A View From the 29th Floor
WHEN you step off the elevator onto the 29th floor of the United Nations building in New York City, a small blue sign shows the way to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This liaison office represents the headquarters of the OHCHR in Geneva, Switzerland—the focal point for UN human rights activities. While Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, heads the OHCHR in Geneva, Greek-born Elsa Stamatopoulou is chief of the New York office. Earlier this year, Mrs. Stamatopoulou graciously received an Awake! staff writer and looked back on five decades of human rights activities. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q. What progress do you feel has been made in promoting human rights?
A. I’ll give you three examples of progress: First, 50 years ago the concept of human rights was absent from the international agenda; today it is omnipresent and operational. Governments that had never heard of human rights some decades ago are now talking about it. Second, we now have an international code of law, or law book, composed of numerous conventions that tells governments in black and white what obligations they have toward their subjects. [See box “The International Bill of Human Rights,” on page 7.] It took many years of hard work to put this code together. We are extremely proud of it. The third example is that today more people than ever before take part in human rights movements and are able to express themselves eloquently about human rights issues.
Q. What are the obstacles?
A. After working for 17 years with UN human rights programs, I realize, of course, that we face frustrating problems. The biggest is that governments often view human rights as a political issue instead of a humanitarian one. They may be unwilling to carry out human rights treaties because they feel threatened politically. In those instances, human rights treaties turn into dead letters. Another setback has been the inability of the UN to prevent gross human rights violations in such places as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and, more recently, Algeria. The inability of the UN to prevent the massacres that occurred in these countries was a tremendous failure. The human rights mechanisms are in place, but someone has to activate them. Who will be that someone? If the interests of countries that could give protection are not at stake, the political will to go out and stop violations is often lacking.
Q. What do you see ahead?
A. I see a threat and a promise on the road leading to human rights for all. What worries me is the threat posed by the globalization of the economy, which induces large corporations to establish themselves in lands where labor is cheaper. Today, if needed, we can blame governments for human rights violations and put pressure upon them. But who can we blame for violations when multilateral trade agreements shift the power more and more from governments to the global economic forces? Since we do not control these economic forces, it weakens the position of intergovernmental organizations such as the UN. In terms of human rights, this trend is destructive. It is now crucial to get the private sector aboard the human-rights-movement ship.
Q. And the promise?
A. The development of a global human rights culture. What I mean is that through education we should make people more aware of human rights. Of course, that’s a huge challenge because it involves a change of mentality. That’s why, ten years ago, the UN launched a worldwide public information campaign to educate people about their rights and countries about their responsibilities. Additionally, the UN has designated the years 1995 to 2004 as the “Decade for Human Rights Education.” Hopefully, education may change the minds and hearts of people. This may almost sound like the Gospel, but when it comes to human rights education, I’m a true believer. I hope the world will adopt the human rights culture as its ideology in the next century.
[Box on page 7]
The International Bill of Human Rights
Besides the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there also exists an International Bill of Human Rights. How are they related?
Well, if you compare the International Bill of Human Rights to a book with five chapters, then the Universal Declaration can be likened to chapter 1. Chapters 2 and 3 are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And chapters 4 and 5 each contain an Optional Protocol.
While the Universal Declaration is thought to have moral value, telling nations what they ought to do, these four additional documents are legally binding, telling nations what they have to do. Though work on these documents began in 1949, it took decades before they all entered into force. Today, these four documents together with the Universal Declaration form the International Bill of Human Rights.
Besides this International Bill, the UN has ratified more than 80 other human rights treaties. “So it is a mistake to think that the human rights treaties in the International Bill are the more important ones,” comments one human rights expert. “For example, the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified and universal document of the UN, and yet it is no part of the International Bill. The term ‘International Bill of Human Rights’ was coined more for publicity purposes than as a formal concept. And, you will agree, it is a catchy phrase.”a
a At the time of writing, 191 nations (183 of the member nations of the UN plus 8 nations that are not members) have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Only two countries have not ratified it: Somalia and the United States.
[Picture on page 6]
UN/DPI photo by J. Isaac