Press Releases

    30 July 2002

    Transcript of Press Conference by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at UN Headquarters, 29 July 2002

    NEW YORK, 29 July (UN Headquarters) -- Mr. Eckhard: Sorry for the delay. The Secretary-General's last appointment ran about 15 minutes late.

    Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and his guest.

    The Secretary-General: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This morning, I should like to introduce the next High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    I think you all know Sergio Vieira de Mello very well. He is taking on one of the most difficult challenges in the system, but challenges are nothing new to him. As you know, he has just completed his difficult assignment in East Timor, which he accomplished brilliantly. We look forward to having an outstanding High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    Mrs. [Mary] Robinson, who stands so much for the Organization and for the cause of human rights, will be leaving us next month. Hers will be a tough act to follow, but I am sure Sergio will not let us down.

    Mr. Vieira de Mello: Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General. This, as I told you on the way down, is not the first time you have introduced me; it is becoming a habit. Thank you for another smooth-sailing assignment, after the one with which you entrusted me in East Timor.

    Needless to say, I shall be very brief.

    First, I would like to pay very warm tribute to Mary Robinson. Her act will be very difficult to follow, as the Secretary-General just indicated.

    Secondly, I will do my best, in very close consultation and partnership with the Secretary-General, the United Nations system, the non-governmental community, other representatives of what we now call civil society -- and there are many of them -- and with you, the Fourth Estate, the media -- to build upon the legacy of my two predecessors to transform human rights into a source of unity, not of division, and what governments and non-State actors should see as a bonus, and not just as an onus on them -- something that is truly consubstantial with our lives as individuals and as societies, and not something exogenous or extraneous to our lives, an abstract agenda -- which it is not.

    Once again, the Secretary-General and all of you can count on the enthusiastic commitment of a person who has served this Organization and no one else, and who believes like he does in what we still refer to as the Hammarskjöld principles: independence and integrity.

    Question: This is, I guess, a two-part question. Your predecessor, Mary Robinson, developed a reputation as being quite a controversial figure. I am wondering if you think that goes with the territory. Is it part of your role to be controversial, to speak out? You are, as you just alluded to yourself, a system man. You have spent all of your adult life working in the system. Do you think yours will be a different approach?

    Going from that to a specific, which would be the Middle East, there is a perception out there that the United Nations has perhaps kowtowed too much to the United States line on the Middle East -- that the Palestinians are, in a sense, a forgotten people. Do you accept that view? Has the United Nations done enough to defend the rights of the Palestinians?

    Mr. Vieira de Mello: On the second question, I stated very clearly last week that until 12 September I will not comment on any specific, and least of all geographical, issues. Mary Robinson is still in office. We cannot be two speaking about the same subjects. But the Secretary-General may wish to comment more generally on your question.

    On the first question, we are all different -- thank God -- and we all have different styles. Being a system man does not mean being a bureaucrat who has spent his life behind a desk. You know that is certainly not my case. Speaking up is in the job description of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It all depends when, how and for what purpose; and whether that is the best means of achieving the intended goal. So the reply to your question is yes, in a calibrated manner and depending on the issue at stake.

    Question: What are the lessons from East Timor and Kosovo that you can apply to your new position? Do you feel or see that there is a specific need for special human rights watch for a particular State or country? And, just to the last part of the question, do you see any standard? Because various countries are looking to human rights, it seems to me, more and more from various points of view.

    Mr. Vieira de Mello: Well, you are asking three questions.

    On specific countries and human rights watch systems, I do not particularly like the word watch. But you know that there is a special rapporteur system in the United Nations. Indeed, some countries have special rapporteurs who look into their human rights situations on a regular basis.

    Secondly, on the question of East Timor, there are many lessons that we can extract from that experiment, and indeed from Kosovo. What we were requested to do in particular in East Timor -- perhaps for the first time in the history of the Organization -- was to create a nation out of the ashes of what was there before. That included the creation of the new democratic institutions, all of them: executive, legislative and judicial, as well as a new police service and defence force. As we were there as part of the United Nations, all of those had to be built on the basis of a very fundamental principle, which is rigorous respect for human rights. So it is not that the United Nations deals with human rights in an abstract fashion; we also have a very concrete experience in building institutions that are respectful of human rights. I believe that, for all our shortcomings, we have left behind in East Timor a new government and institutions that will be paying a great deal of respect to those universal principles.

    That leads me to your third question. There is no doubt that there are different ways by which one can apply universal principles -- on the basis of culture, history and religion. You cannot expect the same principle to be implemented and applied in the same manner in the East, West, North and South. That does not detract from the fact that those principles and values are truly universal. It is the striking of a balance between the two that makes this job particularly challenging.

    Question: What is your relationship going to be with the very large group of human rights non-governmental organizations, which have their own staff, research and very large publicity machine? How much trouble do you think they are going to give you? What is your relationship going to be with them?

    Mr. Vieira de Mello: Look, first, I have met with some of them this very morning, and will be meeting with many more in the coming days. Giving me trouble -- if you mean by that exercising constructive criticism, I have told them many times that will be welcomed because that is how I work. We each have our role, and let us not confuse those roles. But we work in partnership, and will continue to work in partnership.

    Secondly, do not forget that we both come from a background of very close association with the non-governmental universe -- not just from a humanitarian perspective or from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but also from peacekeeping and peace-building. All of these activities of the United Nations would be impossible without the active involvement of non-governmental organizations, both advocacy and operational non-governmental organizations. We have a long history of partnership with them. We do not necessarily agree on everything; occasionally we disagree on tactics, but we never disagree on principles. We are used to working together in a very transparent, fluid and, when necessary, critical way.

    The Secretary-General: On your questions about the United Nations and the Palestinian issue, I think that we have been quite engaged in the past two years. I would not say that the Palestinians are a forgotten people. There is a tragedy in the region, where both Israeli and Palestinian civilians are dying. We need to work very hard to end that tragedy.

    I think I personally, as the Secretary-General, have spoken up whenever I could, and so has the High Commissioner for Refugees. I think I can say that today we all share a vision of two States living side by side and in security. What we need is the operational pathway to get us there. We have a vision and we have a time frame. In all my work with the "Quartet" the emphasis has been on how we get there and on ensuring that, in three years' time, that dream will be a reality.

    We have many hurdles ahead of us. It is a tough issue. This is a difficult and complex problem that we are dealing with, but it is not enough to have a vision without creating that operational part to get to it. That is a challenge for all of us, not next year but now. That is what we are trying to work on.

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