Magazine article UN Chronicle

From Rhetoric to Reality: United Nations Personnel Are Driving Change

Magazine article UN Chronicle

From Rhetoric to Reality: United Nations Personnel Are Driving Change

Article excerpt

The United Nations has come a long way since it was established, 70 years ago, by sovereign States to resolve inter-State disputes. Its massive efforts in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and setting global standards compel me to wonder what we would have done without it. Like everyone, I recognize the magnitude of the crisis that the United Nations--and indeed, the world--faces today. First, though, I want to focus on a few of the many achievements that I consider to be impressive.

Throughout the dark days of apartheid in my native country, South Africa, I was firmly convinced of the need to be guided by a system of universally recognized values of what is right and just. The United Nations provides us with such a standard of values and norms, together with the tools to implement them. It has advanced resoundingly from a State-centred system of traditional international law, based on the pre-eminence of State sovereignty, into a norm-based institution. Its goals are clear: while respecting the freedom of sovereign States, it is also dedicated to protecting and promoting peace, security, development, rule of law and human rights for the people of the world.

International law increasingly plays a role in shaping state policy, as well as domestic law, to advance protection of human rights. There has also been marked growth in international criminal law, with its emphasis on the criminal responsibility of the individual. Progress in international criminal justice lay dormant for half a century after the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. But the landscape has shifted rapidly over the past 20 years. The establishment of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, was followed by ad hoc international courts in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the courts for Iraq and Lebanon. With the adoption of the Rome Statute in 1998, the International Criminal Court, the world's first-ever permanent international criminal court, was established.

Yet the idea of developing universal standards of human rights is relatively new. And this use by the international community of judicial power backed by punishment to deter serious violations of human rights is an even more recent development. As witnesses in the ICTR genocide trials--where I was a judge--said, "We have longed for this day, to see justice being done." Setting up a system of international criminal justice was a real milestone for the United Nations.

International law sets clear standards of equality, freedom from discrimination and human dignity for all persons. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundational framework for human rights, and today all the countries of the world subscribe to its principles. Most constitutions and national legislations embody them, and they have been strengthened over 70 years of steadfast United Nations activity involving the adoption of conventions, treaties, resolutions and declarations.

In accordance with the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, States accept that it is they that carry the foremost responsibility to protect the human rights of their people--civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights--and to fulfil their demand to be free from fear and want.

At the same time, the United Nations subscribes to the principle that when States need assistance in implementing their responsibility to protect their own people, the international community should assist. This is critical where States confront armed groups committing atrocities against the people, and where a country is ravaged by natural disasters or lacks the resources essential for delivery of services.

International law is also clear that where a State manifestly fails to protect its population against massive violations of human rights, the international community must intervene to protect, using the means prescribed and circumscribed by the Charter of the United Nations. …

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