By Heather Hill, Chair, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee
UNA-NCA will be holding their Annual Human Rights Awards Reception this year on Thursday, December 7th and is pleased to present this year’s Louis B. Sohn Human Rights Award presented to His Excellency Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. It is with great honor that we shine a spotlight on His Excellency, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.
UNA-NCA: What has been the greatest surprise for you since taking on the role of High Commissioner?
HC: Even before taking on the role, I was acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of governments to any criticism of their human rights records. But what is alarming is how some political leaders are taking the idea of “naming and shaming” being an attack on a State’s sovereignty – to the extent that the multilateral framework itself is now accused of being a threat to States. As I have said before, States need to acknowledge that it is not the naming that shames. The shame comes from the actions themselves, the conduct or violations at issue. My Office and I hold up a mirror before those whose shame has already been self-inflicted. We need governments to accept scrutiny, even criticism, to understand that the voice of human rights is raised in support of a State’s sovereign duty to protect people, it is raised to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous.
“What is most surprising in the most inspiring way is the grit of human rights defenders the world over – women and men I have met who are working at great personal risk to defend and advance human rights in their countries. Their courage and tenacity is astonishing.”
UNA-NCA: In a related question, what would you say have been the primary challenges you have been faced with in this role, anticipated or not?
As I mentioned above, it is the rhetoric that seeks to discard the entire multilateral framework that was designed to protect human rights and prevent conflict. More and more leaders no longer even pretend to care about rights. They willfully seek the destruction of civil society – often using national security as a pretext.
We face these challenges not only by robustly advancing and defending the cause of human rights, but through practical, concrete programmes in many countries across the world. We have 57 field presences where we work with government officials, regional and national institutions, civil society organisations and human rights defenders to further the promotion and protection of human rights.
UNA-NCA: We are approaching the 69th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What are some of your reflections on the declaration itself, and do you have any thoughts on where we have come as a global community since the time of the declaration and where we might be heading?
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is just as powerfully relevant as it was on its first day. These rights are essential and timeless – like the air we breathe. We may barely notice when our human rights are respected but suffer acutely in their absence.”
The Universal Declaration has helped countless people gain greater freedoms and equality. Violations have been prevented; independence and autonomy have been attained. While not all the promises of the Universal Declaration have been fulfilled, many people have been able to end secure essential rights and freedoms, put an end to discrimination, and gain fair access to essential goods. They have obtained justice for wrongs and enjoyed greater participation in government.
As to where we’re headed – it depends on how determined we are to fight against the ever-present and growing efforts to undermine human rights.
UNA-NCA: You have a long history before becoming High Commissioner of international law and justice matters. How have those experiences, and perhaps particularly as they relate to the ICC, impacted the way you view human rights and execute your current mission at the UN?
“It is easy to fall into despair, even cynicism, when you see history repeating itself, protracted conflicts and accompanying impunity. But any student of international law and justice will understand that the fight against impunity, while sometimes terribly long, is a worthy one and that while the wheels of justice may be slow to turn, the masterminds of terrible crimes can be brought to justice.”
It is crucial that even in the midst of seemingly intractable situations like that in Syria, we continue sustained, concerted efforts to document crimes and to plan for post-conflict accountability.
This is why I have insisted that the UN Human Rights Council create fact-finding missions in situations like the conflict in Yemen, the killings in the Kasais of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the situation of the Rohingya who have been forced out of their homes in Myanmar. International scrutiny and the documentation of violations, with a view to eventual accountability, are crucial.
We have already come a long way in the fight against impunity – the conviction of Ratko Mladic last month was a resounding reminder that no matter how powerful the perpetrators of terrible human rights violations may be, they will one day be held accountable.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that unless human rights have a meaning close to home/locally, they have little meaning anywhere, and that "without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." What are your reflections on that, and on what it means for action and prioritizing action?
Eleanor Roosevelt said it beautifully. The challenges may seem daunting, but they always have been. Apartheid, slavery, colonialism, segregation – none of these was easy to tackle. But previous generations persisted – through actions small and big – in battling them.
“Each of us has a role to play in our schools, homes, religious communities, offices, sports teams, by participating in decisions where we can, by raising our voices to defend the rights of another, by taking small steps that breathe life into the provisions of the Universal Declaration.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s words are even more compelling in the world today, with a preponderance of leaders peddling hate and deceit. Each of us, through our words and deeds, has the power to counter this terrible tide.
UNA-NCA: Which of the new SDGs as they relate to Human Rights is most important to you and why?
The 17 SDGs closely mirror the full range of human rights that my Office is mandated to promote - economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is an agenda for equality, which means that we have to tackle inequality and discrimination, in all their manifold manifestations which can breed economic instability, social unrest and can lead to violent conflict.
“...sustainable development cannot happen where there is no respect for human rights. You cannot de-link efforts to address poverty from the fight for gender equality, for example. You simply will not succeed. And nor will you succeed in silos. There need to be partnerships formed from the global level all the way down to your communities and neighbourhoods.”
What is most important to me with regards to the SDGs is the recognition that sustainable development cannot happen where there is no respect for human rights. You cannot de-link efforts to address poverty from the fight for gender equality, for example. You simply will not succeed. And nor will you succeed in silos. There need to be partnerships formed from the global level all the way down to your communities and neighbourhoods. This recognition of our interdependence, and the interdependence of development, peace and security and human rights – this is what is most important to me.