Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the top United Nations human rights body today that its mission was more important than ever in an era when “war, terror and the threat of political violence have become a much greater part of many peoples’ lives,” an era when “inaction is not an option.”
In an address to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Mr. Annan also said rifts caused by waging war in Iraq without UN authority highlighted a potential need to find new tools for a collective response to international challenges as collective action was not only in the interests of the small and weak, but of the large and powerful as well.
Throughout, the Secretary-General stressed the universality and indivisibility of human rights, regardless of gender, country or continent, whether they concerned civil and political issues or the right to freedom from hunger and access to safe drinking water.
“This is a time when your mission to promote and protect human rights in the widest sense is more important than ever, your responsibility to act more urgent,” he told the Commission, noting that while some wanted to focus on human rights as a civil and political issue while others wanted equal attention to economic, social and cultural rights, “complaining bitterly that the right to vote is worth little if their children are hungry and do not have access to safe water.”
Divisions and disputes had recently made the Commission’s voice not stronger, but weaker, “more muffled, not clearer,” he said. “This must change, if you are to play the role intended for this Commission, and if the cause of human rights is to be advanced in the broad and universal manner that we all desire,” he warned. “Inaction is not an option. The Commission must take a proactive approach if the wider agenda for human rights is to be realized, everywhere.”
He stressed that human rights are universal and indivisible, whether they are civil, political, economic, social or cultural, and “must be upheld with equal determination in every country. And that means looking beyond cultural differences – to recognize, for example, that the rights of women on one continent are the rights of women on every continent,” he added.
“When we speak of human rights, we must never forget that we are labouring to save the individual man, woman or child from violence, abuse and injustice,” he said. “Freedom from want and freedom from fear must go hand in hand. It is that perspective – the individual's – which must guide your work, and not the point of view of contending states. At the same time, we all recognize that for that individual's rights to be secured, states must act. You, who are gathered here in this hall, must work to make these rights a reality for every citizen of every nation.”
Referring to the war in Iraq, he said: “The decision to go to war without specific authorization by the Security Council has created deep divisions that will need to be bridged if we are to deal effectively, not just with the aftermath of Iraq, but with other major challenges on the international agenda.”
Noting that threats to international peace and security may require a searching review of the adequacy of existing instruments, with a view to coming up with a collective response, he added: “I say ‘collective response’ because I remain as convinced as ever that we are all safer – the large and powerful as well as the small and weak – in a system where all are governed by the international rule of law and principles set out in the United Nations Charter.”
He said that whatever one’s views on Iraq, “what we must all hope is that a new era of human rights in Iraq will now begin, with the end of the war.”
Emphasizing the obligations of the occupying powers, he added: “In the first instance, I hope the coalition will set an example by making clear that they intend to act strictly within the rules set down by the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, and by demonstrating through their actions that they accept the responsibilities of the occupying power for public order and safety, and the well-being of the civilian population.”
But a preoccupation with Iraq must not distract from the many other places in the world “where violence, chaos, oppression and the violation of human rights have intensified in the last few weeks and months,” he said. “The Ituri region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where hundreds of people have been butchered in cold blood within the last few weeks, is only the most flagrant of these cases.”