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Remarks of Mary Robinson, at the closing of the 56th session of the Commission on Human Rights

News and Press Release
Originally published
Commission on Human Rights
56th session - 28 April 2000 - Afternoon
Remarks of Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Secretary General for the World Conference against Racism
at the closing of the 56th session of the Commission on Human Rights

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished members of the Commission,
Ladies and gentlemen:

At the opening of this session of the Commission on Human Rights I invited you, building on the foundations you have laid in the past half century, to lead the way towards more effective protection of human rights in this century. As the Commission closes this session, I should like to place on record my appreciation to you, Mr. Chairman, to the Members of the Bureau, to all participants in the Commission, and to the human rights movement gathered here, for your efforts to help bring us closer to the goal of the universal realization of human rights for all - in practice as well as in law.

It is in the nature of the struggle for human rights that there will be debates and dissension, and that great battles will be fought over policies, strategies and beliefs. This session, like those that have preceded it, has indeed seen such debates - and assessments will vary on particular issues. I do think, however, that there was a genuine spirit of co-operation and dialogue which brought results from which we can take heart.

Let me first refer to the issue of equality. The Commission's debates this year, and the resolutions it has adopted, underline the fundamental nature of the principle of equality and the Commission's continuing determination to combat all forms of discrimination on grounds of race, sex, language or religion. As Secretary-General of the forthcoming World Conference to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, I was heartened by the importance you attached to the World Conference, by the joint meeting of the Bureau of the Commission and the forthcoming Prep.Com. for the World Conference, as well as by the special briefing session on preparations for the Prep.Com.

I should like to say once again that we in the Office of the High Commissioner are determined to do our utmost to help make the World Conference an event of decisive importance in the struggle for equality. At the start of a new century it is important to register the message that we are all members of one human family and that we should all show respect, tolerance, good neighbourliness, and solidarity with one another.

I welcome the resolutions you have adopted emphasizing equal rights for women, and your condemnation of discrimination perpetrated against women in areas such as the right to own property, inheritance and equality before the law in general. Your condemnation of violence against women and of the abhorrent phenomenon of trafficking in women and children gives a powerful and timely message that there must be a mobilization of conscience against these terrible violations of human rights as we prepare for the Beijing+5 review.

I have also noted the progress made towards the establishment of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which would provide an appropriate mechanism to ensure coordination and regular exchange of information between Governments, the United Nations and Indigenous Peoples.

Your adoption of the two protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child sends a strong signal, at the start of the century, that protection of the rights of every child is, and must remain, a matter of the highest priority on the agenda of the international community.

The Commission's special dialogue this year was on poverty and its debilitating consequences for the realization of human rights. What came out forcefully from the special dialogue is the call to conscience to act for the alleviation of poverty and the role of human rights strategies in poverty reduction. Your decisions to recommend the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the right to food and a Special Rapporteur on the right to housing build on the foundations you have already laid in designating rapporteurs or independent experts on the right to development, the right to education, on structural adjustment and indebtedness, and on environmental issues. What I think we are seeing in the Commission is practical application given to the indivisibility, the interdependence and inter-relatedness of all human rights.

Your decision to recommend the appointment of a special representative of the Commission on the protection of human rights defenders has been acclaimed throughout the human rights movement. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the great achievements of this Commission. It is shameful that those who seek to promote and to help protect human rights themselves so often become the victims of human rights violations. I have been deeply troubled by the fears expressed to me by some NGOs representatives whom I met during this session. As one women put to me: "Coming here may have made us targets at home."

It is therefore fitting that this Commission starts the century by making it clear international solidarity will be seen in action in support of human rights defenders across the globe. Now the challenge is to ensure that the Special Representative is facilitated in carrying out this vital mandate.

Turning to how you have assessed the role of our Office, I am heartened by the Commission's recognition of the importance of our programme of advisory services and technical cooperation, and I should like to reiterate the willingness of my Office to cooperate with any Member State wishing to avail itself of our services in support of national capacity-building for the protection of human rights. In this regard I welcome your Chairman's statement recognizing the need for further resources for the Office as we respond to growing demands.

I note that you have expressed appreciation for the practical cooperation that takes place in regional and sub-regional fora and workshops, and I should like to state that we shall continue our efforts to stimulate and to enhance exchanges of information and experience on the efforts being made to implement universal standards on human rights.

I also note a growing sense of appreciation in the Commission for the work of the thematic and country rapporteurs and for the reports they submit to the Commission each year. As I stated in my opening remarks, their reports, together, constitute a veritable world report on human rights. In my Annual Appeal for voluntary contributions, I have set out my hopes for the strengthening of the system of special procedures as well as for the implementation of international conventions through enhanced support to the treaty bodies.

On the subject of reform, the Commission has shown again this year that through dialogue and cooperation constructive reforms can be achieved. I congratulate the Commission on the reforms agreed upon which are tangible contributions to the process of reform launched by the Secretary-General.

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished members of the Commission:

I have left to the end the serious issue which I had particularly urged you to address during this Commission, namely, the prevention of gross human rights violations. One of the greatest challenges facing the international community is to devise effective strategies to respond to allegations of gross human rights violations and to prevent them from continuing. You addressed a number of cases of particular concern and in so doing exercised your difficult and unique responsibility.

There is significant scope for further action in this area and we shall need, at future sessions, to reflect on how national, regional and international strategies of prevention can be integrated and can have more practical impact. I look forward to cooperating closely with the Bureau and with Members of the Commission in my own efforts to help mobilize cooperative action for the prevention of gross violations of human rights.

Now, I wish to make a particular appeal to you for human rights leadership on a potential humanitarian disaster. The principle of prevention applies to economic, social and cultural rights as well as to civil and political rights. I have in mind the current situation in the Horn of Africa. From a human rights point of view, it is crucial that we respond urgently. It is also essential that we act preventively.

I was encouraged by an approach made to me by representatives of the regional groups who wished to discuss the drought in the Greater Horn of Africa. We shared the view that this is a situation deserving the attention of this Commission as a matter of respect for human rights. The right to life is an imperative norm of international human rights law. It includes protection from the arbitrary deprivation of life as well as protection of the means for living. The Secretary-General's Special Envoy on this situation, Catherine Bertini, has just conducted a mission to the region and her findings are:

Three consecutive years of poor rainfall in the countries of the Greater Horn of Africa has led to the cumulative erosion of people's assets in both pastoral and agricultural communities, undermining coping strategies and leading to greater vulnerability to drought. Pastoral communities in many areas of the region have been particularly seriously affected by the drought and are generally the most vulnerable as they must find food and water for themselves and their livestock. The negative effects of drought in the Greater Horn of Africa under present circumstances are containable, but every effort should be made now to undertake preventive measures before widespread loss of lives.

The potential scale of the crisis that can develop from the current drought, unless large-scale preventive action is taken, is enormous; the lives of as many as 16 million people in the region are at risk. While the relief food pipelines for the drought-affected people in most of the countries in the region appear to be satisfactory for the next 2-3 months, there is growing concern that breaks in the pipeline may be experienced after June without significant new pledges. Fast provision of relief assistance to the drought affected people is critical in order to prevent a major humanitarian crisis.

With the support of the coordinators of the regional groups, I should like to use this occasion to launch a solemn appeal to the international community to help protect the right to life in the face of this potential disaster. We cannot allow human beings to die in large numbers before our very eyes. We must not let this happen. There is a shared responsibility here: the responsibility of the Governments involved, and the responsibility of the international community. The responsibility of Governments includes doing everything possible to provide a secure and peaceful environment for international relief activities. The plight of the millions of people at risk must impel the search for peace and security, for respect for human rights, and for the expression of international solidarity.

I believe that we have here a test-case of the practical implementation of the inter-dependence and indivisibility of human rights. It would be my intention, in cooperation with my colleagues in other departments and agencies of the United Nations, to keep the Bureau of the Commission on Human Rights informed of developments concerning the drought in the Greater Horn of Africa with a view to inviting the Bureau and, through it, the Commission, to watch over the protection of the right to life in this situation.

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished members of the Commission:

There is undoubtedly more that can be said about this session of the Commission. In these closing remarks I have touched on some strands of your deliberations that I believe help add further building blocks to our joint efforts for more effective protection of human rights. For these additional building blocks towards more effective protection, I should like to congratulate and thank you all, and to extend my very best wishes to every member of the human rights movement gathered here at the Commission.

Thank you.