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World of Parliaments
The Interview of Ms. Navy Pillay

“We must work for the full implementation of human rights”

Ms. Navy Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Q: What do you see as the main challenges facing your Office?
Ms. Navy Pillay:
Well, we must recognize that, for all the solemn commitments and legislative advances made in the promotion and protection of international human rights – and these have been considerable – serious implementation gaps remain. The main problem lies in the imperfect implementation of international laws and standards at the national level. Obviously, parliamentarians have a crucial role to play in improving this situation. Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated, and regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped in the name of security. Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status – the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - remains an elusive goal for many people around the world, and working to eliminate all forms of discrimination is one of the main priorities of my Office over the coming years. Rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are indispensable to the functioning of civil society, continue to come under sustained attack in many parts of the world. We must work for the full implementation of human rights in a way that affects and improves the lives of men, women and children everywhere. We are all entitled, regardless of our race, sex, religion, nationality, property or birth, to the realization of each and every right set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Q: What would your message be to parliaments as you address these challenges?
You have to believe you can bring about positive change, have an impact. And I do believe that, not least because of my personal experience in apartheid South Africa, and the human rights abuses that I had to confront first hand. I grew up as a second-class citizen with no legal recourse. Yet, in the course of my lifetime, I have seen a complete transformation take place, and South Africa now has one of the strongest constitutions in the world, and is a truly democratic society. Twenty years ago, very few of us would have dared hope such a transformation was possible. Much of the credit for what happened in South Africa is of course due to the vision of Nelson Mandela, who went for compromise and negotiation. These were words that I scorned as a university student, but they were crucial in helping us to put our past behind us and develop a new, democratic South Africa. While South Africa struggles – as many countries do – to turn legal rights into reality, witnessing the course of change in a single decade, and via a relatively peaceful evolution, leads me to believe that anything is possible, providing the will is there. I would urge parliamentarians everywhere not to take the easy way out and accept the status quo – but to do their bit to bring about positive change that benefits all members of their societies, not just the entrenched elites.

Q: Do you see progress in the field of human rights or rather setbacks?
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, we have witnessed the development of international law through which States willingly assumed human rights obligations and the formulation and continuing expansion of a system of human rights monitoring. We have also seen the growth and impact of the international human rights movement, which, through committed advocacy, has often been instrumental in pressing recalcitrant governments to embrace in law, and implement in practice, internationally recognized human rights principles. As you probably know, human rights are enshrined in the UN Charter as a fundamental purpose of the organization. An increasing number of UN agencies have adopted human rights-based approaches and integrated human rights into their policies and programmes. In so doing, they have brought a sharper focus on human rights into UN-supported national development efforts, and are thus better equipped to understand the needs and rights of the most marginalized and excluded. The recent food, financial and economic crises starkly highlighted the critical vulnerabilities that stem from violations of human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights. Indeed, we have come a long way in terms of mainstreaming human rights within the UN system. There has been notable progress in the peace and security pillar, in terms of human rights components of UN integrated missions for peacekeeping and increased interaction with the UN Security Council. That having been said, the United Nations can only do so much to affect what happens at the national level in individual countries. Governments bear the prime responsibility to protect the human rights of their own citizens, and parliaments play a crucial role in framing laws and seeing to it that they are implemented properly by the government of the day.

Q: Can human rights and national interests be reconciled?
Yes, of course. Human rights norms provide uniform and universal standards that help us ensure that the authorities of all countries are held to the same measure. They have all gone through rigorous and sometimes very difficult negotiation processes before they were adopted at the international level, and it can be equally difficult to make them effective at the national level. It is sometimes tempting to ignore the restraints that human rights norms impose – for example when dealing with terrorism, or when the public opinion of an important or majority group wants to discriminate against or do harm to a less influential minority. But that is precisely why governments adopted these international laws in the first place: as a restraint to prevent them giving in to the temptation to harm their own citizens – or, for that matter, citizens of other countries and stateless people. This is what guides me as High Commissioner and I intend to ensure that the universality of human rights norms, which speak to our common humanity and priorities, guide discussions in politically charged environments and instill both measure and substance to political discourse in an objective manner. We should never accept the argument that some rights fit the traditions of certain cultures, but are antithetical to other customs. Universality is anchored in our common humanity, and not on those shifting historical, cultural, economic and geographic circumstances that critics of universality invoke to shore up their views.

Q: What is the impact of the economic crisis on the rights of citizens?
There is no doubt that the current financial crisis has had dire and possibly enduring consequences on the global economy. No measure should be overlooked to mitigate the most nefarious effects of the crisis for those who live at the margins of the world’s economy, especially the very poor and people who are eking out a living at subsistence levels. A good starting point in this regard could be offered by paying heed to the UN Secretary-General’s appeal to Member States to do more, and work faster, in their efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He reminded us that what we are confronting is nothing less than a development emergency. Yet in too many cases, the MDGs are pursued in isolation of human rights. One of the “added values” of the human rights approach to poverty reduction and the right to development, which my Office champions and advocates at every opportunity, resides in providing a framework of institutions and norms to help reduce disparities. A human rights perspective allows us to focus our attention on those who are likely to be the most affected by the crisis. The negative impact is disproportionately being felt by the marginalized sectors of the population in many countries where the enjoyment of human rights - including the rights to work, housing, food, health, education and social security - is severely curtailed or undermined altogether.

This human rights approach helps mediate those conflicting claims that inevitably arise through development processes. For this reason, not only can rights-based programming provide content and legitimacy to “capacity development,” it also makes this process more sustainable in the long run. I believe that human rights, development and security are all inextricably linked. Human rights cannot be fully realized without development, and human rights cannot be enjoyed in the absence of security, peace and justice.

Q: What are the major effects of climate change on human rights?
Natural disasters, as well as conflict and other man-made catastrophes, will continue to engender mass movements of people, often within countries that can least afford such upheavals. Climate related problems pose a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights, such as the right to life, to food, to adequate housing and water. The impact of climate change, and the consequences of calamitous weather conditions, are already visible in many parts of the world and will almost inevitably get worse, unless we act fast to mitigate it. A human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected. It provides the legal rationale and grounds for advocating the integration of human rights obligations into policies and programmes designed to counter negative environmental developments. It links an assessment of critical vulnerabilities to accountability, when vulnerable individuals or groups are either deliberately or negligently overlooked by States.

Q: Is it possible to reconcile the universality of human rights with respect for cultural specificity?
The universality of human rights is often questioned, more often by those for whom it is a duty – in other words, those who run States and State institutions - than by those who would benefit from true universality, namely the rest of us. I think virtually everyone shares the same basic ideas about what is needed to live a dignified life, free from want and fear. While the promotion and implementation of human rights standards demand sensitivity to context, the universality of the essential values and aspirations embodied in these commitments are beyond doubt. Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. A comprehensive vision of all the most fundamental human rights is set out in the Universal Declaration, and has subsequently been incorporated in dozens of binding international treaties, as well as in many national constitutions and laws. For me, that Declaration is a beacon of hope for the future because it contemplates a world with full realization of all rights for all people: civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, without distinction. A world in which every man, woman and child lives in dignity, free from hunger, and a world without violence and discrimination, with the benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity. A global culture of human rights is predicated on the universality of human rights and their connection to security and development and welfare for all. After all, despite our wonderfully rich and varied range of cultures and traditions, we all share one thing in common: we are all human beings, and as human beings we should all share the same fundamental rights.