UN Celebrates 60 years of Human Rights: a personal view

  • Date / 13 December 2008

I attended the celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva expecting to be appalled in equal measure by the extravagance of the surroundings and the hypocrisy of the speeches, but I left both moved and inspired.

The event was held in the new Hall of Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations, refurbished at a reported cost of over $40 million and inaugurated last month by the King and Queen of Spain. It is a beautiful hall, superbly equipped, to which no photograph I have seen so far has done justice. Is it too much to hope that in its new home the Council in its deliberations will match the quality and beauty of the surroundings? (OK, a rhetorical question to which, sadly, we already know the answer).

On this occasion, however, the beauty of the surroundings was matched by the inspiring words of several of the speakers, reminding us that the UDHR is the most widely translated document in history and “perhaps the most important document ever written by mankind”. We were also reminded that human rights are not Western but Universal, and that the UDHR was adopted unanimously by the then 58 States of the United Nations.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged the Council to stop the negative rhetoric and bloc voting and get on with actually defending ordinary people from abuse. His words were echoed by Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and by several western speakers, including the gorgeous Rama Yade of France, speaking for the European Union, who said the Council needed to address the widespread, massive violations of the rights of women and children. She attacked the Council’s practice of passing unbalanced resolutions, and for undermining the work of the independent investigators. Yade, from a Muslim family in Senegal, spoke out strongly against stoning and genital mutilation, subjects which in recent months we and our colleagues have been prevented from raising in the Council.

Micheline Calmey-Rey, the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs reminded us that human rights apply everywhere, “as much in Geneva as Shenzen or Guantanamo” but she went on to laud the Andalusian Caliphate where “Christians Jews and Muslims lived in harmony for over 100 years .. and enjoyed an apogee without precedent in poetry and philosophy”. The message was that if human civilisation could do it once, a thousand years ago, we could do it again. A nice thought, but with worrying echoes of the jihadist demands for a global Caliphate where all men will be equal but Muslims more equal than others, and you can forget women’s rights. Calmey-Rey raised our hopes when she mentioned the “delicate and controversial question” of defamation of religion, but she went on to speak only of the limits to freedom of expression and made no suggestion that “the concept of defamation of religion has no place in human rights discourse”: the key objection repeatedly expressed by the European Union. A missed opportunity.

One of the most moving events of the afternoon took place outside the hall. I had taken a natural break from the speeches and noticed, just outside, a wreath of flowers on a small table flanked by two UN security officers. In front stood a dark-suited man with head bowed. It was Ban Ki Moon who, without ceremony or flamboyance, was paying his respects to the memory of the seventeen UN personnel who had lost their lives in the terror attack on the UN office in Algiers just one year ago. It was a moving reminder of the commitment of the UN staff who, against great odds, dedicate their careers – and all too frequently their lives – to the cause of human rights; a stark and shameful contrast to the time-serving deceivers among the delegations that now control our beloved institution.

Roy Brown

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