Shame of Failure on Human Rights

By Robinson, Mary | The World Today, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Shame of Failure on Human Rights

Robinson, Mary, The World Today

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, as the new High Commissioner points out, the record on human rights hardly gives cause for celebration. Learning lessons from the failures, the challenge now is to create a culture throughout the UN where human rights drive decision making.

ON THE MORNING I LEFT DUBLIN to begin my work as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Seamus Heaney gave me a beautifully bound copy of The Golden Bough inscribed with those encouraging words: `Take hold of it boldly and duly...'.

Human freedom is that precious space secured by standards, laws and procedures which defend, protect and enhance human rights. We are all custodians of those standards. As the Vienna Declaration in 1993 stated: `Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings'. International human rights law, developed since 1948, is there because domestic protection of vulnerable individuals or groups is either absent or insufficient.

Today, news reaches us faster than ever and much of it concerns human rights violations. Making human rights protection work is a problem for the international community for which I now bear some responsibility.


The task is not easy, particularly because the expression `human rights' carries different meanings, resonates differently in various parts of the world and within countries depending on political preferences, ethnic association, religious views and, importantly, economic status. I have learned that the gap in perceptions of what we mean by human rights is even wider than I had thought. It is a gap that must be narrowed if there is to be a shared commitment at the international level to further the promotion and protection of human rights.

My own approach to human rights is based on an inner sense of justice. Perhaps because I am from Ireland and have my roots in a past of struggle for freedom, of famine and of dispersal of a people. Perhaps also from my experiences as a lawyer and politician and, more recently, as a President privileged to visit and be a witness to profound suffering and deprivation in countries such as Somalia and Rwanda.

The broad mandate of my office, created by the General Assembly resolution of December 1993, entrusts me, I believe, with a particular responsibility to bridge the perception gap. The means at my disposal are modest, the tools being mainly advocacy and persuasion. Nonetheless I take the very breadth of the mandate as the starting point, because it is clear that the gap in perceptions is widest when the term `human rights' focuses specifically on civil and political rights on the one hand or, at the other end of the spectrum, emphasises the importance of the right to development.

My responsibility as UN High Commissioner is to adopt and to foster a rights based approach across the whole spectrum of ,civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights', to promote and protect the realisation of the right to development and specifically to include women's rights as human rights, as we were reminded by the Beijing conference. It is useful to have a timely opportunity for an open and, I hope, frank debate on all of this.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ranks as one of the great aspirational documents of our human history. It embodies the hopes and even dreams of people still scarred from two World Wars, newly fearful of the Cold War and just beginning the great liberation of peoples which came about with the dismantling of the European empires.

The Declaration proclaims the fundamental freedoms of thought, opinion, expression and belief and enshrines the core right of participatory and representative government. But just as firmly and with equal emphasis, it proclaims economic, social and cultural rights and the right to equal opportunity. It was to be 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations', and the rights and freedoms set forth therein were to be enjoyed by all without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. …

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