3 September 2008
Press Release
NGO/649
PI/1849

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

DPI/NGO CONFERENCE HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON ‘UPHOLDING

 

THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS’

 


Reaffirming Indivisibility of All Human Rights Essential in Defending Declaration


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)


PARIS, 3 September -- “Upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was the theme of the round table held this afternoon at the sixty-first Department of Public Information (DPI)/Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Conference, convened for three days at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss human rights implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Moderated by Luis Alfonso de Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations, the panel, which took questions from members of civil society, included four other members of the international organizations and NGOs.


Mr. De Alba opened the discussion by recalling that, as the first President of the United Nations Human Rights Council (June 2006 to June 2007), his main objective from the beginning had been to build up a partnership with the Council and civil society groups.  That had presented a big challenge, not only in terms of dialogue and cooperation, but in dealing with the Council’s new institutions, as the Council worked more frequently and had opened more opportunities for civil society to air their views.  Civil society could not intervene in any Council meeting, and could interact with special rapporteurs and others directly.


Mr. De Alba highlighted the Human Rights Council’s new mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review, which would allow the Council to review the human rights situation in all Member States of the United Nations within a four-year cycle.  There was a very important space for civil society to participate in that process.  First, in terms of documentation, the Review was based on three reports -- one compiled by the country concerned, one put together by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) based on information from United Nations system organizations, and one that was assembled by the OHCHR on the basis of non-governmental organization reports.  Civil society also had the chance, during a formal session held before adopting the report, to have input.  It was worth underscoring that, for the first time in a United Nations body, civil society had official recognition, and an invitation to participate.


Günter Overfeld, Chairman of the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations of UNESCO’s Executive Board and Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), wished to dispel the lack of awareness about UNESCO’s involvement in human rights; there was a very clear constitutional mandate of UNESCO in this area.  In that connection, he drew attention to UNESCO’s confidential complaints procedure in protecting human rights.  The procedure was run by a 30-member committee, which analysed complaints brought before it behind closed doors.  Addressing NGO concerns that this was a private procedure, he stressed the fact that this gave the Committee the ability to handle very sensitive issues and to make concrete progress in improving the human rights situations of people on the ground.  Moreover, many of those complaints were brought to the Committee by non‑governmental organizations.  Therefore non-governmental organizations had a role to play in what could be a critical and open debate, behind closed doors.  UNESCO’s role in protecting writers and thinkers, who disseminated the text and values enshrined in the Universal Declaration, was also highlighted.


Emphasizing complementarities in international human rights instruments and machinery, and the need to exploit those synergies, Lee Swepston, former Senior Adviser of Human Rights, International Labour Organisation (ILO), regretted that that human rights organizations did not use the tool that the ILO presented enough.  ILO of course was closely associated with the right to work, social security, and conditions of work.  What ILO missed was the use of the detail in ILO standards, which did not appear in the Covenant, for example in regard to child labour, and the use of those specific standards in the work, for example, of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.


Drawing attention to the need for civil society organizations in protecting the rights of the disappeared and their families, Nassera Dutour, Spokesperson for the Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria, and Chair of the Euro-Mediterranean Federation on Forced Disappearances, noted that NGOs were crucial in fighting for this cause, as the victims themselves were not able to speak.  She spoke of her experience as a mother who had started her NGO after trying, and failing, through all the official channels, to find out the whereabouts of her disappeared son.  Noting the recent adoption by the General Assembly of the Convention on Disappearances, she disagreed with those critics who said that the work of international organizations would not help.  While it might not be sufficient, while it might not be powerful enough, it was worthwhile.  What was certain was that NGOs did not have enough power to make their efforts come to fruition in the face of much more powerful Governments on their own.  They needed a platform.  Highlighting the importance of the efforts of NGOs working in partnership with the United Nations in this area, she noted that she had testified concerning the disappearances in Algeria before the United Nations Human Rights Committee.  At the beginning of this decade, the Algerian authorities had acknowledged a register of 4,800 cases of disappearances, but the Government offices tasked with registering the disappeared had subsequently been closed down.


Stressing the indivisibility of human rights, Karel Vasak, an Initial Contributor to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Former Legal Adviser to UNESCO, noted that the question of whether economic, social and cultural rights were part of the fundamental human rights was still a question for many countries like the United States of America.  Those rights had not been included in the African Charter, and when that question had come up in the drafting of the Lisbon Constitution for the European Union, the inclusion of such rights was roundly challenged.  The United Nations had to adopt a document specifying that human rights included not just those set out in 1948, but all human rights that had since been elaborated.  Another concern was that with the multiplication of mechanisms for protection of human rights norms, such as regional mechanisms, the protection of victims was delayed.  It was time for NGOs to be able to seize all human rights mechanisms of violations at the same time.


During the ensuing discussion with NGOs and civil society members, a number of challenges in implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were raised, including the issue of disappearances and the lack of coherence within the United Nations system in addressing human rights situations, in particular a lack of coherence in decisions undertaken by the International Labour Organization and the World Trade Organization.  Other questions addressed included what was being done to assist victims in Africa, including during the famine in Biafra in the 1980s, as well as the situation of children today in the Sudan, and on whether international human rights instruments were worthwhile without enforceability at a global level?  On Africa, it was noted that the upcoming Durban Review Conference was being held to address some of those issues; also noted were the preventive actions that were being undertaken to address crisis situations.


The DPI/NGO Conference will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 4 September, when it will continue with its round-table discussions.  At its morning session, from 10 to 11:15 a.m., it will hold a round table on the theme, “Overcoming Discrimination to Realize Human Rights and Dignity for All”.


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For information media • not an official record