At Cambridge, Ban says universality of human rights is key to preventing crises of 21st century

Secretary-General Ban (right) receives an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Cambridge for his humanitarian work, support for women’s rights and achievements in pursuit of global peace and security. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

3 February 2016 – Warning of “a strong sense that that we are off track and in a deep mess,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the world to move from a pattern of reaction to crises to a culture of prevention, with a heightened focus on the universality of human rights in tackling the “mega-crises” of the 21st century.

“Asserting one's own rights is only one part of the battle. Recognizing the human rights of others is the true – and harder – test of commitment. Yet today, in many places and in many respects, the human rights compact is under assault or has broken down completely,” he said in an address at Cambridge University, England, on receiving an honorary doctorate.

“We see this in the deliberate starvation of besieged populations in Syria; and in the enslavement of women and girls by Da'esh [an alternative name for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL], Boko Haram and other violent extremists.

“We see it in many places where governments are retaliating against human rights defenders and restricting media freedoms. We may also be seeing it in the world's response to the refugee crisis,” he said.

Commending the countries and citizens who have opened their arms and doors in solidarity, Mr. Ban stressed that too many Syrians and others fleeing “appalling violence” are being victimized several times over: at home, where life is impossible; by smugglers and by other perils of their journeys; and by harsh treatment upon arrival in places where they hope to find asylum.

“As we address the wider challenge of large-scale displacement, I appeal for shared responsibility and compassion,” he said.

“Razor-wire fences, the confiscation of assets, and the vilification of people seeking safety all summon up ghosts of past crises - the lessons of which we are meant to have learned already,” he added, citing some of the hurdles the refugees and migrants have faced in Europe and calling for a strong show of solidarity at tomorrow's humanitarian conference in London.

“We need to get Syrian children back in school – we have 2 million Syrian children out of school at this time – and get our aid convoys through to people in dire need. We have at least 400,000 people stranded in besieged villages, at least 15 besieged villages. It is very difficult for us, very dangerous,” he noted.

Referring to criticism of UN efforts in Syria which have managed to reach only a fraction of those in need – less than five per cent – Mr. Ban noted that half the area is controlled by Da'esh and only two per cent by the Government and he underscored the responsibility of the Syrian Government and the need “to fight against the ways of Da'esh.”

Citing the three pillars of the UN Charter – peace and security, development, and human rights – he highlighted the primacy of the third pillar.

“Among the three pillars, the human rights pillar should be given the highest priority, highest priority,” he declared, noting that the international community did not do enough to prevent the horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Since 2013, we have pursued a new effort to ensure that we act early to identify, and speak out about, violations of human rights. We know that exclusion based on ethnic, religious or other potential dividing lines is especially combustible. Under the 'Human Rights up Front,' which I initiated just two years ago, we aim to act on these clear warning signs before they escalate.”

He dismissed assertions that discussion of a country's rights violations breach the UN Charter by interfering in a country's domestic affairs.

“Sovereignty was never meant to be a barrier behind which a government can freely abuse its own citizens,” he stressed. “Sovereignty remains part of the bedrock of international order. But the less sovereignty is viewed as a wall or a shield, the better our prospects will be for protecting people and solving our shared problems.

“Impunity only breeds even more violence. Indifference only makes our world far less secure. Inaction remains the greatest threat. We have to get away from this impunity, indifference, and inaction.

“It is time to do more to stop the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in the world's conflict areas. It is time to strengthen the way we prepare for and respond to the mega-crises of the 21st century,” said the Secretary-General.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN chief introduces new action plan to prevent violent extremism

Related Stories






In-depth Interviews