For information only - not an official document.
    15 November 2000
 Deputy Secretary-General Seeks Guidance on Practical Steps
To Secure Implementation of Human Rights Standards

Address to Swedish Group Describes Challenge of Achieving Results

NEW YORK, 14 November (UN Headquarters) -- This is the text of the keynote address delivered by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette today at the Swedish Forum for Human Rights in Stockholm:

It’s a great honour for me to address this first Swedish Forum for Human Rights -- or rather, the first meeting with that title, because of course Sweden has many fora for human rights, and has had for a long time.  In fact, this is almost the last country in the world where I would think it necessary to come and preach the importance of human rights, and that is certainly not what I intend to do here this morning.

I am fully conscious of speaking to an audience of professionals and experts in the human rights field -- and being no such expert myself, I do so with some apprehension.  I speak as a lay person in the field, but also as an official of an Organization which, in the last few years, has sought to make human rights the “cross-cutting issue” that runs through all its activities.  I do not claim that we have yet fully succeeded, but it is an objective which the Secretary-General takes very seriously, and I believe everyone in the United Nations Secretariat is well aware of that.

What I propose to do in this address is not to make ringing affirmations but rather to set out some of the main questions and challenges that we have to wrestle with in this field, as we enter the twenty-first century.  It is to you in this gathering, and to people like you around the world, that we look for clearer answers to those challenges. 

The twentieth century has left us with an impressive set of human rights standards, which on paper have won near-universal assent from States, and most of which are now enshrined in legally binding covenants.

The greater challenge now is to entrench these norms in national legislation, and above all to see them implemented in practice.  Another way to put this is that we need to close the gap between the standards of conduct to which States have committed themselves on paper, and the actual experience of people in so many parts of the world, whose human rights are still callously denied and trampled on.

Some people call this “the compliance gap”, which I think is quite a good phrase because it puts the emphasis on the desired result.  We tend to think in terms of “enforcement”, but enforcement is not the only means of achieving that result.

It presupposes that the main reason for lack of compliance is deliberate obstruction by the offender.  In reality, this is by no means always the case.  Sometimes there is a genuine willingness to comply but a lack of capacity to do so.

At first sight, this seems an unconvincing excuse for human rights violations -- and at the individual level it can seldom if ever be a sufficient one.  But we have come to recognize that, at the level of States, raising the level of human rights does indeed require a sophisticated framework of laws, institutions and public opinion, which can only be built by long and painstaking effort.  

Such an effort is first and foremost the responsibility of government and civil society in each individual country, and it cannot be undertaken in isolation from the broader economic and social development of a society.  Increasingly, we have come to understand that the relationship between human rights and development is a two-way one.

Mary Robinson put it well when she spoke to the special session of the General Assembly on social development last June:  “Poverty eradication without empowerment is unsustainable.  Social integration without minority rights is unimaginable.  Gender equality without women’s rights is illusory.  Full employment without worker’s rights may be no more than a promise of sweat shops, exploitation and slavery.”

But while the most important steps towards making human rights a reality have to be taken at the national level, we should not imagine they can be dealt with only at that level.  A poor or backward society will almost always need outside help -- both technical and economic -- in order to break the vicious cycle of deprivation and violations of human rights, and replace it with a virtuous cycle in which development and human rights nourish one another.  

That is where the responsibility of the international community begins, and it is why so much of the work we undertake in the human rights field comes under the heading of “capacity-building”.  Over the decades we have learned a great deal about what that means.  We now work, in ways we did not in the past, not only with national governments but at the community level.  Above all, we seek to work with civil society, since in the end it is the prevailing public attitudes in a country that will determine the quality of human rights enjoyed by its citizens.

Civil society also plays a vital role at the international level, in monitoring human rights violations and mobilizing support for the victims.  I need hardly dwell on this point, since the work of organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is so well known.

What is perhaps less widely appreciated, and even controversial in some circles, is the role that the private sector can play.  Multinational corporations have traditionally shied away from the human rights debate.  But increasingly they find themselves exposed to unfavourable publicity, or even consumer boycotts, if they appear to be complicit in human rights violations or to be profiting from them.  
That is why many of them have responded to the Secretary-General's call to them to adhere to a "Global Compact", by which they undertake to observe, in their own activities, the universal principles of human rights, as well as labour and environmental standards, on which governments have already agreed.  By doing so, they help make those standards more accessible to the societies in which they work.

Civil society and the private sector are vital partners for governments and intergovernmental organizations, but certainly not a substitute for them.  An indispensable role is played by the United Nations itself, whose human rights machinery has grown considerably in recent years.  

Much of it takes the form of procedures for peer review.  The bodies set up for this purpose by international treaty have proved a very powerful instrument, as I can testify from my own experience as a national civil servant.  The need to prepare for their periodical reviews focuses the mind of governments on their human rights problems, and sometimes results in new initiatives to improve their performance.  

No less important are the growing number of special rapporteurs -- some "thematic", others country-specific -- appointed by the Human Rights Commission.  Most recently, at the Commission's request, the Secretary-General has appointed a Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders.  Her role may prove to be even more important, since her task will be to defend the local human rights workers who are in the front line of the struggle, all too often risking their lives.

Unfortunately, this United Nations human rights machinery, which has such an important job to do, receives only very limited funding from the regular budget of the Organization.  It has to be supported mainly from voluntary contributions, and in fact it is seriously underfunded.  So one of the challenges facing us is to ensure that our own United Nations machinery for implementation and monitoring really works as well as it can.

But we all know that there are extreme cases where moral or political pressure is not enough, and where the language of enforcement does indeed become appropriate.  One option in such cases is to impose economic sanctions.  These may have helped to end apartheid in South Africa, but elsewhere they have at best a mixed record of securing improvements in human rights.  Often their effect seems to be the opposite of what is intended.  Oppressive regimes can usually direct much of the hardship caused by sanctions towards the oppressed, while enriching themselves, and even increasing their political power, by skilfully manipulating scarce resources to reward cronies and punish opponents.  

Moreover, if human rights are rightly understood as part of the development process, and are favoured by economic and cultural exchange, it is obvious that keeping a society isolated for any length of time is likely to weaken rather than strengthen them.

A more promising approach to egregious human rights violators is to target them as individuals, and wherever possible to bring them to justice.  

Ideally, they should be arrested and tried by their own compatriots.  But in the nature of things this is often not possible, and here too the victims are entitled to look to the international community for help.  In this respect the last decade has seen some encouraging developments, even if slow and faltering when set against the scale of the abuses they are meant to correct:  

-- The Security Council has set up tribunals to judge those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in two of the most brutal conflicts of recent years -- the wars in former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda.

-- The Pinochet case has shown that even former heads of State who are believed to have committed gross violations cannot take immunity for granted.

-- And, most important, there is now a real prospect that within a year or two we shall at last have an international criminal court, competent to judge the authors of crimes against humanity no matter where they have been committed.

But again, these advances confront us with new questions, or old questions that have taken on new urgency.  

It is easy to argue in general terms that "we need to end the culture of impunity", or to declare that "without justice there can be no lasting peace".  But we know, even if we do not like to say it, that peace has rarely, if ever in history been accompanied by perfect justice.  

Peace always reflects, in some degree, the political balance reached at the point when fighting stops.  It contains either an element of "victor's justice", or an agreement by both sides not to insist on what they see as their full rights, or an element of amnesty to induce the vanquished to accept their defeat.  Often it is a mixture of all three of those things.

That does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of justice as utopian or unrealistic.  It does mean that real-life politics requires us to make judgements about the precise degree of justice that is attainable in a given situation at a given time.  

But at the end of the day there must be justice.  The likes of Radovan Karadzic must sooner or later be brought to trial, and I am confident he will be.

Judging criminals after the fact is essential as a deterrent to others, and as a clear statement that the world is not indifferent to their crimes or to the fate of their victims.  But it is a poor substitute for preventing or halting the crimes in the first place.  

On this point, the questions raised by the Secretary-General last year have yet to be satisfactorily answered.  

What is the responsibility of the international community when genocide or mass slaughter is in progress?  When should it be prepared to use force?  Who should take the decision?  And what criteria should they apply?  

It would surely be better if the Security Council -- preferably a reformed Security Council, but can we afford to wait for that? -- were to take responsibility for deciding when intervention is justified by necessity, and by a real prospect of success.

There have been specific cases in the last 10 years where the Council was prepared to take action, but we are still far from a consensus on any general rule.  And even if consensus were reached on the legitimacy of intervention, the victims would still be left to their fate unless States with the capacity to intervene also have the will to do so.

I said at the beginning that the twentieth century has bequeathed us an impressive set of human rights standards.  But there are still many areas where there is no full consensus on the interpretation of those standards.  Some feel for instance, that the use of the death penalty infringes the right to life, while others argue that it is a necessary part of the machinery to protect that right.  And there are similar arguments about abortion.

In other cases, what is seen by some as an assertion of universal principle -- the right of women to dress as they like, for example -- is resented by others as an attack on their religion, culture or identity.  The debate over human rights and culture continues to be fraught, and the frontier between defence of cultural diversity and denial of individual freedom is likely to be contested for many years yet.

Another issue that is emerging as both important and controversial is the demand for compensation for the victims of human rights violations inflicted in the past -- for instance by colonialism, the slave trade, or the expropriation and massacre of indigenous peoples.  

Undoubtedly the success of Jews and other victims of Nazi Germany in winning compensation from former slave-masters, or restitution of property from Swiss banks, has broken new ground.  But there is a crucial difference between claims made by individual victims or their heirs and those advanced on behalf of whole peoples or races.  

The latter may have great moral strength, but it will often be difficult to agree on the premises for deciding their legal validity.  In the case of the slave trade, especially, it is not clear who in today's world can be held legally responsible, or who precisely is entitled to compensation.

Perhaps the area where there is most conceptual work still to be done is that of economic and social rights.  We are clear enough about what these rights are, since they are spelled out in the Universal Declaration, and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  But we are much less clear how to secure them in practice.  

When there is a breach of the Convention against Torture, it is not too difficult to identify a culprit and a chain of command, and so to seek redress through judicial procedure.  But such procedures are less helpful when people are denied their rights to food, housing or necessary social services. 

The Human Rights Commission has now appointed rapporteurs on the Right to Food, and on Debt.  Their reports should make interesting reading.  Clearly there is a Right to Food but, again, it is not obvious against whom that right can be maintained.  And is a country's high level of indebtedness a violation of its people's human rights?  If so, who should be held accountable -- the lenders or the borrowers?  Or both?

The denial is all too real, but the chain of factors leading to it is much more complex.  The remedy may lie partly in a fairer distribution of wealth, but it presupposes also the production of wealth -- something which does not happen automatically, but requires economic and political choices.

So there is still a lot of work to do if we are to give real meaning to the "rights-based approach" in these areas.  But one thing that is fairly clear is that the road lies through the empowerment of the people whose rights they are.  All the people, and especially the poor, must have a say in the choices that a society has to make.

The same reasoning can be transposed to the international level, since the international environment is one of the factors that come into play in determining whether people's economic and social rights are fulfilled.  The people of poor countries are entitled to expect solidarity from those that are more fortunate.  This is an issue of moral obligation, but also one of empowerment.  The international economic environment, like the national one, is affected by collective choices, and in the process of making those choices there must be room for all to participate. 

Let me now sum up by listing the questions I have raised -- questions to which I hope you can provide some partial answers here and now, but which also merit longer and deeper reflection over a period of time:

What can the international community most usefully do to help individual nations create a climate in which human rights will flourish?

What can fairly be expected of private companies in the way of respecting and promoting human rights?

How can we strengthen, financially and politically, the United Nations machinery for monitoring human rights and pressuring States to respect them?

Should we eschew economic sanctions as a way of securing improvements in human rights, or can they be so refined as to target the violators and empower the victims, rather than the other way round?

In the aftermath of conflict and repression accompanied by gross violations of human rights, how do we satisfy the demands of justice without sacrificing the chances of reconciliation?

When is forceful intervention justified to halt extreme violations?  Who has the right to authorize it, and who should do it?

How do we draw the line between the universality of human rights and the defence of religious or cultural identity?

What is the proper way to handle claims to be compensated for historic injustices, put forward in the name of whole peoples or races?

And finally, what forms of national and international arrangements are needed to give real meaning to people's economic and social rights?

That should be quite enough to be going on with.  Thank you for listening to me.  I shall now listen with great interest to you.

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