The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in cooperation with UNITAR, the UN Institute for Training and Research, arranged a side event on the Universality of Human Rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, during the 18th session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2011. 80 people from diplomatic missions, international organizations and civil society participated. This is a summary of the interventions of the panelists.
The moderator, Ambassador Jan Axel Nordlander, called for a scrutiny of the differences between governments and civil society when it comes to the universality of human rights, the former tending to question it, the latter to defend it. He underlined the important role of civil society in defending human rights and creating a human rights culture and asked weather the differences were not political rather than cultural. He noted that while there has been recent improvement, some states have aimed at making the UN Human Rights Council as toothless as possible and tried to restrict the independence and efficiency of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, the “West” had lost credibility on human rights issues because of human rights abuse, e.g. in connection with the Iraq war and with regard to their treatment of immigrants and Roma.
The Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Dr. Henning Melber, reminded the audience of the role that the UN is supposed to play in promoting social justice, human dignity and rights in the global community. He quoted Hammarskjöld as saying that the UN is based on a philosophy of solidarity and that “… the question of peace and the question of human rights are closely related. Without recognition of human rights we shall never have peace, and it is only within the framework of peace that human rights can be fully developed.” Hammarskjöld was also aware that the notion of human rights has an explicit socio-economic dimension, which requires measures to redistribute wealth.
For the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation the noble task lies in translating that legacy into relevant initiates and practices today. These seek, said Dr. Melber, to strengthen and to add to the protection of people and the promotion of their human rights.
Dr. Carlos Lopes, Assistant Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of UNITAR, recalled that the meaning of the universality of human rights has been questioned and challenged with the accession of some 143 additional UN members since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. However, he stated, the Declaration in essence offers a vision of humanity based on justice and freedom that transcends cultural and religious differences.
Some of the traditional laws and religious beliefs are indeed in conflict with some components of the Declaration, but should this allow you to deny the fact that every human being is born with the same rights as others, asked Dr. Lopes, who pointed out that with the advancement of human rights as customary law, no nation will openly admit to a violation of the Declaration or other human rights instruments. Further, both the Millennium Document and the outcome of the Summit of World Leaders in 2005 reaffirmed the centrality of human rights at the heart of the United Nations. In conclusion, the Undersecretary described human rights as universal because they unite human beings from various cultures in noble values related to justice, protection from oppression and arbitrary rule, law and order and self-fulfillment.
The Head of Field Operations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Anders Kompass, praised the hundreds of thousands of indigenous human rights groups throughout the world, committed and engaged people who have the most stake in their countries’ future and who see themselves as political actors who may eventually ensure that election results are respected, the military and police are restrained and individual rights are enforced. The events of the Arab spring, he said, emphasize that people everywhere yearn to be free, to make their voices heard and to participate in decisions that affect their lives. They show that these values are not “Western” but universal, to which we all aspire.
In pursuit of national and regional “stability” many Western governments, while paying lip service to democratic ideals and human rights, have turned a blind eye to violations committed by leaders and governments with whom they enjoy good relations. This exceptionalism is fundamentally flawed and will no longer be tolerated by people. The Arab Spring, ended Mr. Kompass, has shown us that universal values are not an abstract concept.
Dr. Joelle Hivonnet, Minister-Counsellor of the EU delegation to the UN in Geneva started by establishing that those claiming that international human rights instruments are not truly universal will argue that human rights depend on the context, be it the political system, the level of development, culture or religion. Whilst a process of appropriation of universal instruments or norms, in the sense that they are translated into regional or national norms, is essential to the operationalisation of human rights, there is a danger that, in the process, the universal nature of human rights will be lost on political, cultural or religious grounds. Appropriation means that individuals, organizations and states will take on board an idea, a concept or – in this case – a norm and inspect it through the prism of their own culture, legal and political system or experience. That is a healthy process, but here is a fine line between appropriation and re-interpretation especially when the re-interpretation of human rights ultimately means restriction of human rights or the exclusion of some groups.
We see how the human rights doctrine is in constant need of adaption because of new challenges and the evolution of society, but since there are risks that universality may be undermined In the process, it is important to ensure that overarching principles, such as equality in law and practice and non discrimination are used to guide future development, including at regional or local level, concluded Dr. Hivonnet.