Commission on Human Rights
58th session
20 March 2002
Item 4

    Introductory statement by
    Mary Robinson,
    United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


    Item 4: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
    and follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights.


    Mr. Chairman,
    Excellencies,
    Distinguished members of the Commission,
    Dear colleagues,

    My report to the Commission on Human Rights under agenda item 4 is devoted to the questions of human rights, human security and terrorism. I know that these issues are central to your concerns in this Commission, and I welcome the opportunity to share some further thoughts with you. In the report I argue that human rights should act as a unifying framework within which we can address the human insecurity that results from terrorism and from other causes. The report has two addenda; on the human rights of persons with disabilities and on tolerance and pluralism as indivisible elements in the promotion and protection of human rights.

    The issue of terrorism is not new on the human rights agenda. Terrorism is a threat to the most fundamental human rights. Finding common approaches to countering terrorism serves the cause of human rights. Some have suggested that it is not possible to effectively eliminate terrorism while respecting human rights. This suggestion is fundamentally flawed. The only long-term guarantor of security is through ensuring respect for human rights and humanitarian law. The essence of human rights is that human life and dignity must not be compromised and that certain acts, whether carried out by State or non-State actors, are never justified no matter what the ends. At the same time human rights and humanitarian law are tailored to address situations faced by States, such as a public emergency, challenges to national security, and periods of violent conflict. This body of law defines the boundaries of permissible measures, even military conduct. It strikes a fair balance between legitimate national security concerns and fundamental freedoms.

    These balances are most notably reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As you know the ICCPR recognizes that States could take measures to derogate from certain rights at a time when the life of the nation is threatened, or to restrict rights in other defined exceptional circumstances. There are conditions however to ensure the transparency, proportionality and necessity of the measures taken. Some rights such as the right to life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the principles of precision and non-retroactivity of criminal law, must be safe guarded at all times. The right to fair trial is also explicitly guaranteed under international humanitarian law. The principles of legality and rule of law require that the fundamental requirements of fair trial must be respected even under an emergency. In particular, any trial leading to the imposition of the death penalty during a state of emergency must conform to the provisions of the ICCPR.

    These standards have survived the Cold War, times of armed conflict, and economic instability. The Commission has a responsibility to ensure that they are not disregarded today.

    Before I go any further, let me stress that as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I share the legitimate concern of States that there should be no avenue for those who plan, support or commit terrorist acts to find safe haven, avoid prosecution, secure access to funds, or carry out further attacks. Security Council Resolution 1373 creates an important framework for action in this regard. This Resolution is binding on all member States and States must cooperate in its implementation. My Office has suggested to the Counter-Terrorism Committee established under this resolution that it issues guidance to States to assist them in complying with Resolution 1373 and their international human rights obligations.

    It is important to recall that the issue of reconciling States' obligations under human rights law with measures taken to eliminate terrorism did not commence on 11 September. The human rights system has extensive experience in addressing the use and abuse of emergency and security laws. This is why the international community has paid particular attention to safeguarding human rights standards in the context of emergency and political instability.

    I am particularly concerned that counter-terrorism strategies pursued after 11 September have sometimes undermined efforts to enhance respect for human rights. Excessive measures have been taken in several parts of the world that suppress or restrict individual rights including privacy, freedom of thought, presumption of innocence, fair trial, the right to seek asylum, political participation, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. On 10 December 2001, on the occasion of Human Rights Day, 17 special rapporteurs and independent experts of the Commission on Human Rights expressed their concern over reported human rights violations and measures that have targeted particular groups such as human rights defenders, migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, religious and ethnic minorities, political activists and the media. Ensuring that innocent people do not become the victims of counter-terrorism measures should always be an important component of any anti-terrorism strategy.

    In my Opening Statement to the Commission, I invited you to reflect on whether the Commission might establish a mechanism to examine from a human rights perspective the counter-terrorism measures taken by States. Should you take up this idea, this mechanism could be focused for example on advising States on the best practices in balancing effective anti-terrorism provisions with effective human rights guarantees. Perhaps the Commission might wish to initiate its own dialogue with the Counter-Terrorism Committee in this regard.

    This brings me to the concept of human security. The notion of human security, which was first developed by UNDP in its 1994 Human Development Report, places the human person at the centre of the security debate. There is no doubt that people feel insecure today because of threats of terrorism. But human insecurity also results from other sources. Millions experience insecurity as a result of armed conflict, racial discrimination, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, job insecurity and environmental degradation. The commitment to human security underlines much of United Nations action in the areas of peace and security, humanitarian assistance, crime prevention and development, among others.

    The key to enhancing human security is the pursuit by all governments of a comprehensive human rights programme. Next year we will be marking the 10th anniversary of the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This important platform continues to provide the world with all the elements of a comprehensive, universal human rights approach.

    Impunity for those who have committed gross violations of human rights and grave breaches of humanitarian law remains widespread. Impunity for violations induces an atmosphere of fear and terror. It produces unstable societies and delegitimizes Governments. It encourages terrorist acts and undermines the international community's efforts to pursue justice under the law. The coming into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court will strengthen the capacity of international law to respond to impunity. But it is only one of the necessary building blocks. The most effective measures to combat impunity are national legal and judicial systems that do not tolerate exceptions to accountability for gross violations of human rights. In addition, the increasing acceptance of universal jurisdiction by countries is of practical relevance in ending impunity.

    In my report I also address prevention. Last year, the Secretary-General pledged to move the United Nations from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. In summary, my report argues that it is not sufficient to respond only to the immediate manifestations of violence; it is imperative to address the underlining conditions that lead individuals and groups to violence. There is no doubt that the absence of the rule of law and democracy, suppression of expression, disrespect of the rights of ethnic and minority groups in addition to claims of domination, discrimination and denigration are among those underlying conditions.

    Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates and dear colleagues,

    Terrorism often stems from hatred, and generates more hatred. Behind the resort to terrorism is the assumption of the diminished humanity of the victims. A human rights approach affirms the richness of human diversity and respect for every human life. It offers an antidote to terrorism.

    It is widely acknowledged that racism and intolerance can be both a cause and a consequence of violence, and therefore of insecurity. I was pleased to hear in a number of speeches yesterday the recognition that the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance has provided us with a comprehensive agenda that is now more relevant than ever. We must move with vigour to ensure its implementation.

    The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action affirms that all peoples and individuals have contributed to the progress of the civilization and cultures that form the common heritage of humanity. It recognizes that promotion of tolerance, pluralism and respect for diversity would produce more inclusive societies. The indispensable role of civil society, including that of non-governmental organizations and the media, in promoting and enhancing the anti-discrimination efforts is particularly highlighted.

    This Commission is looked to to assert the fundamental importance of respecting human rights as a core component of enhancing security. The Commission is being asked to affirm that the fair balances built into human rights law should be at the centre of the overall counter-terrorism efforts. Addressing the challenges to human insecurity requires enhancing international cooperation, taking prevention seriously, reinforcing equality and respect, and fulfilling human rights commitments. It is time for leadership on the basis of values.

    Thank you Mr. Chairman.


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