Fight against terrorism must not infringe on basic liberties, top UN rights official warns

24 September 2002
Sergio Vieira de Mello

While countries not only have a right but a duty to protect their citizens from terrorism, they must not infringe on basic civil liberties, the top United Nations human rights official said today.

Addressing an informal meeting of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Sergio Vieira de Mello said that a brutal attack and exceptional threat such as the one on 11 September last year might require an extraordinary and unequivocal response.

“But these measures must be taken in transparency, they must be of short duration, and they must respect the fundamental non-derogable rights embodied in our human rights norms,” he said. “They must take place within the framework of the law.”

Mr. Vieira de Mello said he was convinced that it was possible to fight the menace at no cost to human rights. “Protecting your citizens and upholding rights are not incompatible: on the contrary, they must go firmly together lest we lose our bearing,” he said, adding that work must also be done to address other pressing sources of insecurity such as armed conflict, discrimination, poverty and ignorance.

The High Commissioner also said that his Office would help States to integrate and implement the treaties that they have accepted. “But let me reiterate that it is States that must fully assume their responsibilities to uphold human rights,” he stressed. “We will, therefore, urge them to bring human rights fully to their people and to advance their national protection systems.”

As an overarching theme, his Office will focus on justice and the consistent application of the rule of law, Mr. Vieira de Mello said. “This rich concept provides that law should operate as an instrument to protect the dignity and worth of the human person, not as a tool to permit arbitrary rule or cruelty or an abdication of a State’s basic responsibilities towards its citizens,” he said.

The one-day informal meeting of the Commission on Human Rights is convened annually to discuss the matters that will be brought up at General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural issues.


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