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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Speaks at JFK Library

Stopping terrorism requires a long-term commitment to promoting human rights internationally. This idea was conveyed by Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, at her lecture on January 6 at the JFK Library. Her office, established by the General Assembly eight years ago, provides leadership, support and coordination to the international human rights system.

Numerous perceptions of international human rights exist; Mary Robinson specified that her agenda is to protect two sets of rights equally, “civil and political on the one hand and economic, social and cultural on the other, and encouraging consensus on advancing the right to development.” Commissioner Robinson added that the entire international system of human rights could be summarized with one word: prevention. “If human rights are respected, if basic education, housing and healthcare are secure, if there is freedom from personal violence and freedom for men and women to earn their living and raise their families, not only are human rights violations prevented, but conflict, terrorism and war can be prevented also.”

Discussing the foundation of the international human rights system, Commissioner Robinson recalled that President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of a world of peace founded upon four essential freedoms, “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.” His vision continues to motivate individuals in the international human rights movement today and is carried over into the purposes given to the UN by its Charter and enshrined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Commissioner Robinson suggested that the biggest achievement is that “The United Nations has been successful in promoting throughout the world the idea of equal human rights for all.” Other positive developments she reported are that in recent years there have been closer linkages and cooperation in the implementation of international human rights law, international law, and refugee law. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been urging UN member states “to reach agreement on a set of principles to provide guidance when and in what circumstances it may be appropriate in human rights crises to envisage humanitarian intervention including military action.” Commissioner Robinson discussed the recent work of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to replace the concept of humanitarian intervention with the identification of the responsibility to protect. The commission, largely funded by Canada, published a report last month analyzing relevant issues and recommending placing responsibility on the state to protect, emphasizing the importance of prevention of conflict and human rights violations.

Racism, discrimination and xenophobia must be eliminated to combat the root causes of terror. Commissioner Robinson emphasized the importance of following up to the anti discrimination agenda accomplished at the World Conference Against Racism in September 2001. She expressed regret that the United States did not participate in the concluding sessions of the conference, especially since, “the US has been such a leader in confronting their own history of racism and racial discrimination at an early point and developed good practice in this field.”

Commissioner Robinson described the events of September 11 as crimes against humanity. She asserted that it is crucial to avoid blaming the atrocities on a particular religious or ethnic group. The UN’s response to September 11 was Security Council Resolution 1373, in which the UN asked all countries “to act to suppress terrorism through a range of financial and other measures.” The UN now is reviewing each country’s three month report on their progress in those efforts.

Commissioner Robinson discussed the dangers of when national security compromises personal freedom, saying that, “In a healthy democracy there should be vigorous debate and scrutiny concerning these issues.” She feels that “it is a worrying development when that debate is absent, or when, as has occurred in some countries, the international duty to act against terrorism is used to suppress the legitimate expression of grievances and to justify the oppression of minorities.” Her office is monitoring how human rights are affected by anti-terrorism measures. She asserted that the threat of terrorism does not call for states to take excessive steps “which would violate fundamental freedoms and undermine legitimate dissent.”

Guidelines ensuring protection of human rights in an emergency situation are listed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Human Rights Committee monitors compliance with that covenant. According to Commissioner Robinson, the United States is a party to this covenant, therefore they should have notified the Secretary General of their resort to such emergency measures as, “the continued detention of some 1,000 persons who are held on suspicion of connection with terrorism, the expansion of electronic surveillance of email and other communication and authorization by Executive Order of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.”

Commissioner Robinson commented on the importance of the US playing a positive role in international labor rights. The UN has created a Global Compact to “call on business to play its part upholding human rights, labor and environmental standards.” Lorne Craner, assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, works with many companies on issues of corporate responsibility in an attempt to strengthen the business and human rights environment needed for their success. Craner and Commissioner Robinson jointly agree that, “Changing the face of globalization may require us to change the way that we as members of the global community do business.”

Although the US is one of the largest contributors to the budget of Commissioner Robinson’s office, she feels that the .10% of the US’s GNP which they give to official development assistance (ODA) should be increased. “The US disbursed just over $9 billion, second to Japan who spent $15.3 billion.” Moreover, “The cost to each American of this aid is $33 compared to $331 that is the individual cost to every Dane for their country’s ODA.” The annual expenditure of Commissioner Robinson’s office is $75 million, with the UN contributing less than 2% of its annual budget to this office. Robinson explained that in order to realize the goals of promoting and protecting all human rights of all people in all countries her office needs an increase in its budget.

Commissioner Robinson concluded with a quote from President John F. Kennedy, which urged the improvement of the UN for the peaceful settlement of disputes and for extending the rule of international law in an address to the Security Council. She quoted, “For peace is not solely a matter of military or technical problems- it is primarily a problem of politics and people. And unless man can match his strides in weaponry and technology with equal strides in social and political development, our great strength, like that of the dinosaur will become incapable of proper control- and like the dinosaur, will vanish from the earth.”