High Commissioner for Human Rights to UNESCO: The new century can be one of human development and security

from UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Published on 08 Jun 1999
Following is the speech which United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, will deliver this evening at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The speech is entitled "The future of human rights rests in our own hands."

"It gives me great pleasure to accept your invitation to speak here tonight in the series Entretiens du XXIe Siecle. It is a praiseworthy initiative of UNESCO to have brought together a number of speakers to reflect on themes relating to the future as we approach a new millennium.

Attempting to guess what the future holds has always been and will always be difficult. As has often been pointed out by historians, we are bound to see the future in terms of past experience. It is particularly difficult to look ahead with any certainty at a stage in the world's history when changes are taking place at a bewildering speed.

Forces of Change

  • The ending of the Cold War brought a welcome relief from superpower confrontation but it has not produced the peace dividend that many predicted. Interstate conflicts have been followed by bloody internal conflicts; in this decade alone there have been dozens of wars. I hope it is not significant that our century is ending as it began with conflict in the Balkans.
  • Genocide has reappeared after it seemed like a nightmare that had gone away. Nobody can believe that genocide and mass killing are things of the past, after we have experienced Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Will the future be any better? Sometimes it seems that the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats are justified: "The best lack all conviction, The evil are filled with a passionate intensity."
  • Economic prospects are unsettled. Although the countries of central and eastern Europe have experienced a big improvement in civil and political rights, many have yet to experience a commensurate bettering of their economic and social rights. The emerging economies of Asia and Latin America suffered a severe check last year and, although there are welcome signs of recovery, the experience brought home how fragile the nature of economic progress can be. Meanwhile, the least developed countries fall further and further away from the richer nations in terms of prosperity. Economic indicators show that in sub-Saharan Africa incomes are lower now in real terms than they were 30 years ago.
  • The increasing gap between rich and poor coincides with the rapid globalization of markets and information. The trend towards a concentration of business in the hands of a small number of huge multinational corporations is well established and it will have major human rights implications for national economies and governments. The information revolution has radically altered the way we communicate and do business with each other. The Internet and E-Commerce have changed our lives dramatically and that process will continue.
  • Great strides are being made in science, in fields such as cloning and genetic engineering. According to the American National Science and Technology Council, biotechnology "may well play as pivotal a role in the next 10 to 20 years as did physics and chemistry in the post-World War II period." These developments hold out the prospect of benefits for mankind but at the same time raise serious ethical and environmental concerns.
  • Another great unknown relates to the field of ethics itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that we live today in an ethical vacuum. The certainties and assumptions of the past have been swept aside. While many of these assumptions have departed unmourned, the absence of systems of belief and standards sharpens our sense that the world is passing through an uncertain phase which makes the prospect of a new, stable world order seem all the more remote.
Two Visions

What can the future hold for human rights in this rapidly changing context?

I am conscious that as I address you tonight there is no shortage of doom-sayers about what the future holds. Voices are heard predicting that our world in the new millennium could turn into a brutal and brutalising place. An even greater chasm could open between the culture of the haves and the have nots, the rich growing ever more powerful, living in fortress conditions and protecting their possessions and markets through superior power and their command of sophisticated technology. The effect of this would be to push the poor into impoverished, less developed regions, to condemn them to living at or below subsistence level, to deprive them of access to the dominant technologies and markets.

That is a very gloomy vision and one which I do not share. There is another vision. It is of a world where Governments recognise and discharge their human rights obligations to their own citizens and to their neighbours; where resource rich States understand that it is in their interest to share wealth and thereby secure a stable, peaceful international order; where markets are fully accessible; where ideas and technology flow freely; where science and medicine are used for their proper purpose -to cure the sick and improve and enrich our lives; where the ideals which motivated the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the great thinkers on human rights -from Rousseau, Paine and Voltaire on -are translated into practical reality. In short, a world which respects the dignity of every individual.

The Choice rests in our Hands

The message I wish to convey tonight is my unswerving belief that the choice about the future of human rights, the choice between the dark vision and the idealistic one, rests in our own hands. Yes, formidable challenges lie ahead. Yes, the familiar catalogue of problems will remain to be faced. Yes, we have a long road to travel before the rights already established will be secured for all. And yes, undoubtedly many new challenges will arise and have to be faced. But I am convinced that if the will exists on the part of the international community all of these challenges -the existing ones and the future ones -can be met. If we can overcome doubts and fears the new century can be one of human development and security -a century of human rights.

The legal base is there. Real progress has been made on the codification of international human rights law. The progress is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that the concept of internationally agreed principles of human rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is only fifty years old while the two International Covenants that derive from it, on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, entered into force a little over twenty years ago. More than sixty human rights treaties have been concluded which elaborate the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the International Bill of Rights. Issues such as racial discrimination, discrimination against women, torture and the rights of the child are covered by these treaties. And there are many Declarations on important issues such as the rights of indigenous peoples; ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and violence against women.

Yet, in looking around at the world, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the record in translating human rights standards and norms into national legislation and practices is a lot less impressive than the progress that has been made in putting the principles onto the international statute book. The gap between the theory of human rights and the practice is unforgivably wide. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Jean Jacques Rousseau pointed out the contrast between the idealistic view of the world and the reality he witnessed at firsthand:

"I see fire and flames, the fields laid waste, the towns put to sack... What tumult and cries! I draw near; before me lies a scene of murder, ten thousand slaughtered, the dead piled in heaps... And this is the fruit of your peaceful institutions! Pity and indignation rise up from the bottom of my heart. Yes, heartless philosopher, come and read us your book on a field of battle!"

There are uncomfortably modern resonances to Rousseau's description.

Kosovo, in particular, comes to mind. Kosovo, like Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and Cambodia before it, raises fundamental questions about the international community's attitude to human rights abuses and its willingness to devote the necessary effort and resources to addressing gross human rights violations. Kosovo is a vivid, terrible example, here in the heart of Europe, of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of human rights, a tragic reminder that we have no reason to feel complacent about our record in establishing a culture of human rights or the prospects for developing that culture further in the new millennium.

I saw the human suffering for myself when I visited the Former Yugoslavia and its neighbouring States last month. The sights I witnessed and the stories I heard filled me with sorrow, but also with anger: anger that such events should happen at the end of a century that has been one of the bloodiest in the history of mankind.

Kosovo, as you all know, is far from being unique. Indeed, one of the tragic aspects of the conflict there is that attention has been drawn away, as have vital resources, from the many other conflict and post-conflict situations elsewhere in the world which require urgent action. The situation in East Timor has reached a critical and worrying stage. The problems of Afghanistan remain unresolved. In Africa, a war is raging between Ethiopia and Eritrea which has cost thousands of lives, Sierra Leone is experiencing a fragile truce and fighting continues, virtually unnoticed by the outside world, in Sudan and Angola. And these are merely some of the most serious examples.

Turning Words into Actions

The challenge we face is to give practical effect to the thousands of words, the thousands of promises which Governments have made, the solemn undertakings they have sworn to abide by. The aim of making human rights work and live has been constantly in my mind since I became High Commissioner for Human Rights. The office I hold is of recent vintage -it is the newest of its kind in the United Nations family. Its establishment following the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna was evidence of a new understanding of the central role which human rights plays in the United Nations family and in international affairs. I am determined to play my part in delivering on the trust which has been placed in me. I have received strong support in my work from the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who has directed that human rights be mainstreamed in all United Nations programmes, as part of his reform of the organisation.

I see four principal ways of embedding a culture of human rights in the world: prevention, monitoring, enforcement and development.


Kofi Annan has called for the next century to be the age of prevention. Prevention is a vital part of the work of my Office and is the chief rationale behind our rapidly growing range of technical cooperation programmes with individual countries. Particular attention is being paid to establishing and supporting national human rights capacities and structures. Effective National Human Rights Institutions can be invaluable in instilling a culture of respect for human rights in a society and can also confer a sense of ownership and empowerment. Another powerful preventive force is regional and sub-regional cooperation. This enables Governments to build on the experience and best practice of countries in their region, to cooperate with neighbours and to use available resources in the most efficient way. Cooperation in Europe is close, and of longstanding, but there are exciting developments in other regions too. For example, I was heartened by the enthusiasm I saw for the regional approach when I visited Mauritius recently for the first OAU Ministerial Conference on Human Rights in Africa. The Asia-Pacific Regional Forum is proving to be a valuable instrument for change. I have just come from Cairo where I found a strong interest in developing a regional approach in the Arab world.


There must be proper monitoring of the performance of Governments to ensure compliance with the Covenants and International Conventions. There has been a marked change in recent years in that Governments cannot any longer seriously argue that human rights are purely an internal affair which should be exempt from external scrutiny. Governments which persist in adhering to this position must be made to see that their position is untenable. Unfortunately, even Governments which have signed up to human rights treaties continue to violate their citizens' rights, often under the pretext of protecting national security. Performance must continue to be closely scrutinised by the conventional mechanisms, that is, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and through the use of Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups and other mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights. My overall approach to Governments will be one of dialogue and encouragement but I will not hesitate to speak out loudly and publicly when Governments persist in abusing the rights of their citizens.


The inescapable logic of the drive to consolidate human rights is that those who grossly abuse human rights must be held accountable for their actions. There must be no impunity for those who commit gross human rights abuses or crimes against humanity. That is why the creation of the International Criminal Court is a major breakthrough. Once it is set up, the court will have the same task as any national criminal court: to prosecute, to educate, to punish, to deter. The court has the potential to put an end to the cycle of impunity and establish individual criminal responsibility. I urge all States to ratify the Rome Statute so that the court can get on with its vital work.

The indictment of President Milosevic and others for alleged war crimes in Kosovo will be a test of the international community's resolve to engage in due process against impunity. The conflict is the first to take place where a court -the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia -exercises jurisdiction. My Office is cooperating closely with staff of the Tribunal to help them to identify potential witnesses of gross violations and will continue to do so.


We must pay as much attention to securing economic, social and cultural rights as we do to civil and political rights. It would be illogical to expect civil societies to flourish if access to education, health care, food and water is denied to millions. Yet the reality is that over a billion people , the majority of them women and children, are categorised as living in extreme poverty. Resource rich countries have a strong moral obligation to direct financial assistance to poorer countries so as to enable their people to secure economic and social rights. Unfortunately, resource transfers are falling and the UN target of spending 0.7% on ODA now looks more elusive than ever. It would be very shortsighted to deprive countries of vital resources; the only outcome of that would be to hinder the consolidation of democracy and good government, two of the surest guarantees of human rights.

A positive measure which would be especially appropriate at the start of a new millennium is the cancellation of the debts of the poorest nations. I support those who argue that the terms of the proposed debt relief measures should be as generous as possible. This would send a clear signal that the needs of the most indebted nations have not been forgotten.

Working with UNESCO

Prevention, monitoring, enforcement, development: these are the tools which can be used to realise the vision of a world where human rights are championed and defended. A key component of prevention is education and that topic is especially relevant to this meeting. We are in the middle of the UN Decade of Human Rights Education, an initiative that has given an extra impetus to efforts to get the human rights message to every corner of the globe. I admire greatly the work that UNESCO is doing in the field of education and am happy to report that UNESCO and my Office are cooperating closely on a number of projects, for example:

  • Ministers of Education throughout the world have been urged to post the Universal Declaration publicly in every one of their schools as a fitting way to follow up on last year's 50th anniversary; both UNESCO and my Office have been active in translating the Declaration which is now available in over 250 languages;
  • Last month I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the European Masters Degree Programme on human rights and democratisation, representing a consortium of 15 European universities, which has received UNESCO's support. The programme has started and has already made a valuable contribution by the conferring of Masters Degrees on 90 students;
  • An example of country-specific cooperation is El Salvador where UNESCO, UNICEF and my Office have been supporting the elaboration of a National Plan of Action for Human Rights Education, working closely with the Government, the academic community and Non-Governmental Organisations.
Other projects in the educational field are in the pipeline; for example, I recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Morocco and the UNDP office in Rabat which foresees the establishment of a National Centre for Human Rights Education and Training. And shortly I will visit Russia where I will be signing a major technical cooperation programme with the focus on education. So I see many possibilities for the cooperation between my Office and UNESCO to expand in the period ahead.

To achieve the goals I have outlined will require the full participation of all of the actors with a stake in human rights: Governments, NGOs, the United Nations family, international financial institutions, the business community, individuals prepared to stand up for what they believe in. We must improve institutional links with civil society, with women, with academics. We must broaden the human rights language to incorporate the dimensions which have come to be recognised as indispensable: gender, sustainability, the environment, the rights of children, the obligations of big business.

Real progress in attaining human rights has been gradual. If we settle for the gradualist approach in this age of radical and rapid change we could miss a unique opportunity to put human rights on its proper footing. Kosovo is a reminder of the urgency of establishing respect for human rights now and of the terrible consequences of failure to do so. I believe that change can happen, that the future of human rights is in our own hands. It is up to each of us to act. As the poet Maya Angelou eloquently put it:

"We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living,
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it."