New York

08 December 2006

Secretary-General's Address to mark International Human Rights Day (followed by Q&A)

My dear friends,

Thank you all for being here. I could not ask for better company, on the last International Human Rights Day of my time in office, than this group of courageous human rights leaders from around the world.

I don¡¯t need to tell you, of all people, that the United Nations has a special stake, and a special responsibility, in promoting respect for human rights worldwide. But equally ¨C and less happily ¨C I don¡¯t need to tell you that the UN has often failed to live up to that responsibility. I know that ten years ago many of you were close to giving up on any hope that an organization of governments, many of which are themselves gross violators of human rights, could ever function as an effective human rights defender.

One of my priorities as Secretary-General has been to try and restore that hope, by making human rights central to all the UN¡¯s work. But I¡¯m not sure how far I have succeeded, or how much nearer we are to bringing the reality of the UN in line with my vision of human rights as its ¡°third pillar¡±, on a par with development and peace and security.

Development, security and human rights go hand in hand; no one of them can advance very far without the other two. Indeed, anyone who speaks forcefully for human rights but does nothing about security and development ¨C including the desperate need to fight extreme poverty ¨C undermines both his credibility and his cause. Poverty in particular remains both a source and consequence of rights violations. Yet if we are serious about human deprivation, we must also demonstrate that we are serious about human dignity, and vice versa.

Are you any more confident today than you were ten years ago that an intergovernmental organization can really do this job? I fear the answer may be No, and that the first steps of the Human Rights Council, which we all fought so hard to establish, may not have given you much encouragement. So this morning I suggest that we try and think through, together, what is really needed.

First, we must give real meaning to the principle of ¡°Responsibility to Protect¡±.

As you know, last year¡¯s World Summit formally endorsed that momentous doctrine ¨C which means, in essence, that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction in the face of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Yet one year later, to judge by what is happening in Darfur, our performance has not improved much since the disasters of Bosnia and Rwanda. Sixty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, and 30 years after the Cambodian killing fields, the promise of ¡°never again¡± is ringing hollow.

The tragedy of Darfur has raged for over three years now, and still reports pour in of villages being destroyed by the hundred, and of the brutal treatment of civilians spreading into neighbouring countries. How can an international community which claims to uphold human rights allow this horror to continue?

There is more than enough blame to go around. It can be shared among those who value abstract notions of sovereignty more than the lives of real families, those whose reflex of solidarity puts them on the side of governments and not of peoples, and those who fear that action to stop the slaughter would jeopardize their commercial interests.

The truth is, none of these arguments amount even to excuses, let alone justifications, for the shameful passivity of most governments. We have still not summoned up the collective sense of urgency that this issue requires.

Some governments have tried to win support in the global South by caricaturing responsibility to protect, as a conspiracy by imperialist powers to take back the hard-won national sovereignty of formerly colonized peoples. This is utterly false.

We must do better. We must develop the responsibility to protect into a powerful international norm that is not only quoted but put into practice, whenever and wherever it is needed.

Above all we must not wait to take action until genocide is actually happening, by which time it is often too late to do anything effective about it. Two years ago I announced an action plan for the prevention of genocide, and appointed a Special Adviser to help me implement it. While his work has been extremely valuable, much more needs to be done. I hope my successor will take up this banner, and that member states will support him.

Second, we must put an end to impunity.

We have made progress in holding people accountable for the world¡¯s worst crimes. The establishment of the International Criminal Court, the work of the UN tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the hybrid ones in Sierra Leone and Cambodia, and the various Commissions of Experts and Inquiry, have proclaimed the will of the international community that such crimes should no longer go unpunished.

And yet they still do. Mladic and Karadzic, and the leaders of the Lord¡¯s Resistance Army ¨C to name but a few ¨C are still at large. Unless these indicted war criminals are brought to court, others tempted to emulate them will not be deterred.

Some say that justice must sometimes be sacrificed in the interests of peace. I question that. We have seen in Sierra Leone and in the Balkans that, on the contrary, justice is a fundamental component of peace. Indeed, justice has often bolstered lasting peace, by de-legitimizing and driving underground those individuals who pose the gravest threat to it. That is why there should never be amnesty for genocide, crimes against humanity and massive violations of human rights. That would only encourage today¡¯s mass murderers ¨C and tomorrow¡¯s would-be mass murderers ¨C to continue their vicious work.

Third, we need an anti-terrorism strategy that does not merely pay lip-service to the defence of human rights, but is built on it.

All states agreed last year that ¡°terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes¡± is ¡°one of the most serious threats to international peace and security¡±. They were right. Terrorism in itself is an assault on the most basic human rights, starting with the right to life.

But states cannot fulfil that obligation by themselves violating human rights in the process. To do so means abandoning the moral high ground and playing into the hands of the terrorists. That is why secret prisons have no place in our struggle against terrorism, and why all places where terrorism suspects are detained must be accessible to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Leading promoters of human rights undermine their own influence when they fail to live up to these principles.

We must fight terrorism in conformity with international law, those parts of it that prohibit torture and inhumane treatment, and those that give anyone detained against his or her will the right to due process and the judgement of a court. Once we adopt a policy of making exceptions to these rules or excusing breaches of them, no matter how narrow, we are on a slippery slope. The line cannot be held half way down. We must defend it at the top.

Fourth, let¡¯s not content ourselves with grand statements of principle. We must work to make human rights a reality in each country.

Of course, protecting and promoting human rights is first and foremost a national responsibility. Every member state of the UN can draw on its own history to develop its own ways of upholding universal rights. But many states need help in doing this, and the UN system has a vital role to play.

Over the past decade, the UN has rapidly expanded its operational capacity for peacekeeping, and for development and humanitarian aid. Our capacity to protect and promote human rights now needs to catch up.

World leaders recognized this at last year¡¯s Summit. They agreed to double the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights over the next five years, and as a result the Office is now rapidly expanding. It is helping states build their capacity, giving them technical assistance where necessary, and bringing urgent situations to the attention of the international community. In some countries, such as Colombia and Nepal, its monitoring missions are making a very important contribution to the resolution of conflict.

But the Office¡¯s capacity is still far short of the needs it has to meet. I hope the quality of its work will persuade member states to authorize further increases in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, we must realize the promise of the Human Rights Council, which so far has clearly not justified all the hopes that so many of us placed in it.

Of course it¡¯s encouraging that the Council has now decided to hold a special session on Darfur next week. I hope against hope that it will find an effective way to deal with this burning issue.

But I am worried by its disproportionate focus on violations by Israel. Not that Israel should be given a free pass. Absolutely not. But the Council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other states as well.

And I am also worried by the efforts of some Council members to weaken or abolish the system of Special Procedures ¨C the independent mechanisms for reporting on violations of particular kinds, or in specific countries.

The Special Procedures are the crown jewel of the system. They, together with the High Commissioner and her staff, provide the independent expertise and judgement which is essential to effective human rights protection. They must not be politicized, or subjected to governmental control.

Instead, the Council¡¯s agenda should be broadened to reflect the actual abuses that occur in every part of the world. That means that the periodic review of all countries¡¯ human rights performance, which the Council will establish in the course of next year, must go beyond the work that the treaty bodies are already doing.

But of course the universal review cannot be a substitute for addressing country-specific situations. Many countries will continue to need technical assistance, or in-country monitoring mechanisms, or both, and some will continue to merit condemnation. Human rights abuses do not occur on paper. They are committed by real people, against real victims, in specific countries.

The world needs an intergovernmental body that deals with human rights. And it needs an intergovernmental body that works. That can only be achieved by a broader leadership. All states that truly believe in human rights, in every part of the world, must work together to transcend narrow interests and make the Human Rights Council live up to its promise. It is a historic opportunity ¨C and history will not be kind if we let it pass.

The truth is, it¡¯s not enough just to have the right principles and say what we think should happen. We also have to ask who is going to make it happen. Who can we look to for support? Who is going to insist that these principles are acted on?

First, I look to Africa to take the lead.

Africa¡¯s many conflicts are, almost invariably, accompanied by massive human rights violations. Unless Africa wholeheartedly embraces the inviolability of human rights, its struggle for security and development will not succeed.

As I said when I first addressed African heads of state, at Harare in 1997, to treat human rights as an imposition by the industrialized West, or a luxury of the rich countries for which Africa is not ready, demeans the yearning for human dignity that resides in every African heart. Human rights are, by definition, also African rights. It should be every African government¡¯s first priority to ensure that Africans can enjoy them.

South African heroes, like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, have shown the way. The African Union led the way among international organizations on the responsibility to protect, by proclaiming in its Constitutive Act ¡°the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State ¡­ in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity¡±. It has also tried harder than anyone else to act on that doctrine in Darfur, and to bring the former Chadian dictator Hiss¨¨ne Habr¨¦ to justice.

This is encouraging, but much more needs to be done. In practice, many African governments are still resisting the responsibility to protect. Many, even among the most democratic, are still reluctant to play their role in the Human Rights Council by speaking out impartially against all abuses. They can, and must, do more.

Secondly, I look to the growing power of women ¨C which means we must give priority to women¡¯s rights.

The ¡°equal rights of men and women¡±, promised by the UN Charter 61 years ago, are still far from being a reality. The UN can and must play a greater role in empowering women, and to do so, will require a strengthening of the UN¡¯s gender architecture. I strongly encourage member states to make this a real priority.

And thirdly, I look to civil society ¨C which means you!

We need dedicated individuals and dynamic human rights defenders to hold governments to account. States¡¯ performance must be judged against their commitments, and they must be accountable both to their own people and to their peers in the international community. Thank God, then, for the growth in human rights NGOs we have witnessed in the last decade. There are now an estimated 26,000 of them worldwide, specializing in issues from trafficking to torture, from HIV/AIDS to the rights of children and migrants.

This community is the UN and its Member States¡¯ essential partner in the struggle for human rights. Without the information you collect, the treaty bodies would be helpless. Without the spotlight you shine, abuses would go unnoticed. In return, we must do everything to protect you from harassment, intimidation and reprisal, so you can carry on your vital work.

Dear friends,

Throughout my time in office my biggest concern has been to make the UN an organization that serves people, and treats them as people ¨C that is, individual human beings, not abstractions or mere components of a state.

Of course I know that individuals don¡¯t exist in a vacuum. Man is a political and social animal, and individual men and women define their identity by their membership of groups. That¡¯s why human rights must always include rights to collective self-expression, which are especially important for minorities.

But no one¡¯s identity can be reduced to membership of a single group, be it ethnic, national, religious, or whatever. Each one of us is defined by a unique combination of characteristics that make up our personality. And it is that individual person whose rights must be preserved and respected.

The task of ensuring that that happens lies at the very heart of the UN¡¯s mission. And of all our tasks it is the one which can least safely be left in the hands of governments, or of a purely intergovernmental organization. In this task more than any other, the UN needs free spirits like yours to fill the leadership vacuum and hold world leaders and the United Nations to account.

So it¡¯s no mere figure of speech, dear friends, when I say that I leave the future of the UN¡¯s human rights work in your hands.

Thank you very much.

Q&A with the audience and the media

Q: Good to see you. Ken asked me to ask you a tough question, so I'll try to. We all know that the UN can't really function very well without the support of the US government, that that's essential. And you have had your ups and downs with the government, as I think any Secretary General has had. And there's often a great deal of bashing of the UN by the administration, by members of Congress, particularly, in political campaigns. What advice would you give to Ki-Moon Ban as he comes in as to how he should handle the US relationship?

SG: I think the US-UN relationship is an important one. But let me start by saying that the US needs the UN and the UN needs the US, and that understanding of the relationship has to be a constant one. They should not as you say, have up and downs, or one should not treat the UN as something a la carte –you pick what you want. You really have to accept the fact as an international community, we all have to tackle certain problems that no one country, however powerful, can tackle alone. I think the new SG will have work to establish a good working relationship, which I had to do at the beginning with all of the US ambassadors: Amb. Holbrooke, Richardson, and others. We had to work with Senator Helms and all that to get that done. So it went reasonably well, but of course in recent years, it has been a difficult and a tough one.

The US has a natural leadership position in the organization, but it also must always remember there are 191 other member states who have their interests, who feel they should be listened to, can play a role. In recent years, it has been a tough position. The US has always been a lead player, but he will have to find a way to work together –if the impression is given that he bends to the US too much, he will lose the others. The SG should reach out to the Hill –go talk to the Senate and the Congress, but he needs to develop good relations with the US but also remember to build good relations with the other 191 member states.

The new SG, any SG, will have to find a way of not only working with the US, but also getting the US and the other nations to work effectively together. If the impression is given that he is bending over too much to the US, he will lose the others, and in fact in the process, he cannot work with the US anyway –and therefore, he has to maintain his independence to the extent possible, and work with the US and other governments. He should reach out, he should be able to talk to members of Congress on the Hill, and in fact, several US administrations have told me the same –[they've said] don't just talk to us –the administration, go to the Hill, talk to the Senate, talk to the Congress, it makes a difference.

Of course, other member states also have parliaments. The SG has to work through the governments, the parliaments, and others, who have little time. On the other hand, it is an essential way business it is done here. So he needs to develop good relationships, but he must also remember that he also has the other 191 member states, and also get the US to appreciate that and work together.

Q: Natural follow up from Rita Hauser's question. It's about Iraq. You were attacked by Arab countries for not doing enough to stop the invasion of Iraq. You were attacked by the United States for not doing enough to help rebuild, calling the war illegal. So today, as you're about to leave office, do you feel vindicated? And, what do you see as the UN's future role in Iraq, is it part of, do you think it'll be part of the US exit strategy?

SG: I don't know if I feel vindicated, I think we have a very difficult problem in Iraq, and it is the responsibility of the entire international community to get it right. If we do not get it right, if we are not able to hold Iraq together, then Iraq, the way it will break up - it will have an impact way beyond the region.

If we are worried about oil prices at $60 or $70, it will go to $100 then $120, and everybody will pay a price, and we have a responsibility to work together to get it solved. I have stated publicly that there should be an effort by the international community, through a conference, to pull this together. If such a conference were to be organized, of course, the UN would be a part, as they have been in previous conferences - where in the case of Afghanistan or the Balkans. The situation in Iraq is such that I do not see the protagonists suddenly deciding tomorrow to stop shooting at themselves and talk. I think they are going to need help –they will need the help of a third party, an outsider. And that is one of the reasons why I suggested a conference with the key players neighboring countries and with the European countries, the Secretary General, to find a solution.

We talk of Iran and Syria –they have a vested interest in Iraq, it is on their border. Syria has taken in refugees, Iran has taken in refugees, Jordan has taken in refugees. Iran recognizes, and the president admitted that we also need a peaceful Iraq on our border, and I think if we find a way of bringing everybody together to work with the Iraqis, we stand a better chance.

And the UN, as I said will play its role, in some cases, many, the SG will name a special envoy to be brought to have the conflicts resolved, but of course, we will need the cooperation of the Iraqis to get this done.

Q: Is that your next job?

SG: [Laughs] It interesting you pose that question because when I spoke to the Iraq task force, that question was also asked. I indicated that's an issue for my successor to deal with, who will have to identify someone to do that. And I have plans.

Q: Would you reflect on the impact, on the momentum of the human rights movement of the US's recent relinquishment of its leadership in human rights. In fact, the abuses are so well known that –how do you see us catching up once we succeed in reversing that?

SG: Ya, I think it's unfortunate that in the discussions that led to the establishment of the council the US found itself so isolated –on an issue like human rights, where it has a good record and has done so much, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The US decided not to seek a seat on the council, to set it up this year, but they also promised me that they will cooperate with the council. In fact, we discussed a soft “no” and a hard “no”. They would say they would cooperate, so [it was a] soft no, but not a hard “no” and boycott cooperation with the council. In the end, I got a soft “no” and it is in the US interest to work with the other member states to strengthen this council, and next year, [I hope it will] consider a seat.

Q: [inaudible] I wanted to follow up. In a separate statement today, you said that there's, in regard to Iraq, there's a potential for a wider, regional conflict. What can the international community to do avoid that, considering that the White House has resisted recommendations from the Iraq Study Group with regard to talks with Syria and Iran?

SG: I think the international community can help, if we were to bring them together into constellation, [I have an advantage] –or they may use their own means to encourage dialogue between the US and Iran and Syria. For example, during the Afghan crisis we had what we called six plus two –that is, the neighbors of Afghanistan, plus Germany and the US. And we met regularly [inaudible]. Whenever we met, the US and Iran found a way of talking to each other, going into a corner and really had good possibilities of exchanging views, even though they didn't have diplomatic relations.

And I think that sort of contact is extremely helpful, and when you look back, the Iranians, in a way, honored all commitments they made on Afghanistan. And in fact, the Iranian border has been very quiet. And since, the problems have been on the Pakistani side, and this is why I have, for a long time, encouraged the administration that if one were able to work with them in Afghanistan, why don't you try in Iran where they perhaps have even greater influence than they did in Afghanistan.

And of course, Iran feels itself very powerful as a regional power, and the irony is that now two of the governments have been removed - the Taliban on one side, and Saddam Hussein on the other, and so they are really in a position to stretch their whims.

But I think we should not forget that whatever they say and whatever they do, a peaceful Iraq on their border is in their vested interest. We should not only think we are going to do something to help the US - they have an interest to stabilize Iraq.

Q: I'd like to go back to Darfur for a moment. You talked of about the special session, and one knows that the government of Ghana is the only African government that has been supportive of Human Rights Council. What message do you send to African governments, particularly, what actions should they support at the special session next week?

SG: I think the African governments and the African members should become very active in the council. It is our continent that has suffered most of these kinds of abuses. Whether you are seeing the Democratic Republic of Congo where 4 million people have died during the civil war, what happened in Rwanda, we had a serious problem in Somalia –and if the Africans do not step up and take a firm position on Darfur, they are not going to be able to hold it down somewhere else. They should be very firm.

I know we have the European Union here, and I think we have some ambassadors here tend to speak to the presidency. This month, Finland is here –and they should open up dialogue, clear cut conversation, but they should all speak up even if the president is going to speak for them. We need to hear as many voices as possible, and I would hope that the African Union will play their role. That is extremely important for them to do.

Q: Did the prohibition of a UN charter against the interference in the internal affairs of a state influence your decision in a way when you were peacekeeping, particularly in Rwanda, and have those decisions weighed on you over the years to make you an advocate for humanitarian intervention?

SG: As you know, the UN is an organization of member states, and the member states are very general of their prerogatives and their rights, and on the question of Rwanda, I don't think they even looked at it in terms of national pride.

Rwanda happened after the UN was pulling out of Somalia after the 18 US troops were killed. When the US left, everybody left. The appetite for peacekeeping changed.

We spoke to the governments in 50, 40 countries to get troops, nobody would help us. Some pretended they did not know that this was going on, and that the peacekeeping department of USG Kofi Annan may have withheld some information from them. There were governments in the council who knew more than we did. They had enough information, but the fact that the climate was such and that ? but let's assume they didn't know. But what do they do when they found out? They sent planes to repatriate their nationals, and allowed the killing to go on.

But I think I must say, Rwanda, and what happened in Srebenica, they have had an impact on all of us. They had certainly an impact on the determination that we need to take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.

And that was also part of the [inaudible] speech I gave the general assembly in 1999, that was raising this issue of humanitarian intervention which eventually led to responsibility to protect, and I hope that we will all try to agree to this responsibility.

Q: Kevin Ryan

Thank you. I have 2 questions about the International Court. The first is, if we were back together, 5 years from now, or 10 years from now, what are the specific differences or improvements you'd like to see happen at that point, and the second is, what role do see for the United States, and what role do you think they should play.

SG: I hope that 10 years from now, the court will have established its credentials, would have gone through as many cases as possible, and demonstrated to the world that this is a serious court by the world. This is a court that is going to send out a message to the world that impunity will not be allowed stand, and regardless of your status, that if you have committed horrendous crimes you will pay for it. The court has very good procedures, and it does protect governments from religious persecution [screening process] The US didn't want them to get involved, and tried to get exemption for US troops, so that they will not be brought to court.

When the inter council refused to endorse, they went and signed with the Europeans and their governments, some of whom [inaudible]. My own view, is given the exposure of the US in the world, the US in time, is going to need the court, more than any other country. Because it's not every day that you can pick up criminals, terrorists, and deal with them yourself, it's not every day that you will have governments cooperating, but you need to have a court and a mechanism for dealing with security. And I can't think of any other country that's more exposed globally than the US. And if the court proves itself, establishes its credential, the US will attend to it. [audible]

Q: Do you think it would be effective to appoint an eminent person, not someone from the UN, but an eminent person, such as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton to confront Sudan on Darfur? And to keep the pressure, the public pressure up, and to keep the issue of Darfur out there in the public.

SG: Thank you very much. Its something we've been discussing, and in fact, we're still discussing. But that individual alone cannot do it. We need area policies to the regions The governments that have major commercial interests in Sudan should play a role. We need to get other governments with influence to play a role. We need to get the governments in the region, adjacent to Sudan, to understand it can spread, and it is spreading. So far it's Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt is not far away. I know President Mubarak is getting quite a lot of attention; they should put pressure on the envoy, to make the Sudan government to cooperate. So far, the Sudanese government believes it's getting away with it, and they are resisting.

Q: Thank you very much, Mr. SG. I wanted to ask if you could say a bit more about the concrete action and commitments that UN broadly speaking needs to make to ensure the human rights of women, and therefore, empowerment.

SG: We set up a high level panel recently and they looked at this issue. It was a high level panel on the coherence of the system co-chaired by the prime ministers of Pakistan, Norway, and Mozambique. And they also recognized the need for us to have a world focused structured institution in the UN system that promotes and encourages the empowerment of women. We have several programs, but they are distinct.

The idea would be to bring all that together, with an Undersecretary at the top, to make sure they are sensitive to this. But not just at headquarters, but at all the country headquarters, where we have these activities. And of course, we are looking at the possibility of getting all the UN agencies in a country to come under one leadership and work on these programs to empower women, and get them to continue the political, civil, and social life of their communities, and so, the structures are in place, and I've requested the position of the Undersecretary General. But it will be up to my successor to make the appointment.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, in light of the recent Lebanese/Israel conflict, would you be willing to endorse the creation of the treaty banning cluster munitions along the lines of what has been done for landmines?

SG: Yes.

MODERATOR: When you get the answer you want, you stop.