The Age of Human Rights
NEW YORK: At the dawn of the 21st century, the United Nations has become more central to the lives of more people than ever. Through our work in development, peacekeeping, the environment and health, we are helping nations and communities to build a better, freer, more prosperous future. Above all we have committed ourselves to the idea that no individual – regardless of gender, ethnicity or race – shall have his or her human rights abused or ignored.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Enjoy unlimited access to the ideas and opinions of the world's leading thinkers, including weekly long reads, book reviews, and interviews; The Year Ahead annual print magazine; the complete PS archive; and more – All for less than $9 a month.
This idea is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the source of our greatest inspiration and the impulse for our greatest efforts. Today, we know more than ever that without respect for the rights of the individual, no nation, no community, no society can be truly free. Whether it means advancing development, emphasizing the importance of preventive action, or intervening – even across state boundaries – to stop gross and systematic violations of human rights, the individual has been the focus of our concerns. The promotion and defense of human rights is at the heart of every aspect of our work and every article of the United Nations' Charter. Above all, I believe human rights are at the core of our sacred bond with the peoples of the United Nations. When civilians are attacked and massacred because of their ethnicity, as in Kosovo, the world looks to the United Nations to speak up for them. When men, women and children are assaulted and their limbs hacked off, as in Sierra Leone, here again the world looks to the United Nations. When women and girls are denied their right to equality, as in Afghanistan, the world looks to the United Nations to take a stand. Perhaps more than any other aspect of our work, the struggle for human rights resonates with our global constituency, and is deeply relevant to the lives of those most in need – the tortured, the oppressed, the silenced, and the victims of “ethnic cleansing” and injustice. If, in the face of such abuses, we do not speak up and speak out, if we do not act in defense of human rights and advocate their lasting universality, how can we answer that global constituency? For in a world where globalization has limited the ability of states to control their economies, regulate their financial policies, and isolate themselves from environmental damage and human migration, the last right of states cannot and must not be the right to enslave, persecute or torture their own citizens.
The UN's achievements in the area of human rights over the last fifty years are rooted in the universal acceptance of the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration, and in the growing abhorrence of practices for which there can be no excuse, in any culture, under any circumstance. Still, I believe it is not enough for the United Nations to be known by what we are against. The world needs to know who we are against, no less. In the age of human rights, the United Nations must have the courage to recognize that just as there are common aims, there are common enemies.
We should leave no one in doubt that for the mass murderers, the “ethnic cleansers”, those guilty of gross and shocking violations of human rights, impunity is unacceptable. The United Nations will never be their refuge, its Charter never the source of comfort or justification. Perhaps the most important challenge lies in combating the most outrageous violations in the field of human rights – the gross violations, which in too many cases include summary executions, widespread forced displacements, massacres, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Of all gross violations, genocide knows no parallel in human history. The tragic irony of this age of human rights – where greater numbers are enjoying human rights than perhaps ever in history – is that it has been repeatedly darkened by outbursts of indiscriminate violence and organized mass killings. In Cambodia, in the 1970s, up to two million people were killed by Pol Pot's regime. And in the 1990s, from Bosnia to Rwanda, thousands upon thousands of human beings were massacred for belonging to the wrong ethnicity. Each time the world says “never again.” Yet it happens again. The vicious and systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing” conducted by Serbian authorities in Kosovo appeared to have one aim: to expel or kill as many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as possible, thereby denying a people their most basic rights to life, liberty and security. The result was a humanitarian disaster throughout the entire region. We all deeply regret that the international community, despite months of diplomatic efforts, failed to prevent this disaster. What gives me hope – and should give every future "ethnic cleanser" and every state-backed architect of mass murder pause – is that a universal sense of outrage was provoked leading to the eventual return of the Albanian population to Kosovo. Emerging slowly, but I believe surely, is an international norm against the violent repression of minorities, which will and must take precedence over concerns of state sovereignty. It is a principle that protects minorities – and majorities – from gross violations. Let me therefore be very clear: even though we are an organization of Member States, the rights and ideals the United Nations exists to protect are those of peoples. No government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate the human rights or fundamental freedoms of its peoples. Whether a person belongs to the minority or the majority, that person's human rights and fundamental freedoms are sacred.