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SG/SM/6958
12 April 1999

KOFI ANNAN STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS, SOUNDNESS OF RULE OF LAW, FOR COMMON UNDERSTANDING AMONG GOVERNMENTS AND PEOPLE

12 April 1999


Press Release
SG/SM/6958


KOFI ANNAN STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS, SOUNDNESS OF RULE OF LAW, FOR COMMON UNDERSTANDING AMONG GOVERNMENTS AND PEOPLE

19990412 Following is the text of an address delivered today in Madrid by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Diplomatic School of Spain:

It is a pleasure to join you today. My team and I have received a warm welcome here in this great capital city, and I am glad to have this very timely opportunity to visit Spain and to deepen the already close ties that exist between the Spanish people and the United Nations.

Some countries play a prominent role in world affairs because of their history. Others are thrust to the fore by virtue of geography. Still others take the lead through human ingenuity and will, producing great artists and thinkers, explorers and exports, sometimes out of all proportion to their resources and population.

It can be said, quite easily, that Spain's high stature in the community of nations derives from each of these reasons.

Throughout its history, Spain has brought together, at different times, a mosaic of peoples, contributing to today's rich and varied culture. When Europe was in the so-called "Dark Ages", the Iberian Peninsula witnessed an unparalleled cultural renaissance enriched by the coexistence of different cultures and religions -- Christian, Islamic and Jewish. Although that moment was short-lived, its heritage lives on in the mature and lively democracy that is Spain today.

Spain has also become a model for other countries in transition from fratricidal war and authoritarian rule.

Throughout my travels as Secretary-General, I have heard many people compare their experience with that of Spain, speaking admiringly of what has been accomplished here so swiftly and so convincingly.

That respect extends to Spain's presence at the United Nations. Your steady support of peacekeeping, and your stellar performance in honouring your financial commitments, are worthy examples for other Member States.

Mr. Federico Mayor continues his distinguished service as Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). And in yet another international context, I have worked closely with Mr. Javier Solana during his service at the helm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Spain today also continues to be shaped by its geographical location, in particular its closeness to the countries of North Africa. This is an age of globalization, and of collapsing cultural and commercial barriers. By following the path of engagement, trade and, especially, dialogue among peoples and civilizations, Spain is again playing a meaningful, highly regarded role.

At the heart of all this activity, and all this achievement, are the Spanish people. A single speech could not do justice to what this country's men and women have contributed to the advancement of humankind over the centuries.

However, I would like to refer to two who I feel are undeniably linked to our work at the United Nations and the principles enshrined in the Organization's Charter.

One is Fray Bartolome de las Casas, whose passionate defence of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas lay the foundation for major developments in humanitarian and human rights law.

The other is Francisco de Vitoria, whose works are at the root of the system of international law which still rules relations between States.

You may be surprised to learn that a statue of Vitoria stands in the United Nations garden in New York, bearing the inscription: "Fundador del derecho de gentes". The statute's unveiling took place in the presence of His Majesty King Juan Carlos I in 1976, during his first year as sovereign. The symbolism of renewal, drawing strength from tradition, was clear to us all.

Though the achievements of Bartolome de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria date back several centuries, their message continues to inspire all those who long to see respect for human dignity and the rule of law take firmer hold in our world.

These are crucial pillars in our struggle to build lasting foundations for peace, and I would like to speak to you about recent developments and their place in our work.

Just before coming to Spain, I attended the current session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As you know, last year we

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commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one should think, however, that because the observance has passed we will stop speaking up about human rights. Far from it. Follow-up -- relentless follow-up -- is the key to progress.

The annual session in Geneva is the closest thing we have in the United Nations to a state-of-the-world assessment of human rights. Working groups, special rapporteurs and other experts gather to present their reports on specific countries and themes, to debate what actions to take and to identify emerging issues and trouble-spots.

Non-governmental organizations turn out in force to demand that governments adhere to their commitments. It is governments, after all, who have primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights. And it is governments, after all, who are the main violators.

This year's meeting was held against the backdrop of unspeakable atrocities in Kosovo, abuses of every kind the world over, and the day-to-day poverty and mass illiteracy that are also human rights issues capable of sowing the seeds of conflict. It is a disturbing, dispiriting scenario.

Indeed it is tempting at times to think that this century is ending as it began, with crimes against humanity and widespread economic deprivation the prevailing picture of humanity -- or should I say, inhumanity.

But such an appraisal would ignore important progress that has been made. Recent years have seen encouraging developments in the areas of human rights and international law to give hope that the international community is beginning to learn the lessons from our many setbacks and tragedies.

One such development has been the creation of the post United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mary Robinson, taking up where José Ayala Lasso left off, has given the cause of human rights new voice and new vigour. It is hard to believe that the United Nations, founded with human rights at the core of its global mission, existed for so long without such a focal point.

The High Commissioner has rightfully made implementation of existing human rights law her chief priority. Of course, we will continue working towards the goal of universal ratification of the major conventions. And we will continue trying to fill gaps in the scope of these instruments. Indigenous peoples, for example, have yet to see the adoption of a declaration of their rights despite many years of drafting.

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But most of the standard-setting has been done. The challenge today, it is widely agreed, is to match our great success on paper with real improvements in people's lives.

Towards that end, the United Nations human rights programme has taken to the field. Our presence now extends to more than 20 countries, including in situations of internal conflict.

Human rights verification, reporting and assessment are increasingly part of peacekeeping operations. The human rights mission in El Salvador, for example, was established even before a ceasefire was in place, and is credited with deterring abuses and building confidence that helped the parties successfully conclude a peace plan.

Technical assistance has also grown, as more and more nations are approaching us for help in training judges and law enforcement officials, and in building vital institutions such as national human rights commissions. We now have more human rights staff in the field than at Headquarters.

Global awareness of human rights has never been greater. And yet, we must continue the job of educating and informing the world's public about their rights. While human rights are universal, public understanding of them is not -- at least not yet. Moreover, often it is those who know least about human rights -- the illiterate, the oppressed, the marginalized -- who need to know most.

Next month in The Hague, we have an opportunity to advance human rights and draw attention to a cause with which it is inextricably linked: international law.

On that occasion, we will commemorate the centenary of the first Hague Peace Conference, at which, for the first time, a specific weapon -- the dum dum bullet -- was banned, and at which, also for the first time, an effort was made to set up an institution -- the Permanent Court of Arbitration -- to administer international law.

These were modest yet symbolically significant achievements. The accumulation of international law since then is one of the hallmarks of our century. Nations have agreed to thousands of multilateral treaties covering inter-State relations, individual rights and virtually every field of human endeavour, from communications and health to the environment, crime and narcotics.

One of our main challenges now is to extend the scope of international law even further into the realm of peace and security. We have done so, to a certain extent, in the areas of disarmament and terrorism.

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But I am thinking in particular of international criminal justice. Here, too, I believe developments allow us to feel a cautious optimism about the future.

Last year's agreement on the Statute for an International Criminal Court was a major step towards filling what has been the missing link in the international justice system. Spain and 77 other nations have signed the Statute. We must now focus our efforts on reaching the 60 ratifications needed to bring the Court into existence.

In the meantime, the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia will continue their work. A grim but important milestone was passed last year when Jean-Paul Akayesu became the first person ever found guilty of the crime of genocide by an international tribunal.

And last month, I endorsed the recommendation of an expert panel that any tribunal set up to deal with the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia should have an international character. I hope that the Cambodian Government may yet be persuaded to follow this advice.

All of these efforts are showing, however imperfectly, that there is such a thing as international criminal justice, and that it can have teeth. It also shows that the United Nations can deliver, so long as the Member States provide the necessary support.

In August we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the four Geneva Conventions, which sought to bring some order to the disorder of war. The Conventions have become widely known and accepted as the rules which should govern the conduct of belligerents in times of armed conflict. The problem, as usual, is with adherence.

Indeed, despite all our advances in creating an extensive body of legal obligations, the general public remains justifiably sceptical about any claim to be living in a world that is ruled by law. Too many States fail to ratify agreements. Often their acceptance of agreements is watered down by reservations that can undermine a treaty's very purpose.

Still, the fact remains that the most successful nations today are those built on the principle of respect for human rights and the rule of law. What works for nations can work for global society as well. But to get there, we need a common understanding not just among governments, but among people.

The pathway, I believe, lies in the universality of human rights, in the soundness of the rule of law -- in the acceptance of shared values, whatever our differences. Equality, dignity and tolerance; these are values we can all recognize as our own; they are the glue of human interaction; and they are

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found in the United Nations Charter. Embraced and enacted, they are the way forward.

Those values are also on display in the artwork of another Spaniard at United Nations Headquarters in New York. It is a mural by the late José Vela-Zanetti, depicting "mankind's struggle for lasting peace".

The piece was one of the first works of art to be installed at United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was painted only a few years after the United Nations was founded from the ashes of war, when Spain itself, still recovering from a civil conflict, was not yet a member of the Organization.

The mural tells the story of a family of nations riven asunder. But it also shows members of that same family, building the United Nations in the hope that it would restore peace, and then defend it for all people, for all time.

Spain has since taken its rightful place in the family of nations. And with its rich tradition of cultural diversity and openness to the world, it is among the vanguard of multilateral actors at the United Nations.

Mr. Vela-Zanetti died shortly after the mural was rededicated and presented by Spain and the Dominican Republic, which had been his home in exile. But his inspiring work lives on.

The United Nations, for its part, is a reformed instrument of service to humankind, striving to rise to the challenges of a new era in world affairs.

As Secretary-General, I am dedicated above all else to bringing the Organization closer to the people it is meant to serve. In that spirit, I look forward to working with you to realize our dream of lasting peace.

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For information media. Not an official record.