“ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE”
Interview with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Ms. Navanethem (Navi) Pillay.
EVELINA RIOUKHINA AND DAVID WINCH
UNSpecial: Your appointment as High
Commissioner for Human Rights coincided
with a very important human
rights milestone – the 60th anniversary
of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR). What has been
the role of your Office in this celebration,
and what is your message?
Navi Pillay: The year-long campaign launched last December by the Secretary-General has helped us to reflect on the progress made over the past six decades. At the same time, we must focus on the challenges that remain in bringing to reality the comprehensive vision of human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I start from the premise that human rights norms provide uniform and universal standards that help us ensure that all are held to the same measure. Based on that, my priority is their implementation on the ground in a way that affects and improves the lives of the men, women and children who are all entitled to realization of each and every right set forth in the UDHR.
This is what guides me as High Commissioner and I intend to ensure that the universality of human rights norms, which speaks to our common humanity and priorities, guides discussions in politically charged environments and instills both measure and substance to political discourse in an objective manner.
That may sound like a fantasy, but I think it is critical to overcoming the divisions that plague us in our efforts to promote human rights. Next year, perhaps you will see me here wistfully looking back on these remarks as too idealistic, but I start from this premise: that the credibility of human rights work depends on its commitment to truth, with no tolerance for double standards or selective application.
What kind of events did OHCHR organize
throughout the year for the Commission,
and what is being planned
for 10 December – which is both Human
Rights Day and the 60th anniversary
of the signing of the Universal
Throughout the year, many high-profile events have been staged or are being planned all over the world, including exhibits, film festivals, panel discussions and conferences. The General Assembly is holding a special session on 10 December in New York to celebrate Human Rights Day, which this year also marks the 60th birthday of the UDHR. And the Human Rights Council, in Geneva, is also holding a special session on 12 December.
We have also helped produce a special film series to commemorate UDHR60 and to help people to understand better their human rights. It is called “Stories on human rights by filmmakers, artists and writers”, and consists of 22 short films made by some of some of the world’s leading film-makers and artists on human rights themes drawn from the UDHR. These will be screened all across the world in a variety of venues, both in December and into
What have you achieved thus far, and
what do you expect to achieve with a
year-long UN system-wide advocacy
campaign with the theme “Dignity
and justice for all of us”?
This, indeed, is the theme of the anniversary year. The achievement of legal protection of human rights at national and international levels owes everything to the core principles of dignity and justice which underpin all the rights laid out in the UDHR. This vision provides a beacon of hope for the future – it contemplates a world with full realization of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights without distinction. A world in which every man, woman and child lives in dignity, free from hunger, violence and discrimination, with the benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity.
Why did you decide to hold the
“Dignity and justice for detainees
week” (6 – 12 October 2008) as a part of the commemoration
of the Universal Declaration?
Much as I would like to, I cannot take the credit for it since it was the idea of my predecessor, Louise Arbour. But I was very
pleased to announce and promote this initiative which aims to focus attention on the issue of detainees’ rights, and on detention conditions.
This is an issue that is close to my heart, and one in which I was engaged very early on in my career. In the early 1970s, in my home country, South Africa, I challenged apartheid laws that permitted torture and unlawful methods of interrogation. This resulted in relief for many detainees, including my late husband.
On my very first visit to Robben Island prison, the warders told me not to drink the water from the taps provided for the use of the detainees and handed me water from the mainland. I immediately drank from the taps and found that the water was brackish. It was causing health problems for my clients.
I brought court actions, which spelt out for the very first time that prisoners are not property, but have rights – such as the right to humane treatment, the right to a copy of the prison regulations and the right to a lawyer.
For you personally, who have been the
major figures in human rights over the
past 60 years? Whose example did
you follow when you decided to
devote your life to human rights?
Well, there have been many admirable defenders and promoters of human rights. But I was, of course, particularly inspired by Nelson Mandela. He taught me that, far from being appeasement, coming to terms with other people’s experiences and points of view may serve the interest of justice better than strategies that leave no room for negotiation.
Thanks to him, I do not believe that “all or nothing” is the right approach to affirm one’s principles or to win an argument. And I hope that his example will help guide me as I carry out my very challenging mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights was adopted 60 years ago.
There are many new realities. Do you
think that the Declaration is outdated
and needs to be adapted to these new
realities, or has it kept up with the
The Declaration is a set of absolutely fundamental principles that remain as important today as they were 60 years ago. The world may have changed a great deal in that time, but we still have the same fundamental needs as human beings. The problem lies in the imperfect implementation of the Universal Declaration, not in its content.
We must recognize that, for all the solemn commitments and normative advances made in the promotion and protection of international human rights – and these have been considerable – serious implementation gaps remain.
Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated, and regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped in the name of security.
Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status – the promises of the Universal Declaration – remains an elusive goal for many people around the world.
Rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are indispensable to the functioning of civil society, continue to come under sustained attack in all regions of the world And there are still too many countries that systematically discriminate against women, despite strong international standards, and despite recognition of the critical role that women play in development, and in fostering peace and security.
We must work for the full implementation of human rights in a way that affects and improves the lives of men, women and children everywhere. We are all entitled, regardless of our race, sex, religion, nationality, property or birth, to the realization of each and every right set forth in the Universal Declaration.
We have been hearing a lot lately
about how the current financial crisis
could threaten human rights?
What is your opinion?
The current financial crisis has had dire and possibly enduring consequences on the global economy. No measure should be
overlooked to mitigate the most nefarious effects of the crisis for those who live at the margins of the world’s economy, especially the very poor and people who are eking out a living at subsistence levels.
A good starting point in this regard could be offered by paying heed to the Secretary-General’s appeal to Member States to do more, and work faster, in their effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He reminded us that what we are confronting is nothing less than a development emergency. Yet in too many cases, the MDGs are pursued in isolation from human rights. One of the “added values” of the human rights approach to poverty reduction and the right to development, which my Office champions and advocates at every opportunity, resides in providing a framework of institutions and norms to help reduce disparities.
This human rights approach helps mediate those conflicting claims that inevitably arise through development processes. For this reason, not only can rights-based programming provide content and legitimacy to “capacity development,” it also makes this process more sustainable in the long run. I believe that human rights, development and security are all inextricably linked. Human rights cannot be fully realized without development, and human rights cannot be enjoyed in the absence of security, peace and justice.
What recent events do you see
as threatening human rights?
(e.g. climate change?)
Natural disasters, as well as conflict and other man-made catastrophes, continue to engender mass movements of people, often within countries that can least afford such upheavals. Climate-related problems pose a direct threat to a wide range of universally recognized human rights, such as the right to life, to food, to adequate housing and water. The impact of climate change, and the consequences of calamitous weather conditions, is already visible in many parts of the world. A human rights approach compels us to look at the people whose lives are most adversely affected. It provides the legal rationale and grounds for advocating the integration of human rights obligations into policies and programmes designed to counter negative environmental developments.
It links an assessment of critical vulnerabilities with accountability, when vulnerable individuals or groups are either deliberately or negligently overlooked by States.
Three out of the last four High Commissioners
for Human Rights have
been women. Will you pay special
attention to women’s rights?
As I said before, there are too many countries in the world that still systematically discriminate against women. Such discrimination makes the Universal Declaration’s promise an empty pledge for millions of women and girls. No effort should be spared to persuade countries to repeal laws and practices that continue to reduce women and girls to second-class citizens despite international standards and despite the specific commitments that have been made to throw out these laws and customs.
Are you optimistic that, despite all
the problems around the world,
human rights will improve?
Yes, I am. Let me draw on my personal experience in apartheid South Africa, and the human rights abuses that I had to confront first hand. I grew up as a second-class citizen with no legal recourse. Yet, in the course of my lifetime, I have seen a complete transformation take place.
South Africa now has one of the strongest constitutions in the world. While it struggles – as many countries do – to turn legal rights into reality, witnessing the course of change in a single decade, and via a relatively peaceful evolution, leads me to believe that anything is possible.
Thank you for the interview with UN Special!
(Special thanks to Susan Curran, Rupert Colville and Xabier Celaya of the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) for their collaboration. Photos pp.7 and 9: Ms. Pillay during her mission in Haiti, November 2008@OHCHR))