The United Nations has often failed to live up to its responsibility to promote human rights, with the ongoing killing and displacement of civilians in Darfur only the latest example of how the world has not improved its act, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today as he urged Member States, organizations and individuals to make the protection of rights a reality in every country.
In an address at the Time Warner Centre in New York to mark International Human Rights Day, which is being staged on Sunday, the outgoing Secretary-General said he had tried to make human rights central to all of the world body’s work during his 10 years at the helm.
“But I’m not sure how far I have succeeded, or how much nearer we are to bringing the reality of the UN in line with my vision of human rights as its ‘third pillar,’ on a par with development and peace and security,” he said.
Despite the adoption by leaders attending last year’s World Summit of the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” endangered civilians, and the lessons learned from the disasters of Rwanda and Bosnia during the 1990s, he said “reports still pour in of villages being destroyed by the hundred and of brutal treatment of civilians” across the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur.
“How can an international community which claims to uphold human rights allow this horror to continue?” he asked. “There is more than enough blame to go around. It can be shared among those who value abstract notions of sovereignty more than the lives of real families, those whose reflex of solidarity puts them on the side of governments and not of peoples, and those who fear that action to stop the slaughter would jeopardize their commercial interests.”
Mr. Annan also criticized those governments that have tried to depict the principle of responsibility to protect as an imperialist conspiracy against developing countries.
“This is utterly false. We must do better. We must develop the responsibility to protect into a powerful international norm that is not only quoted but put into practice, whenever and wherever it is needed.”
He urged civil society groups, human rights defenders and individuals to each play their part to ensure that governments and the UN are held to account for their promises on rights.
Aside from giving real meaning to “responsibility to protect,” there must be an end to impunity, he said, citing Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and the leaders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda as examples of war criminals still at large.
But the Secretary-General noted there has been some progress in this area, particularly in the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the work of the UN war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the hybrid tribunals in Sierra Leone and Cambodia.
Mr. Annan added that “we need an anti-terrorism strategy that does not merely pay lip service to the defence of human rights, but is built on it,” adding that States which violate human rights in fighting terrorism lose the moral high ground.
“That is why secret prisons have no place in our struggle against terrorism, and why all places where terrorism suspects are detained must be accessible to the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
He concluded by saying the international community must move beyond “grand statements of principle… [and] work to make human rights a reality in each country.”
Mr. Annan on Monday will travel to the Truman Museum and Library at Independence, Missouri, to pay homage to the memory of one of the UN’s founders and to deliver his last speech as Secretary-General to an American audience, a spokesman announced.
“He will spell out five lessons derived from his 10-year experience at the helm of this organization and challenge American leaders of today and tomorrow to live up to Truman's example of enlightened leadership in a multilateral system,” Stephane Dujarric said.