DPI/NGO CONFERENCE EXAMINES UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN CONTEXT OF DIVERSE CULTURES

14 September 1998
NGO/307

DPI/NGO CONFERENCE EXAMINES UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN CONTEXT OF DIVERSE CULTURES

14 September 1998

Press ReleaseNGO/307 PI/1080

DPI/NGO CONFERENCE EXAMINES UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN CONTEXT OF DIVERSE CULTURES

19980914 Panelists Urge Greater Attention To Protection of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

While human rights efforts had focused on protecting civil and political rights, greater attention should be given to protecting economic, social and cultural rights, several panellists said this afternoon during the fifty-first annual Department of Public Information (DPI)/NGO Conference.

During this afternoon meeting of the three-day Conference focusing on implementation of the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, panel participants discussed general human rights issues and the universality of human rights.

The false schism between the right to development and human rights needed to be redressed, said Michael Cooper, Director of the Human Rights Office of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. While human rights principles had been institutionalized in the constitutions of many countries and within the framework of the United Nations, those principles must now be universally implemented.

Joanna Weschler, representative of Human Rights Watch, said some States had lowered their standards of human rights protections for the sake of economic improvement. Western leaders were quick to sympathize with those positions for the sake of developing free markets.

Shashi Tharoor, Director of Communications for the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, said the challenge in regard to human rights protection was to find the common denominators between different societies. Such rights as freedom from torture or the right not to be assaulted should be common to all people, regardless of their culture. Human rights must be incorporated to the legal systems of individual countries. Human rights should be a part of the indigenous system, not an outside influence.

Yashushi Akashi, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, said that while human rights were universal in nature, they must be carried out within a cultural context. The promotion of human rights should be encouraged

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by consensus and cooperation. The ultimate goal of the universal application of human rights should be tempered with realism.

Also participating in today's discussions were: Elizabeth Evatt, member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee; Gerald Le Melle, Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA; Marjorie Newman-Williams, Deputy Director of the Programme Division of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); Elsa Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Deputy to the Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Barbara Crossette, United Nations Bureau Chief for The New York Times.

The panels were moderated by Robert Van Lierop, former Permanent Representative of Vanuatu to the United Nations; and Engelbert Theuermann, Counsellor for the Permanent Mission of Austria.

The Conference will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 15 September, to consider the impact of globalization on human rights.

Overview of Human Rights Issues

The panel's moderator was ROBERT VAN LIEROP, former Permanent Representative of Vanuatu to the United Nations. He said a good point of departure for discussing the vast topic of human rights was the Human Development Report 1998, which highlighted global inequities, many of which continued to be addressed by the United Nations.

ELIZABETH EVATT, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, said the story of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began with the realization of an overriding principle of justice. During the Second World War, former United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressing the United States Congress, highlighted four basic freedoms: freedom of expression; freedom to worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. Within those ideals, there was a concept of universal, comprehensive and indivisible human rights.

Those freedoms inspired the drafters of the Charter of the United Nations to address human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the means by which those fundamental rights could be implemented. It provided a basis of inspiration and the rights it advocated were inherent. They were inclusive, comprehensive and indivisible, and they covered all aspects of the individual's relationship with government.

There were six main international instruments of human rights, but they had not yet been ratified by all Member States. Nor did the existing instruments deal adequately with the rights of women, protection of which should be integrated into the broader system of human rights protection.

GERALD LE MELLE, Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, said, while human rights activities had focused on protecting civil and political rights, greater attention should be given to economic, social and cultural rights. Economic rights had not received adequate attention by the United Nations and other bodies, including Amnesty International. It had been argued that economic rights were more difficult to quantify and monitor. Nonetheless, States had an obligation to promote such rights.

Amnesty International was now working to provide more economic and social context in its human rights reporting. In the context of economic rights, the roles of such groups as international financial institutions and international businesses needed to be closely examined. Actions of countries which violated human rights in the name of economic progress must be examined.

MARJORIE NEWMAN-WILLIAMS, Deputy Director of the Programme Division of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said UNICEF was developing the human rights aspect of its work. In 1979, UNICEF had been dragged "kicking

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and screaming" into the process of drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There were many reasons why UNICEF had not wanted to be involved, she said. Being a practical organization, UNICEF had believed that the political nature of drafting such a convention, particularly in the midst of the cold war, would waste resources. However, a political thawing in the middle of the process, combined with the active role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- which had "shamed" UNICEF into getting involved -- drew the organization into the process.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child had turned out to be a landmark document, she said. The work of UNICEF now incorporated a human rights perspective, citing the issue of maternal mortality. For years, the issue had been treated as a health issue. But when the situation had been viewed from a broader perspective, it had become evident that the issue was in fact a civil rights matter. For a woman to die in childbirth, when both the resources and the knowledge were available to prevent it, meant that a profound violation of human rights had occurred.

ELSA STAMATOPOULOU-ROBBINS, Deputy to the Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said human rights mechanisms and concepts have developed within the context of historical and political changes. The idea of self-determination was a good example of that.

A major development in human rights protection had been the increasing role of NGOs, she continued. The NGOs had been recognized as important providers of information on human rights violations by the United Nations, treaty-monitoring bodies and other organizations. That situation resulted from the growing strength of NGOs, the spread of democratization and the increase in anti-colonial sentiment. Future challenges include the implementation of human rights norms; the full integration of the human rights of women; the integration of human rights protection into the peacekeeping and security efforts of the United Nations; and making private economic actors accountable for human rights.

MICHAEL COOPER, Director of the Human Rights Office of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, said the anniversary of the Declaration was an opportunity to review the progress that had been made, while looking to the future. He said he was often asked how it was possible to celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when every day there were reports of blatant abuses of human rights all over the world. Those reports themselves represented an achievement and marked the increased awareness of human rights.

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The principles of human rights had been institutionalized in the constitutions of many countries, and within the framework of the United Nations, he said. Following the recognition of universal human rights and the codification of those rights, the world was now in the final stage of development: the stage of implementation.

Discussion

Responding to a question about homosexuality and human rights, Ms. EVATT said that intolerance of homosexuality was a clear case of discrimination and inequality. It fell clearly within the scope of human rights protection and there should be no debate or controversy.

Mr. LE MELLE said Amnesty International had started a new programme for gay and lesbian human rights protection. However, some countries would not allow Amnesty International to operate if it took a certain position on homosexuality.

Responding to a question about the importance of democracy in protecting human rights, Mr. LE MELLE said democracy was not a prerequisite for human rights. There were a number of countries with democratically elected leaders that continued to violate human rights. There were a number of countries that may not be ready for democracy, but they had a solid human rights foundation.

On the issue of youth representatives, Ms. NEWMAN-WILLIAMS said that UNICEF had worked to include the voices of youth. A programme to allow young people to communicate with UNICEF officials via the Internet had recently been established.

Universality of Human Rights

The panel's moderator, ENGELBERT THEUERMANN, Counsellor for the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations, said that indivisibility and universality of human rights were key topics discussed at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. During this year's NGO conference, implementation of the goals of that Vienna Conference would be reviewed.

SHASHI THAROOR, Director of Communications for the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, said some believed that there was no universally accepted concept of human rights. Many cultures placed much more importance on a concept of responsibilities than on rights. There were also those that believed that human rights were a form of Western colonialism meant to instil Western values on developing countries. Others said that developing countries could not afford to implement human rights.

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The challenge was to find the common denominators between different societies, he added. Human rights had not been developed by the West alone. A number of Eastern and developing countries had ratified and developed many of the human rights covenants of the United Nations. "Culture" was often used as a defence against human rights, he continued. Culture, however, was constantly evolving and just because something was a "cultural tradition" did not mean it was positive or should not be changed. Slavery was a part of world culture for many centuries, until it was abolished.

He said that such rights as freedom from torture or the right not to be assaulted were common to all people, regardless of culture. Authoritarian rulers often used arguments against human rights to retain power and continue repressive practices. Human rights must be applied within countries and incorporated into national systems. Human rights should be a part of the indigenous system, not something applied from outside.

BARBARA CROSSETTE, United Nations Bureau Chief, The New York Times, said it was difficult to achieve true universality in human rights protection. Culture could never be totally eliminated from discussions of human rights. As an example, she cited the situations in East Timor and Kashmir, which she found to be very similar. In both cases, the people felt their right to self- determination had not been recognized and, in both cases, the people lived under oppressive military occupation. Also, in both cases, human rights violations took place. Yet, the international public felt that of the two situations the authority most blameworthy was the Government of Indonesia. The general perception of what was going on in two similar situations was completely different.

The NGOs, and human rights groups in particular, had a major role to play in policy making, she said. They knew the situation on the ground, they understood the local cultures and they spoke the local languages. Their positions were most often well-balanced and their opinions were often trusted by journalists.

JOANNA WESCHLER, representative of Human Rights Watch, said the economic crisis in Asia had been caused, in part, by actions of corrupt and unaccountable governments, as well as a lack of protection of basic freedoms. A new challenge to human rights had come from States that had lowered standards of human rights protection in the name of economic development. Western leaders had been quick to sympathize with those arguments for the sake of free markets. Some leaders believed their countries were not ready for human rights or that such rights were a luxury that they could not afford, she said. One of the most serious challenges to democracy came not from developing countries, but from the United States. The United States had opposed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction and the establishment of the International Criminal Court. It was one of two countries that had not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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YASUSHI AKASHI, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, recalled the debate on the universality of human rights which had taken place in Vienna in 1993. That debate seemed somewhat out of date, which was a testimony to the progress that had been made in the intervening years. Development and democracy, human rights and national unity were not concepts inconsistent with each other: they had to be developed in parallel. Many leaders in Asia had advocated the position that development should take precedence over democracy and that national unity should take precedence over human rights, he said. But recently, many countries, notably the Republic of Korea, had moved towards a more "individual-oriented" system. Asians wanted equal emphasis to be placed on all forms of rights. While human rights were universal in nature, they must be carried out within a cultural context. The promotion of human rights should be encouraged by consensus and cooperation. Last year, he said, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had decided to put off accepting Cambodia as a new member because of the internal political situation in that country. Two ASEAN members -- Thailand and the Philippines -- had at that time suggested, in reference to the political situation in Myanmar, that perhaps the Association's policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries should be re-examined. Those two examples showed that the concept of the universality of human rights was gaining ground. At the same time, the ultimate goal of the universal application of human rights should be tempered with realism. Discussion

In response to a question regarding "common human rights", Mr. THAROOR said there were certain rights that were fundamental and universal. Human rights should be applied equally to all countries. The lives that were lost in Rwanda and other such conflicts could not be explained away by cultural considerations. On a question of NGO involvement, Ms. CROSSETTE said that NGOs and international human rights groups had backed off from completely condemning female genital mutilation. A number of groups had instead tried to modify local practices to reduce the physical harm suffered by girls who underwent female genital mutilation. Also, on the role of NGOs, Ms. WESCHLER said human rights violations occurred in all countries. The NGOs from northern countries should look into their own countries' human rights records, she said. On the question of universality, Mr. AKASHI said violations in different conflicts and areas should be examined closely, and people should refrain from any kind of simplified theories on the causes of conflicts. It was troubling that some groups that had lived together peacefully had turned against each other so violently. There should be efforts to improve communications between groups so that harmful and negative stereotypes would not be accepted.

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For information media. Not an official record.