'Today oppression is fashionable again,' says Rights chief

‘Today oppression is fashionable again,’ says Rights chief


Geneva, 26 Feb (Kanaga Raja) – “Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said Monday at the opening of the thirty-seventh session of the UN Human Rights Council.
“Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment …”“We will therefore celebrate, with passion, the 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which incarnates rights common to all the major legal and religious traditions. We will defend it, in this anniversary year, more vigorously than ever before and along with our moral leaders – the human rights defenders in every corner of the globe – we will call for everyone to stand up for the rights of others,” Zeid stressed.
These rather blunt remarks by Zeid came in his address at the opening of the March session of the Human Rights Council (from 26 February to 23 March).
The High Commissioner had announced late last year that he would not be seeking a second term of office. His first four-year term ends this coming September (see SUNS #8602 dated 22 December 2017 and #8603 dated 26 December 2017). Another regular session of the Council is expected to take place this June.
In his opening statement at the Council on Monday, the Rights chief welcomed the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous decision (over the weekend) demanding the 30-day ceasefire in Syria, which he said came after intense lobbying by the UN Secretary-General and others.
“We insist on its full implementation without delay. However, we have every reason to remain cautious, as airstrikes on eastern Ghouta continue this morning. Resolution 2401 (2018) must be viewed against a backdrop of seven years of failure to stop the violence: seven years of unremitting and frightful mass killing,” said Zeid.
[According to a post at zerohedgefund.com, though western media have blamed Russia, other reports on 21 February bring out that earlier efforts for a ceasefire through talks had broken down “because the terrorists had refused to lay down their arms”, and hence Russia had called for the Security Council meeting. The anti- government groups including the notorious Al-Nusra (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), the post at zerohedgefund added, have prevented civilians from leaving this dangerous zone, and are obstructing the humanitarian operations of international aid agencies, such as the Red Cross and World Food Program. ( https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-02-25/russia-blamed-eastern-ghouta-crisis-wests-hypocrisy-knows-no-bounds) – SUNS]
The Rights chief pointed out that Eastern Ghouta and the other besieged areas in Syria; Ituri and the Kasais in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Taiz in Yemen; Burundi; Northern Rakhine in Myanmar have all become some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times, because not enough was done, early and collectively, to prevent the rising horrors.
“Time and again, my office and I have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action. Time and again, there has been minimal action,” said Zeid.
He said second to those who are criminally responsible – those who kill and those who maim – the responsibility for the continuation of so much pain lies with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“So long as the veto is used by them to block any unity of action, when it is needed the most, when it could reduce the extreme suffering of innocent people, then it is they – the permanent members – who must answer before the victims.”
He noted that France has shown commendable leadership among the P5 in championing a code of conduct on the use of the veto; the United Kingdom has also joined the initiative, now backed by over 115 countries.
“It is time, for the love of mercy, that China, Russia and the United States, join them and end the pernicious use of the veto,” Zeid added.
Zeid pointed out that a few miles away (from Geneva), at CERN, physicists try to understand what our planet, and the universe or universes, are made of. What matter is, at the most basic level, and how it all fits together.
“To understand the physical world, we humans have long realised we must tunnel deeply, beyond molecular biology and geology; and go to those sub-atomic spaces for answers,” he said.
“Why do we not do the same when it comes to understanding the human world? Why, when examining the political and economic forces at work today, do we not zoom in more deeply,” the High Commissioner pointedly asked.
“How can it be so hard to grasp that to understand states and societies – their health and ills; why they survive; why they collapse – we must scrutinize at the level of the individual: individual human beings and their rights?”
After all, the first tear in the fabric of peace often begins with a separation of the first few fibres, the serious violations of the rights of individuals – the denial of economic and social rights, civil and political rights, and most of all, in a persistent denial of freedom.
There is another parallel with physics, he said. Gravity is a weak force, easily defied by a small child raising a finger, but there is also a strong force governing the orbits of planets and the like.
So too with human rights.
Some States view human rights as of secondary value – far less significant than focusing on GDP growth or geopolitics. While it is one of the three pillars of the UN, it is simply not treated as the equal of the other two.
The size of the budget is telling enough, and the importance accorded to it often seems to be in the form of lip service only.
Many in New York view it condescendingly as that weak, emotional, Geneva-centred, pillar – not serious enough for some of the hardcore realists in the UN Security Council, said Zeid.
Yet like in physics, we also know human rights to be a strong force, perhaps the strongest force. For whenever someone in New York calls a topic “too sensitive,” there’s a good chance human rights are involved.
And why sensitive? Because a denial of rights hollows out a government’s legitimacy. Every time the phrase “too sensitive” is used, it therefore confirms the supreme importance of human rights, and their effect as a strong force.
“For no tradition, legal or religious, calls for or supports oppression – none,” Zeid said.
Discussions about rights are avoided by those who seek deflection because of guilt, those who shy away from difficult decisions and those who profit from a more superficial, simple, and ultimately useless, analysis.
“Better just leave it to Geneva, they say – and the crises continue to grow.”
According to the High Commissioner, to understand the maladies of societies, grasp the risks of conflict, and prevent or resolve them, we must – like particle physicists – work ourselves into the smaller spaces of individuals and their rights, and ask the most basic questions there.
The most devastating wars of the last 100 years did not come from countries needing more GDP growth. They stemmed from a “disregard and contempt for human rights,” said Zeid, quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
They stemmed from oppression, he added.
“Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban who earlier this month said “we do not want our colour … to be mixed in with others.”
“Do they not know what happens to minorities in societies where leaders seek ethnic, national or racial purity,” the High Commissioner asked.
“When an elected leader blames the Jews for having perpetrated the Holocaust, as was recently done in Poland, and we give this disgraceful calumny so little attention, the question must be asked: have we all gone completely mad?”
According to Zeid, “Perhaps we have gone mad, when families grieve in too many parts of the world for those lost to brutal terrorism, while others suffer because their loved ones are arrested arbitrarily, tortured or killed at a black site, and were called terrorists for simply having criticized the government; and others await execution for crimes committed when they were children.”
While still more can be killed by police with impunity, because they are poor, or when young girls in El Salvador are sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment for miscarriages, said the Rights chief.
“When journalists are jailed in huge numbers in Turkey, and the Rohingya are dehumanized, deprived and slaughtered in their homes – with all these examples bedevilling us, why are we doing so little to stop them, even though we should know how dangerous all of this is?”
It is accumulating unresolved human rights violations such as these, and not a lack of GDP growth, which will spark the conflicts that can break the world.
“While our humanitarian colleagues tend to the victims – and we salute their heroism and their selflessness – their role is not to name or single out the offenders publicly. That task falls to the human rights community, that it is our task.”
According to Zeid, for “it is the worst offenders’ disregard and contempt for human rights which will be the eventual undoing of all of us. This, we cannot allow to happen.”
“We will therefore celebrate, with passion, the 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which incarnates rights common to all the major legal and religious traditions. We will defend it, in this anniversary year, more vigorously than ever before and along with our moral leaders – the human rights defenders in every corner of the globe – we will call for everyone to stand up for the rights of others.”
This is, in the end, a very human thing to do, Zeid underlined.
Artificial intelligence will never fully replicate the moral courage, the self-sacrifice and, above all, the love for all human beings that sets human rights defenders apart from everyone else.
“As I close out my term as High Commissioner in the coming months, I wish to end this statement by saying it has been the honour of my life to have come to know many of these defenders; to have worked with them, and for them,” Zeid concluded.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also delivered a statement at the opening of the thirty-seventh session of the Human Rights Council.
The Secretary-General welcomed the adoption of the resolution by the Security Council demanding a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for at least 30 days.
But Security Council resolutions are only meaningful if they are effectively implemented, he said, adding that he expects the resolution to be immediately implemented and sustained, particularly to ensure the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and the wounded and the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.
“As you know, the United Nations is ready to do its part. As I had the opportunity to say in the Security Council itself a few days ago, in particular eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It is high time to stop this hell on earth.”
The UN Secretary-General reminded all parties of their absolute obligation and international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times.
And similarly, efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede these obligations, he said.
Mr Guterres noted the considerable progress made in the past 70 years. People around the world have gained progressively greater freedoms and equality. Conditions of profound economic misery and exploitation have been improved.
Women’s rights have advanced, along with the rights of children, victims of racial and religious discrimination, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.
And perpetrators of horrific human rights violations have been prosecuted by international tribunals. But it is also plain that the words of the Universal Declaration are not yet matched by facts on the ground.
In practice, said the UN chief, people all over the world still endure constraints on – or even total denial – of their human rights.
Gender inequality remains a pressing issue – with untold women and girls facing daily insecurity, violence and violation of their rights.
“We are seeing a groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred,” the Secretary-General noted.
“Far right political parties and viewpoints are seeing a resurgence. Refugees and migrants are often denied their rights and unjustly and falsely vilified as threats to the societies they seek to join, despite the proven benefits they bring.”
Outdated, law-enforcement-only approaches to drug control have fuelled violence and human rights abuses and failed to decrease illicit drug use and supply. And, in several cases, a heightened focus on counter-terrorism is eroding respect for fundamental rights.
Mr Guterres also pointed out that the media is increasingly under attack in all regions. And the space for civil society – and human rights defenders, in particular – is shrinking and becoming ever more dangerous.
According to the Secretary-General, these are just general trends, but that there are also many specific examples of egregious abuses. The list is dispiritingly long, far too long for him to detail here, he said.
He however singled out the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, saying that he has travelled several times to Northern Rakhine.
“In my experience, the Rohingya are one of the most discriminated against populations in the world – and that was even before the crisis of the past year.”
Deprived of nationality, they have been subjected to extreme brutality by military forces and others, and cast out of their homes and country in a clear example of ethnic cleansing. They are under siege as a group – simply for who they are.
“And this is why I took the initiative to write an official letter to the Security Council about this issue,” said Mr Guterres, adding that this is the first time since 1989 that a Secretary-General has taken such an action.
The Rohingya community desperately needs immediate, life-saving assistance, long-term solutions and justice.
The Secretary-General called on the Government (of Myanmar) to ensure unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine State, and appealed to the international community to support those who have fled to Bangladesh.
The international community needs to come together to support the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees to their areas of origin or choice, in accordance with international standards. The recent agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar can only lead to that reality through massive investment – not just in reconstruction, but also in reconciliation.
And full implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations is also vital, he said.
“To make human rights a reality for everyone, we need far more determined and coherent action. We must speak up for human rights in an impartial way without double standards.”
“And we must invest in human rights and recognize them as values and goals unto themselves – and not allow human rights to be instrumentalised as a political tool.”
Member States have defined international human rights law and placed it at the heart of the United Nations. Yet there is still some resistance to support United Nations action on human rights, the UN chief noted.
“We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and national sovereignty go hand in hand. There is no contradiction,” he said.
“If we had given much greater attention to human rights globally over the past two decades, millions of lives would have been saved.
“That is why I appeal to Member States in all United Nations organs to consider how to strengthen support for UN action on human rights.”
He said that is why he is working – in the spirit of Human Rights Up Front – to ensure that the United Nations places defending and promoting human rights at the core of all our efforts.
“An emphasis on human rights lies at the heart of conflict prevention, which must be our highest priority,” said the Secretary-General.
And the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review is for that an essential tool. It subjects every State, with no exceptions, to the scrutiny needed for accountability.
And it recognizes that all Member States can make improvements, and that the UN system has responsibilities to support States in this regard.
“And yet, there is still a profound gap between our knowledge and action. This is why it is imperative for this Council – and the United Nations as a whole – to focus much more on implementation and national follow-up.”
The UN chief noted that the Universal Periodic Review and the Treaty Body processes provide a tremendous resource of standards and guidelines.
“And we must find streamlined ways to bring the outputs of these human rights mechanisms systematically into overall UN action and all our efforts to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Mr Guterres.
“But, to uphold human rights and reverse the current backlash, we need to be better able to support Member States to implement the expert guidance coming from the human rights mechanisms.
“We do this by helping to draft laws and policies in line with agreed standards and building institutional capacity to help safeguard these standards.”
Human rights are not a luxury; they are a collective responsibility that all Member States have signed on to, he said, adding that one key element in upholding human rights, promoting accountability and exposing abuses is our support for civil society.
“And we should all be deeply shocked and angered by the extent to which civil society actors suffer reprisals, intimidation and attack because of their work, including when they engage with the UN system and with this Council.”
The Secretary-General offered his personal condolences on the recent death of Ms. Asma Jahangir, whom he said is a true champion of human rights.
“As a Special Rapporteur of this Council, as a great citizen of Pakistan, and as a towering representative of the force of civil society, she devoted her life to the pursuit of the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he added.
The Secretary-General also commended the work of the High Commissioner and thanked him for his service to the United Nations and the cause of human rights.
Mr Guterres said High Commissioner Zeid has shown tremendous courage in highlighting human rights concerns in all regions. And he has shown equal dedication in working with governments to resolve those concerns.
“The world counts on the High Commissioner, his office, and this Council to expose human rights violations wherever they occur and to press for change. “Let us use this 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to continue to advance this essential work,” the Secretary-General concluded.


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