Wednesday 13 Sep 2017

Human Rights in a State of Turmoil

Launching the 2017-2018 La Châtaigneraie Guest Speaker Series, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein began by urging the 200 Year 12 and 13 students to imagine the time when they will leave school. “The education you receive here will matter for little if it’s not accompanied by a deep sense of values,” he began, reminding his young audience that while there were many brilliant individuals throughout history who conceived incredible technologies, they were nonetheless unable to prevent the outbreak of two world wars, countless genocides and the continuing violation of human rights. 

Broaching the necessity of laws, Commissioner Zeid maintained that “as human beings we are not reliable or trustworthy because if we were, we would be doing the right thing simply because we know what it is.” A striking example of this came with World War II, and the horrors humanity committed and witnessed in that terrible conflict, particularly in the Holocaust. “We knew the next round would be the final one,” said Zeid, pointing to this moment as the birth of human rights, which were enshrined in three major documents, also known as the International Bill of Human Rights. 

The Human Rights Architecture

The first is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in Paris in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. It is a set of thirty articles affirming an individual’s rights which, though not legally binding in themselves, have been elaborated in a number of subsequent international treaties, national constitutions and other laws. The other two treaties, both adopted in 1966 by the UN General Assembly, are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social and cultural rights to the Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals. 

Yet despite the universal nature of these treaties, there is a belief in some nations that the human rights architecture, as set forth in these legal texts, is conceived by the West. A feeling exists in some places that in 1945, the victorious Western powers coming out of World War II imposed this framework on the world. “But the assertion that there should be differentiated rights comes from the very perpetrators of human rights violations,” said Zeid. He gave the example of the crime of battery: if you take the case of a battered woman in Jordan, in Australia or in Colombia, the law in each country will differ in terms of its leniency towards the perpetrators of this crime. Yet from the victims’ perspectives, they all suffer equally, no matter where they are from. “This is the problem,” concluded Zeid, “that we don’t look at it from the victims’ perspective, but from the perpetrators’, who claim we are imposing rules on them.”

Protecting the Victims

Alongside the above treaties, explained Zeid, is the Human Rights Council, a structure that counts 47 members and which meets three times a year to run through a series of rights issues. These can be either thematic (for example, LGBT or child’s rights) or related to an individual country. Experts add to this architecture by keeping watch across a whole range of issues, while the Office of the High Commissioner also has an independent mandate to comment on the records of all countries and work with civil society in the preservation and advancement of human rights. “This is why we are considered annoying,” continued Zeid, “because our fundamental job is to defend the rights of the victims.” 

“Laws were not created to protect the strong, they were created to protect the weak,” concluded Zeid. “We need compassionate people, people who are both clever and considerate, who aren’t scrambling on top of everyone else.” For the students present, who have been educated in line with Ecolint’s dedication to preparing them for citizenship and engagement with the political, ethical and environmental challenges of their times, Commissioner Zeid’s call to action was all the more appealing as they stand on the brink of adulthood, eager and dedicated to making their world a better place and one that is based on mutual understanding and respect for all. 

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