BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
    You are in: Talking Point: Forum  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
Forum
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
 Friday, 6 December, 2002, 10:32 GMT
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  Click here to watch the programme  

  • Click here to read highlights of the interview


    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.



    Highlights of the interview

    Some of the topics discussed in this interview were:

  • War on Terror
  • Iraq
  • Israel/Palestine
  • Sharia law
  • International Criminal Court
  • General


    Bridget Kendall:

    Hello, Mr de Mello, thank you very much for joining us and welcome to Talking Point. You've been in your post now for a few months and I think many people would agree you couldn't have had a more testing time. But let's go straight to our first caller for our first question.

    War on Terror

    Our first caller is John Henry from Singapore.


    John Henry:

    My question is: When we talk of human rights in the world, normally we will localise it to a certain country and there may be a few countries or more with a bad record on human rights. But I have something new which I would like to ask you: looking at the way the UN has progressed during recent or recent years, have we ever considered the rights of humans as citizens of the entire world community where you can have a super power or two go to a stage where every citizen's life is agitated or petrified by their actions? Could the UN think something like that and try to have a human rights organisation control for monitoring such powers?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    I think John you're asking me two separate questions.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    John Henry, are you also implying that not only the world perhaps needs to feel more universal because of globalisation but that the world is changing and the so the challenges are changing on the question of human rights?


    John Henry:

    Exactly. The function of the UN, if you go back over the past 30 years, it has really changed a lot and the UN is more involved. I would give a current example where the US wanted to go alone first but then the other countries, like Russia, France, Germany brought in the UN and the UN was quite firm on that issue. So I believe that if the UN is firm on these kinds of things and they say look we've got to go on the basis of international rights for all the humans of the world, we can do that. I think that would be a positive step forward and I honestly look forward to that.


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    But John this is happening as a matter of fact. You must have heard the Secretary General speak that sort of language. I have said that from day one. Why do I put so much emphasis on the rule of law and the strengthening of international law - be it human rights, be it humanitarian law, be it refugee law - because I believe, as you do, that unless we obey to international norms - and I'm speaking about super powers as well as smaller nations - then we're in for anarchy and that we cannot allow to happen. We have a global system, we have international law. All countries, strong and powerful as they may be, must abide by those norms.


    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr de Mello, there is a new challenge that organisations like your own face now though. If you have a world where there are suicide bombers, non-state actors committing terrorism, then the idea of an organisation that's going to keep governments under pressure to obey laws - that's not going to help this new threat to our human rights that we're all facing.


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Your focusing on terrorism and we can come back to that - I'm sure there will be many questions regarding terrorism. But the problem that John is posing and which you are also developing is one of a truly globalised universal planet. Now there are many, many issues beyond terrorism because we're obsessed with terrorism - for good reasons no doubt - since September 11th.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    If I can just continue to focus on this question of the war on terror. We've had a couple of e-mails from people who are concerned about what's happening in Guantanamo Bay. The United States has been holding people following the change of regime in Afghanistan.

    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?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Martin has a very good point and we have been calling the attention of western democracies to the fact that countries around the world that are perhaps less attached to democratic principles, are using what they do as an example to justify their own misdeeds.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    But can you as the UN Commissioner of Human Rights actually have an impact on US policy in this way? You can these public comments but does it make them change what they're doing in Guantanamo Bay?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Well I'm not making only public comments, as you can imagine I am talking to them directly and I believe that I'm not the only one doing so. Courts in the UK have said the same - federal courts in the United States, federal judges have been raising this issue. So I believe that together we can influence the policies of the United States on this question and my appeal to them is that after a reasonable period of time they should either bring these people to a US court or take them back to their countries of origin if a legal system there is prepared to do justice. Or if no charges exist against these people, to simply release them.


    Bridget Kendall:

    Have you had any reassurances from the US Government that your suggestions might be followed and if so how quickly?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    They are considering them. They are themselves having internal debates on this question and I am sure sooner or later they will realise that this is the commonsense approach to this problem.


    Bridget Kendall:

    But they've given you no time frame?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    No.

    Return to the top of the page


    Iraq


    Bridget Kendall:

    Let's focus now on something we've mentioned once or twice but is at the forefront of many people's minds and that's what's going on in Iraq and what might happen in there in the next few months. Our next caller Andrew Foster who is here in London in the UK has something to say on that.


    Andrew Foster:

    Given all we have heard recently about the human rights abuses in Iraq, why has the UN not been leading the field in advocating regime change in that country?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    I don't think the UN as a political body is in the business of calling for regime change. After all we're composed of member states and their internal form of government or their leadership is not something that the organisation as such, challenges. However, what we have seen and what we have reported because we have a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iraq has been a long, long series of violations over the years and that special rapporteur has only recently reported in great detail to the General Assembly in New York in a public meeting about those violations. So it's not as if the UN was keeping quiet on those violations or any other. As far regime change, I repeat, it's not really our business.


    Bridget Kendall:

    But do you think, for example, that there can be occasions when it's right to go to war over abuses of human rights?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Well, I do think so and my Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has said it very clearly in 1999 at the opening of the General Assembly, that sovereignty, territorial integrity are not a shield behind which countries can hide and massively violate the human rights of their people. In other words, the international community, the United Nations, the Security Council have a right, have a duty, to intervene to bring those violations to an end. Now obviously this is not possible unless the Security Council authorises such an action and that's where the difficulty lies. But I've given you two examples, East Timor and Kosovo, where we did.


    Bridget Kendall:

    An e-mail now from Louise in Sydney, Australia: What can the United Nations do to help the Iraqi people if Saddam Hussein is not removed from power?

    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.


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Well to Louise and Mahmood, I would say that if the regime continues then I am afraid that the sanctions regime that the Security Council has imposed on Iraq will also continue. And the Security Council being the supreme organ in determining the rules when it comes to international peace and security, there is no way that the United Nations agencies, humanitarian agencies, my office can derogate from those norms.

    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.

    Return to the top of the page


    Israel/Palestine


    Bridget Kendall:

    Call from Irina Diab, Tukarun, Palestinian Territories


    Irina Diab:

    The term human rights has actually no meaning out here for the Palestinian civilian population. We have no rights whatsoever. Since early June - for the last two years really - we've had no means of travelling from one town to another. Our children cannot go to school - my daughter, she's 12 years old, she hasn't been to school for about three months. This is a basic human right, a child's education.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    Commissioner what can you do about situations where we're hearing eye-witnesses talking about collateral damage on a daily basis?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    On a daily basis - on an hourly basis. I entirely sympathise with Irina and I have listened very carefully to what she had to say. It's appalling, I agree. And the list is very long. And the list includes, as you know even a colleague who served with me in East Timor, Ian Hook, who was killed the other day because his cell phone was allegedly mistaken for a pistol. Now this is a joke.

    The fundamental question Irina - I'm sorry to broaden it somewhat because I know you're living under unbearable circumstances.


    Irina Diab:

    We're being treated like animals. I lived 24 years in England so I know what life is supposed to be about.


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    I understand but let me make my broader point. I suppose you would agree with me that the only way for all human rights of Palestinians and Israelis to be actually respected - to be granted to all of you, which is what you deserve - is a settlement of this conflict which is why I always go back to the quartet proposals. They are there on the table, they are reasonable, they make sense - they must be implemented. All that we need is for both sides to agree on what the Secretary General calls the road map with achievable objectives and within three years Palestine will be an independent state.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    But forgive me for interrupting you Commissioner and for suggesting that a lot of people will find that answer very frustrating - not just on the Palestinian side but equally on the Israeli side.

    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.


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    But it is the only solution because unless there is such a contract for peace, unless there is an understanding that both people in countries must live side by side, they have no choice. This will happen sooner or later - let it happen sooner rather than later.

    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.

    Return to the top of the page


    Sharia law


    Bridget Kendall:

    We have a call now from Charity Bongabi Jang, Eindhoven, Netherlands. Charity what would you like to say to the Commissioner?


    Charity Bongabi Jang:

    First of all I want to say that I really believe in human rights but unfortunately I am a victim of human rights violations and that's why I'm now a refugee in the Netherlands. And when I see what is happening in Nigeria, whereby the government allows a group of Muslims to carry out a law that is repugnant to human nature - I'm talking of course about sharia law. What I want know is what the UN feel about the situation?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    We have two issues. One is sharia law. There's very little that the UN or myself can do about that. Sharia law is adopted in many Muslim countries - not all Muslim countries obviously, look at Turkey - and it is a system that in my opinion needs to be applied in a more modern future oriented manner.

    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.


    Bridget Kendall:

    We're talking about a woman who has been sentenced to stoning to death for being an unmarried mother, Amina Lawal. We've had an e-mail from Uganda on that.

    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?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    It's not a question of modernising, it's doing away with it. I was talking about modernising the body of law called sharia and evacuating from it any type of corporal punishment - that goes without saying.

    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.

    Return to the top of the page


    International Criminal Court


    Bridget Kendall:

    We've had a couple e-mails about the new International Criminal Court that's been set up. But people seem quite sceptical. Sherry Hussein, Amman, Jordan: Do you think the International Criminal Court can help strengthen existing human rights protections? Particularly since the US has withdrawn from the treaty and other countries like Israel, China and Russia have failed to sign or ratify it? How can it have any credible power?

    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?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    Well I think so and your second e-mailer is entirely wrong. Many people said the ad-hoc tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and the ad-hoc tribunal on Rwanda were jokes - well they were not jokes. I was involved in helping both do their job properly. It took time - of course, even the prosecutor of those tribunals were disappointed and at times frustrated but they persevered, they were tenacious and that's why war criminals are today before both tribunals. A few are missing but they will be caught.

    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.

    Return to the top of the page


    Return to the top of the page


    General


    Bridget Kendall:

    Asif, New York, USA: If there was one achievement or issue that you would like to address during your term in office, what would it be? What criteria would you use to determine whether you have been successful?


    Sergio Vieira de Mello:

    We have talked a lot about women but we haven't gone to the core of that issue. I would like to tell you what I think has been my greatest achievement is in East Timor which I administered for two-and-a-half years and it would also be perhaps my greatest achievement as High Commissioner at the end of my four year mandate.

    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.

    Return to the top of the page



  • Key stories

    FACTFILES

    WEBCAST
    See also:

    Internet links:


    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

    Links to more Forum stories are at the foot of the page.


    E-mail this story to a friend

    Links to more Forum stories

    © BBC ^^ Back to top

    News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
    South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
    Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
    Programmes