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UNA-USA National Capital Area 2017 Human Rights Awards

Honouring outstanding leaders in the human rights community and celebrating the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

7 December 2017

Excellencies,
Distinguished honourees,
Colleagues, friends

It is an honour to receive this award, which I humbly accept on behalf of all my staff – some of whom work in conditions that are extremely menacing and harsh.

Almost two months ago, I went on mission to Libya – a country so broken, so dangerous, it is practically the only place in the world in which the UN cannot maintain a permanent presence. And yet my remarkably courageous and dedicated colleagues go there weekly – knowing that each trip may risk their lives – to look into a truly shocking range of human rights abuses, and to advocate and assist with practical steps towards change.

Prior to that mission, I had spent a few days in Silicon Valley. The shock of these deep dives into such radical extremes of human experience is quite extraordinary. In Silicon Valley, I met digital engineers working on artificial intelligence techniques to map the wiring in our brains. In Libya, thousands of people, mainly migrants, are subjected to slavery, trafficking and sexual violence, and almost anyone may be the object of arbitrary violence by armed groups. The need to re-assert the primacy of people's human rights is absolutely evident, and urgent.

But there is also a great need for the anchoring force of principles, for practical and ethical guidance, among the workers who function within the digital labyrinth which is reshaping such a large part of our political, economic, social and cultural landscape.

My most recent mission was to Central America – to Guatemala and El Salvador. And there I met a number of people whose stories I will carry with me for a very long time. In Guatemala, a growing, middle-income economy, I was astonished to learn that 46.5% of children less than five years old are chronically malnourished: this burden will mark their development all their lives. Poverty, in such circumstances, is a choice – a political choice, and it calls into question the quality of leadership and the priorities of the state. There is simply no excuse for the lack of respect for people's rights and dignity suffered by people such as one woman I met, whose daughter was killed in a fire that consumed a state-run children's centre last March, and who never received a letter, an apology – only a coffin.

In El Salvador, I experienced a deeply shocking example of human cruelty. In a detention centre outside the capital I met four young women, each sentenced to 30 year’s imprisonment for aggravated murder – because, it was claimed, they had wilfully terminated their pregnancies. All told me they had in reality suffered miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies; but they had been arrested and handcuffed, some while in emergency care, and sent to prison. One young woman aged 29 has not seen her two children since she was jailed 8 years ago after losing her third pregnancy. She will remain in jail until the year 2040. El Salvador’s prohibition of abortion is so punitive and unyielding that it appears to identify as perpetrators young women who have lost pregnancies they desired. But of the 85 women jailed under these circumstances, not a single one comes from a wealthy family: all are poor. As an ambassador said to me later – in this country, to be poor is a crime.

Why do I describe to you these seemingly anecdotal snapshots of my travels over the past two months? Because I think they connect in a larger kaleidoscope, a portrait of perhaps the essence – certainly an essence – of human rights work.

When the entire weight of a country, feral and menacing, falls like an axe on an illiterate young woman of humble station with no means to mount a proper defence, it brings home to me, and with terrific force, the unchallengeable need for universal rights.  

Do not dare to tell me human rights are not universal.  Do not dare. Could anyone look those women in the eye and say they do not deserve equal, universal rights.

It is easy to be cynical, and to carp from a great height that universal human rights are unrealisable, or a fiction – perhaps a marketing tool for Western capitalism, or maybe a stalking horse for a socialist agenda.

But not when you are facing the victims of deep injustice – victims of deprivation, discrimination and violence. The Rohingya; the people of Syria; Yemen; South Sudan; the Central African Republic; migrants, the world over – people Western economies need, and who are nonetheless mistreated, dealt with almost like disposable units. When I meet victims, and listen to their stories, I know the answer.

All these people have exactly the same rights as you and I.

This Sunday, as you may know, is the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That mighty document has helped change the world. Drafting it was not an easy process, and the impulsion to do so came from many sources: leaders and thinkers whose people were being crushed by colonial exploitation and discrimination; veterans of the two World Wars determined to put an end to the churning cycles of deepening violence that had so recently caused the most appalling destruction and harm.

Among them, of course, was Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most inspiring Americans of the 20th century – and who, not incidentally, was a very active volunteer for this association for many years, as well as chairing your Board.

Drawing on cultural and religious traditions from across the planet, they determined the values that are common to all humanity, and which together add up to justice; equality; human dignity.   

They determined that human rights are inalienable. No Government or other actor may legitimately violate the human rights of any individual.

They told us that these human rights – the "promotion of social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom" are the foundation of peace in the world. The Universal Declaration is a point-by-point response to the horrors of the 20th century. Human rights build peace – within nations, and between them.

In perhaps the greatest speech of his career, and in reference to his four freedoms, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear."

He gave that speech in 1941, at a turning point in history. A choice with profound implications lay before this country, and before the world. And today, as we begin to mark the 70th year of the Universal Declaration, we face, perhaps, another such turning point.

First, we can take stock of what the Universal Declaration has helped the world's people achieve. Millions have gained greater freedoms and equality. They have been empowered to fight discrimination and gain greater access to justice, to essential services and to equality of opportunity. Conditions of profound economic misery and exploitation have been challenged. Oppressive dictatorships have been replaced by participative systems of governance that seek to serve their people. The perpetrators of horrific human rights violations – including genocide – have been prosecuted by international tribunals.

Perhaps you attribute these achievements to the powerful work of civil society activism, mobilizing on each of these issues and fighting for rights within their countries. And indeed, this is true: the work of civil society activists and human rights defenders is absolutely essential to each of these advances; my admiration for their struggles is boundless. But it is not the whole story. Without a universal point of reference – a legal destination, in the form of an international human rights treaty; a universal agreement that endorses the absolute legitimacy of their claims – the journey for civil society, and for the Governments inclined toward it – would be less focused, more aimless.

Thus, for women's rights, for the rights of ethnic, religious, racial and caste minorities, for the rights of persons with disabilities, for workers and employees, for people who are LGBTI, the rights of the child, for the rights to health, to education, to decent housing and social services – and many others – we have achieved enormous progress over the past 69 years.

And we have also failed. Conflicts have crushed the rights of millions of people, as State and non-State actors deliberately and wilfully violate the rules of basic human decency we term international humanitarian law. Millions of people have suffered hideously from human rights violations – the humiliation and violence of discrimination and genocide; exploitation; deprivation; the crushing iron fist of tyranny. Recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights of human beings has been far from universal.

Indeed, many of us fear that today, this situation is growing worse – that the very basis of human rights principles, and the multilateral institutions which underpin the process of achieving those rights, are being undermined. Our world is lurching from crisis to crisis. An antagonistic nationalism is on the rise, with mounting levels of racism and xenophobia. Measures to end discrimination and promote greater justice and rights are being dismantled by those who profit from hatred and exploitation. We see a backlash against many human rights advances in numerous countries, including on the rights of women, the rights of many minorities, and the fundamental principle that civil society has a right to freely participate in decision-making, in every country.

If we continue along this path, we will be making our way back to the beginning of our story – a planet devastated by suffering and destruction.

Conflict, discrimination, poverty, inequality and terrorism are mutually reinforcing man-made disasters that are hammering too many communities and individuals. They are constructed. They are contagious.

My message today is that we can set our planet on a course of greater inclusion; more sustained prosperity; more justice; more dignity; more freedom; more peace. We can build in human rights. We can encourage leaders to embrace the voices of their people, instead of cutting themselves off from their most precious resource. Conflict can be prevented. Peace, security and development can be built. Brick by brick. Equality. Dignity. Participation. Respect.

The Universal Declaration is not a tired collation of ideals – a gigantic Hallmark card of pretty sentiment. It is a program of hard-headed action. And human rights are not expensive: they are priceless. They are not luxuries, for times of peace: they are the workhorses, the load-bearing bricks and mortar which build resilience, and greater security, for us all.