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Friday, 6 December, 2002, 10:32 GMT
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
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10 December is United Nations Human Rights Day. As the world awaits a possible military strike against Iraq, the question of human rights is paramount.
Sergio Vieira de Mello has stated that the overarching theme of the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is to "foster the rule of law, without which it is not possible to have respect for human rights, democracy and good governance."
He took over his role from the former commissioner Mary Robinson and says his brief is to protect civilian populations in conflict, combat racism and discrimination, and promote the rights of women.
Whether it be in Iran, Iraq, Africa, East Timor, China, south Asia , Europe or America, what are the key human rights issues you feel should be addressed?
How effective do you think the UN High Commission for Human Rights is? What should be its priorities for the region where you live?
We discussed Human Rights in our global interactive phone-in programme Talking Point.
Our first caller is John Henry from Singapore.
Monitoring super powers or smaller countries is not really the issue. Since I was appointed, most of the questions I get from the media and now from persons like you concern countries such as the United States, the UK, Russia, China, so that's not really the issue because we do pay attention to what happens in those countries. If you take a look at the press briefing I gave yesterday here in Geneva, you will see that many questions were put to me about the situation in those countries and practices following especially the September 11th terrorist attacks - measures they have taken to curb civil liberties etc. in response to terrorist threats.
Now your first question, I think is perhaps more important and I certainly for one would agree with you that while looking at individual situations in countries is important and is essential because it is at the national level that human rights are granted or denied, one should always keep in mind the universality of human rights whether civil political or economic social and cultural. So I entirely agree with you, the concept of human rights is not localised, it is universal and we're talking about the concept of humanity as a whole, not particular people in a particular country.
But globalisation has many dimensions that affect human rights. When we talk about right to development and the Human Rights Commission has been doing a lot of that, we're talking about issues like a fair trade system, a fair international financial system that affects the lives of poorer nations and poorer people. We're talking about weapons of mass destruction that can have the ultimate negative effect on human rights, which is the right to life of millions of people.
We're facing so many global issues behind these words, human rights, that do indeed make the challenge much more complex today than it was 20 - 30 years ago when the declaration was adopted in the late 1940s. But precisely for that reason, the rule of law and the strengthening of the international legal system is so important.
Lisa Goetz, Bristol. US: How can the US proudly celebrate Human Rights Day while they are denying human rights to those held at Guantanamo Bay?
Martin, England, UK: The UK has opted out of "inconvenient" sections of the human rights charter and the United States has been holding people over a year without charge or access to a lawyer. What hope is there of persuading other countries to uphold human rights, when two of the major members choose to ignore them at will?
A word on Guantamo Bay, which is a leitmotif since I was appointed. It is interesting how much interest this is attracting. I have said very clearly that states have not just a right, they have a duty to protect themselves and protect their populations from this new threat of terrorism such as the one that occurred last year and again this year in Bali and more recently in Moscow. So we're not disputing that.
Indeed the covenant on civil and political rights allows states to suspend some of those rights in case of emergency, in case of immediate threat to their internal security. The UK has done that and it has done in a transparent manner. We don't welcome the suspension of any such rights but when they are suspended they should be suspended in transparency and they have notified the Secretary General which of those rights they were suspending and why they were doing so - and this is positive.
As far as the United States is concerned and the situation in Guantamo Bay, I have also said that no one disputes the right of the United States to detain people who may possess important information and intelligence which would enable that country to prevent further attacks on civilian targets - no one disputes that - it makes ample sense. What I have said however is that in doing so, the suspension of certain fundamental rights such as access to a defence lawyer, contacts with families and ultimately the right to be taken to court if charges are levelled against these individuals, is something that can not be denied indefinitely.
A very different point from Mahmood, England: One Iraqi child dies every six minutes due to sanctions imposed by Britain and the US - that is the most horrific violation of human rights being practiced in this world today.
Humanitarian agencies have been actively involved in attempting to assist the Iraqi people over the years. I was a member of a Security Council panel on the oil for food regime and the sanctions imposed on Iraq. We did our best to improve the lot of the Iraqi people - let's not forget that it also takes two to tango and the Iraqi government also has a great deal of responsibility in terms of assisting its population and allowing the oil for food regime to work better than it has.
You want to make a dental appointment - impossible. We've been under curfew for months and it's a strict curfew. You go outside and you have a risk of either being killed by teargas or by rubber bullets as happened two or three nights ago.
Also I would like to mention that in Tukarun where I live, the Israeli special forces came into the town - this was about a week or 10 days ago, they came in just at the breaking of the fast for Ramadan. There was a lot of shooting, I went to the roof to see what was happening and I saw the Israeli special forces they came to arrest one particular man who lives in a building just next to ours. They shot him first of all in his leg, they checked who he was by his ID card and then they assassinated him by shooting him in his neck.
At the same time, in this particular operation, five innocent civilians were also killed. It's unacceptable and absolutely tragic, one of them was our neighbour, he was just looking out of the window as I was. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he got shot. He was not pointing a gun. He was not a criminal or terrorist.
The fundamental question Irina - I'm sorry to broaden it somewhat because I know you're living under unbearable circumstances.
And the only solution to all the problems you're having - all the solutions to the security problems Israel is having is a peaceful settlement of the conflict. We can't find half-baked solutions for one or the other problems that you have presented me with that you live under on a daily basis until such time as there is true will on both sides to find peace.
We've had an e-mail from Daniel Gideon, Tel Aviv, Israel: I would like to know how the human rights of Israelis can be protected? When will we be able to walk down the streets of Israel or take vacations abroad - after all the bombing in Mombasa last week was targeting Israeli tourists - without the fear of a suicide bomber taking our lives?
The idea of a long-term solution isn't very comforting for people living under these circumstances.
But unless this happens, no Israeli can walk down a street in Tel Aviv without running the risk of being blown up and no Palestinian can walk down the street of Tukarun without being shot at by an Israeli soldier. So this is the ultimate consideration that I'm putting before you. Let's not try and dream that people - civilians - can live in security until there exists mutual confidence and respect which can only be achieved through a peaceful settlement. Let's always come back to this and let's achieve this peace because it is achievable within a reasonable period of time. Three years is not that long after all the suffering that both have gone through, particularly the Palestinians.
Any law, not just sharia law, all our laws are a dynamic body that needs to be adapted to reality to history, that needs to be constantly reviewed and modernised - that's one thing. Now the actual use of sharia law or any other law to inflict corporal punishment on anyone is something that we condemn.
I just want to finish on this question because I know the case that Charity is referring to. In this particular instance, we have made several demarches and I'm about myself to make one demarche at the highest possible level in Nigeria to prevent the stoning of this girl from happening.
Simon, Uganda: With regard to Amina Lawal, the question is what can be done to save this poor woman's life? If we have to point fingers, let's point it at the wielders of this law.
I wanted to add to that: how could you possibly modernise a punishment like stoning to death?
Now this question is under appeal right now so that punishment will not be implemented until the appeal process is over and I do hope and I do appeal to the appeal court to reject this punishment for Amina and I will be writing myself to the highest magistrate in Nigeria making an appeal in that sense.
Justin Warrick, Little Rock, USA: The whole UN High Commission for Human Rights is a joke as long as states that support slavery are a part. I am convinced this ICC is a sham and am saddened by those who have been fooled into believing that it will ever be used as anything but a political tool.
What's your view? Do you think it can be an effective tool for human rights?
So don't say it's a joke, it is not a joke. An international criminal court which doesn't yet exist in practice - obviously it is there legally since July this year when it was ratified. But it will come into being this coming March when the judges and prosecutors are appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations and you will see that that will not be a joke.
Now the question of the United States signing or not signing. International legal instruments or tribunals do not depend on the will or participation of single country, powerful as that country may be. The ICC will exist and will operate whether one or the other country joins it or not.
Secondly I'm convinced that sooner or later the fears the Americans have will be allayed and they will join the International Criminal Court. It would be an anomaly if the country that stood for freedom, that saved in fact in many ways Europe and the rest of the world from Nazism and other forms of retrograde policies and ideologies, twice last century. That pushed for the creation of the two tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda would not ultimately join the universal criminal jurisdiction that will, I am certain, prevent in future gross human rights violations such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. So it's just a matter of time. Don't dismiss it before you have given it an opportunity of proving that it is going to be a very effective instrument to impose sanctions when human rights and the humanitarian law are violated as they have been in the past.
We have achieved in East Timor a silent revolution. Women were treated as second, third class citizens when we arrived there because of the same reasons - history, tradition, culture, religion etc. In two-and-a-half years - which is a fairly short period of time - we have managed to have more women in parliament, in the constituent assembly which is now the parliament of East Timor, than in most developed countries with the exception perhaps of the Nordic countries. We have women playing fully their role in the political, in the administrative, in the social, in the economic and in the cultural life of the country. We have one-fourth of women in the new police, we have women in the new defence force.
Women today are exercising fully their rights. Of course a lot still remains to be done, particularly at home in terms of curbing domestic violence that is rampant all over the world. But if I could achieve in these four years such progress in terms of respecting the rights of women and empowering women all over the world, well that will probably be my greatest achievement.
21 Nov 02 | Forum
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