"Human rights are our common heritage and their realization depends on the contributions
that each and every one of us is willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the future."

Louise Arbour
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 2004 - Press Conference Highlights


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, speaking at a press conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on the occasion of Human Rights Day (10 December), said that as the world commemorated Human Rights Day 2004, the vision and the promise contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were under considerable strain.

"Few of us are free from fear; many of us are still not free from want. The sinister shadow of terrorism is generating a confused response, unanchored in the principles that have guided us in the search for a proper balance between our desire for collective security and our need for liberty and individual freedom", she said.

The High Commissioner said that the United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change had captured well the global threats that the world faced when it said that international terrorist groups preyed on weak States for sanctuary. The Panel said the recruitment was aided by grievances nurtured by poverty, foreign occupation and the absence of human rights and democracy, by religious and other intolerance, and by civil violence - a witch's brew common to those areas where civil war and regional conflict intersected. The High Commissioner said we must not allow ourselves to become prisoners of a culture of fear and an ideology of exclusion and arrogance. More than ever, the international human rights agenda created a forum, maybe the only universal forum, in which conflicting views, aspirations and beliefs of a most fundamental nature could confront each other in a respectful environment.

"Much depends on the readiness of the international community to act on its responsibilities", Mrs. Arbour said. She urged all Member States to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948 were now properly promoted and protected.

In response to a question on her view of the High-Level Panel report on the reform of the Commission on Human Rights, the High Commissioner said that the report of the Panel had to be looked at as a whole. It was an integrated and sophisticated assessment of the threats to human security and State security, and it bridged a lot of concerns between human security and State security. The proposals in the report about the reform of the entire United Nations human rights machinery fitted in the global approach also, to the Security Council reform proposals or discussions. In that context, she believed that the Panel's view invited a dialogue that went very much in the right direction: in the direction of putting human rights very much where they belonged at the centre of concerns for managing threats to international peace and security. The High-Level Panel stated a problem in perception. On whether the reality was present behind the perception, she said she believed that in recent years the Commission had suffered from a perception that its credibility and its legitimacy were decreasing because of a perception that it was becoming unduly politicised. The reform proposals had to be understood in that context. The options would basically be arguing that the status quo was the best way forward and that the deficit in perception would cure itself with the passage of time, advocating criteria for eligibility, different methods of self selection of the members of the Commission, or broadening it to universal membership. She invited States to look at all these options with an open mind and to think creatively about the proposal which had considerable appeal and was bold and imaginative.

A journalist asked what the Commissioner could do to alleviate the impact of trade rules and the World Trade Organization on the economic, social and cultural rights of people around the world. In response, Mrs. Arbour said it would be interesting to see what direction the Commission would want to take at its next session. There were now many mechanisms that worked in the area of economic, social and cultural rights and that needed to be encouraged and supported. Her preoccupation would be, on the one hand, to protect the gains that had been acquired in the last several decades on the protection of civil and political rights, and also to try to regenerate the momentum that was critical in her view for supporting economic, social and cultural rights initiatives.

In response to a question on the new President and Government in Kosovo and how the High Commissioner viewed the situation there, the High Commissioner said she believed that this was an area which the world should continue to be concerned about, especially the contribution which the international community could make towards the reconstruction of a society after a conflict as serious as the one in Kosovo.

Responding to a question on the future trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and on her views on the upcoming elections in Iraq , Mrs. Arbour said that there were no proposals concerning the trial of Saddam Hussein in The Hague . Now, there was a serious problem concerning the fact that the Iraqi tribunal was lacking in certain international human rights standards. All that the international community could do was to try to specify procedural changes which would make the trial conform to international standards. Concerning the elections, the High Commissioner said that her Office was taking part in the United Nations work concerning the support of Iraq, but it had no particular role to play in the elections.

A journalist asked if there were one or two particular problems of human rights violations today which the High Commissioner was particularly concerned about. In response, Mrs. Arbour said she found it somewhat invidious to try to select one particular item or agenda if it sent a signal that she was somewhat neglectful of the rights of others. She continued to be very concerned that in the need for a very strong and robust response to terrorism that countries did not jeopardize acquired gains which had served well in the past. Countries had to ensure that they sought the appropriate balance between security interests and liberty interests, and that formula applied to many countries of the world as there was a tendency to sacrifice easily some liberty interests. The second area where human rights were constantly under extreme threat was in all the areas which faced armed conflict. Elsewhere there were ongoing concerns about freedom of expression, and the whole sphere of economic, social and cultural rights.

Asked if she had concerns about moves by certain countries to do away with the naming of State violators in the Human Rights Commission, similar to the concerns of the United States and some non-governmental organizations, Mrs. Arbour said it would remain forever that the primary responsibility and capacity for human rights protection and promotion was in States. Therefore, the focus on country issues was unavoidable. Whether it was done in the Commission under particular agenda items, or whether it was done under other mechanisms, it would remain that the protection and promotion of human rights had to be done very much in context and in countries where duty bearers interfaced with rights holders. The Secretary-General's Action 2 vision on mainstreaming human rights throughout the United Nations system and focusing on developing country capacity was very much a step in that direction. There was no question that the future would inevitably be country specific. Whether or not it was reflected in the work of the Commission, this might exacerbate the political dimension of the debate.

In response to a question on whether she had concerns about what appeared to be a kind of erosion of civil liberties in the United States, in light of accusations of torture in Abu Ghraib in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay, the High Commissioner said she had said before and she repeated it now as it was very critical in understanding the situation in the United States, that the main concern that was expressed and shared by the human rights community up to a year ago was a concern that the United States authorities had signalled their desire to shelter their work from the scrutiny of their own courts. The United States was a sophisticated democracy and its courts had played historically a leadership role in articulating and implementing a system of civil liberties protection. What was very worrisome was the sense that there could be actions that would escape altogether the reach and the scrutiny of American courts. That had been remedied by several Supreme Court judgements. To see the United States courts re-engaged in the supervision and control of the acts of the executive and the military was cause for considerable ease of the serious concerns of the past. Courts operated in a time frame that was not always responsive to public opinion concerns in the short term. The international community continued to advocate access, transparency and information in the public domain. "We still see a pretty severe deficit of reliable and transparent information", she said.

Responding to a question on the new appeal of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for 2005, Mrs. Arbour said that the Office had an actual presence in some 40 countries. When the Office prepared its submission for the regular budget as well as the annual appeal for voluntary contributions, its planned course of action was outlined in the documents and country-specific work. Despite predictions, the High Commissioner said she believed that it would always remain that there were extreme crises that developed without the ability to anticipate them, and in that case specific urgent appeals to donors were made. The work of the Office in Darfur had to be addressed very much to such initiatives as the situation evolved.

In response to a question, Mrs. Arbour said she had no plans to visit the occupied Palestinian territories.

Asked about her view on the situation in Ukraine , the High Commissioner said she had issued a statement a few days ago in which she called on the national institutions to uphold basic values of democracy and fair elections. The decision of the Supreme Court should be supported and the process should be followed in an environment which allowed the majority to express its will in an acceptable and transparent way.

Asked what country missions the High Commissioner was planning for the new year, the High Commissioner said she was not in a position to make an absolute and firm announcement because she was still looking at exact dates and modalities. At this particular point, she was contemplating most likely visits to China and to Russia at the end of January, and into February.