeded in firmly rooting international human rights norms in their societies. It is vital that civil society be given greater democratic space within international fora, as well as within every country.

The Security Council’s interest in human rights increased markedly during my tenure as High Commissioner, with growing acknowledgement that it cannot hope to safeguard peace, security and development unless it is alerted to the relevant human rights context. But despite repeated briefings regarding escalating violations in multiple crises, by OHCHR and other United Nations bodies, and despite the Secretary-General’s appeal for collective action, there has not always been a firm and principled decision by Security Council members to put an end to conflicts. Short-term geopolitical considerations and national interests, narrowly defined, have repeatedly taken preference over intolerable human suffering, and over grave breaches of, and long-term threats to, international peace and security.

In my address to the Security Council on prevention of conflict, I suggested that the Council take a number of innovative approaches to prevent threats to international peace and security. The Human Rights up Front action plan is an important initiative for collective and immediate delivery by all United Nations agencies for the protection of human rights in crises. It is a welcome development, stemming from the failure of the United Nations to protect human rights in Rwanda and Sri Lanka. In the future, I hope that it will give the Secretary- General the means to be even more proactive in alerting to potential crises, including situations that are not formally on the agenda of the Security Council.

For while the United Nations can be credited for creating an impressive body of law, the fact is that implementation on the ground is sorely lacking. I must pay tribute to the highly committed United Nations staff who work tirelessly, in cooperation with States and civil society actors, to implement change. Their work is not glamorous enough to attract media attention but represents a long series of small steps towards long-term benefit, namely building stable societies.

The United Nations has also achieved much progress in awareness of rights. Today, one cannot read a newspaper, a blog or switch on a channel, without hearing about human rights. Together with the heightened visibility and activism of civil society organizations, this is one of the most remarkable developments of the last 20 years. Despite some pushbacks, individuals and groups feel empowered to demand greater equality, participation, accountability and freedom.

In the next 70 years, I deeply hope that States will recognize that respect for human rights, and for the Charter of the United Nations, bestows legitimacy on leaders. I trust too that those who ignore this imperative will, sooner or later, be called to account.