UN seeks to spearhead strengthening of national systems for protecting human rights

Louise Arbour

14 March 2005 – Under United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's new reform initiatives, the world body seeks to strengthen the protection of civil liberties by Governments, since "the obligation to respect and enforce human rights rests on states," the UN's rights chief said today.

Opening the 61st session of the 53-member UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said the absence of effective implementation of rights could lead to the erosion of those rights, but "states sign and ratify human rights treaties, thereby becoming duty bearers."

"When state systems fail, insecurity at home, and often abroad, is the inevitable consequence," she said. "The international human rights framework is, in essence, a reflection of the state's responsibility to protect, an intrinsic corollary of its sovereignty."

With no state having cause for complacency because "no human rights record is perfect," the UN and its partners are determined to respond swiftly and effectively to governmental needs in this area, she said.

"The Commission must take the lead in developing more effective approaches that allow for dispassionate analysis and focused, contextualized, calls for action, together with sustained, constructive attention, in order to help resolve issues that are our collective concern and responsibility," Ms. Arbour said.

She expressed concern that some long-established rights, such as the right not to be tortured, have been "opened to unprecedented interpretations." Declarations are not the final destination, but the path to a life lived in dignity, she added.

Fifty years of technical aid to national justice administration and law enforcement officials, as well as independent human rights institutions, legislators and educators, had proved to be sometimes insufficient, she said.

"In situations of crisis where the lives of many are in immediate peril and where governments are unwilling or unable to protect persons within its jurisdiction or control, our collective responsibilities become more pressing," she said.

Responsibility took many forms, Ms. Arbour said, including UN action, initiatives by regional organizations, scrutiny by the media and civil society and, perhaps increasingly, through creating appropriate mechanisms of accountability.

She said she also hoped that agreement would soon allow the entry into force of an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), "giving rise to a legal process that would allow individuals to bring their claims before an international forum in those situations where national recourse has been found wanting."

In international life, many argue misguidedly that "justice can be an impediment to peace," the opposite of the conclusion in the common law tradition of national Governments.

Besides punitive notions, the concept of justice includes the belief that redemption lies in the process of justice, as well as the outcome, Ms. Arbour said.

"It vindicates truth over lies and deception," she said. "It affirms society's solidarity with the victim, rather than with the offender, thereby restating the norms within which we can live in peace with one another."

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