17 November 2015
Following is the introductory statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on 16 November at the Sorensen event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York:
“This is a dark time, a time of great turmoil in international relations. Paris bleeds, so too does Beirut, Aleppo and Sana’a and countless other cities. And it seems that the defences against chaos and bloodshed that States erected at the close of the Second World War – the laws they wrote, and swore to abide by; the agreements and treaties they signed – are giving way to increasingly unilateral action, bound by no principle, nor any foresight.
Across the world, the staff of my Office and many other human rights defenders are reporting mounting atrocities. Much of the Middle East and North Africa is gripped in deadly conflict, with constant, now almost routine violations of the norms that should protect civilians -- and even proxy warfare, with greater powers engaged in combats, rather than in making peace. Most shocking of all is the world’s terrible failure to end the suffering of the people of Syria. There and elsewhere, we face extremism of a nature and brutality that is sickening, and yet which speaks to some fraction of a population that has been brutalized by generations of war.
I am deeply worried, also, about Palestine and Israel: the religious element of this latest spasm of violence could lead to immeasurably greater consequences. The crisis in Ukraine casts a long shadow across Europe. The breakdown of rule of law in several Latin American countries, with the rise of powerful criminal gangs, is profoundly disturbing. I have been shocked by events in South Sudan that have brought the small beginnings of a new nation to blood and famine. And appalled by continued resistance to the equality of women and girls in many parts of the world -- an affront to every fundamental principle of the UN Charter.
The Secretary General has spoken of the “silent crises – grinding poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination”. Many countries around the world are failing to build political institutions, judicial systems, and economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity. In many more, the institutions, systems and economies that have been built are unfair, distorted by political capture, and increasingly unrepresentative. We also see more and more States curtailing human rights under the profoundly erroneous impression that mass surveillance and repression of dissent will somehow defeat the threat posed by terrorism.
So when I was invited to speak here at the Council on Foreign Relations, it came as a solace. This institution has provoked insight on many issues of global governance and human rights. I am particularly pleased to be speaking in the context of the legacy of Ted Sorensen, who guided the speech in which JFK famously cried out, “Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation…. unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of human rights”.
The slow undoing of human rights – those universal, core values that bind together and uphold development, justice, the rule of law and peace.
Today, States and non-State actors are deliberately and increasingly violating the most fundamental rules of international law, and they are doing so with impunity. As chaos rises, several States appear to be undergoing almost a process of nuclear fission, collapsing inwards and splintering into violently defensive communities. We face massive emergencies, and yet our humanitarian operations go unfunded – virtually guaranteeing that this suffering will cascade into more and more countries and lives.
Our current context recalls the world's situation at the turn of the last century, a time of simultaneous human progress and great destructive violence. We are at the cusp of a tremendous opportunity for development, with a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that promises to end poverty, leaving no-one behind. Next month, in Paris, the world may yet come together to take powerful action against climate change. And there is still hope for resolution of many of the crises I have outlined.
Today’s multiple migration movements – to Europe, to South-East Asia, and to the United States – are symptoms of the despair that is generated by overwhelming human rights violations. In every case, they were preceded by reports, recommendations and warning alerts by my Office. They are the living illustration that human rights violations in any one country are the business of us all. Indiscriminate warfare in Syria. Oppression in Eritrea. Persecution in Myanmar. Children fleeing gang violence in Central America. Young people driven out of Bangladesh by the lack of opportunities and a broken rule of law. Families forced to move across the Sahel because of water scarcity and land degradation.
Our response to these movements of forced migration will take the measure of our will to overturn such violations. There should be a strong, deep, broad-based and collective effort to address the overwhelming human rights violations at the root of these desperate movements of people. It can be done. We have the information, and many tools. But too often, human rights are given short shrift in favour of the short-term, narrowly defined interests of States. My Office, with years of experience in preventing and responding to violations, has much to offer in this colossal struggle.
And meanwhile, the world’s States, singly and together, must reform their systems of migration governance to place the interests of these suffering women, men and children at the forefront. They have already endured great harm, but all too often they flee only to find, not comfort and safety, but fences, detention, push-backs, xenophobia, and violence. Yet they have exactly the same fundamental human rights as I do; as you do, as do we all. Their lives are just as valuable, just as important, as our own.
“Now the trumpet summons us again,” wrote Ted Sorensen; for a struggle “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself... Let us go forth to lead the land we love”.
To lead the land we love, and the world we love. The world in which every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights. The world that is the only legacy we will leave for our children.
Let us lead it well.
I thank you very much.”
For use of the information media; not an official record