Address of Bertrand Ramcharan, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Opening of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Palais des Nations, 28 July, 2003

Distinguished members of the Sub-Commission, friends of the human rights movement, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The challenges of upholding human rights in the contemporary world are numerous. As the organ of the human rights programme called upon to research, reflect, and recommend, it falls within your competence to help us think through the paths to universal human rights protection in the future. As you commence a new session I should like to place a few thoughts before you on the new challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights, for that is your charge : you are the Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

I. Relief for the Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights: The Challenge of Protection

Whatever we may say about tomorrow, the person faced with torture, arbitrary or summary execution, being made to disappear involuntarily, or the women who are subject to violence, need protection today. The challenge of human rights protection is immediate and pressing.

The Commission on Human Rights has a wide range of special rapporteurs, representatives, and other experts, collectively known as the special procedures, who are examining these phenomena and reporting annually to the Commission. This Sub-Commission has an item on violations of human rights that it discusses each year. Have you studied the findings of the special procedures with a view to making recommendations to the Commission on Human Rights on what more could be done to protect those whose rights are being violated? Should you?

II. The Challenge of Prevention

The best form of protection is prevention of gross violations of human rights. A few years ago we in the Office of High Commissioner placed before the Commission a report on the challenges of prevention. We invited the Commission to deliberate on preventive strategies, nationally, regionally, and internationally. What has been your contribution to the challenge of prevention?

III. The Challenge of Poverty

Human rights are for all of God's children, the poor and the rich and whatever the shade of a person's skin-colour. Today, millions of people suffer from deprivation, indignity and wastage because of endemic poverty. The causes of this are manifold, domestic and international. The quality of governance in many instances is a root cause. The performance of the international economic system is another root cause. Differences in ethnicity, beliefs and values system might be a contributory factors in some situations. The human rights approach to poverty reduction is based on a simple belief that if a society pursues democratic governance under the rule of law, and if the society strives to live by the precepts of the Universal Declaration, people will have better life-chances and would be able to come out of the spiral of poverty. As the thinking part of the United Nations human rights programme, what practical insights have you offered on human rights and poverty reduction strategies?

IV. Education as a route from poverty: The challenges of Promoting and Protecting the Rights of Children

One of the main routes out of poverty is education. I know. I am from a developing country. If you are born poor in a developing country, whether you are from the urban areas or the rural areas, education is often your only chance out of the lot that fate has assigned you at birth. With the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the development of the movement for protection of the rights of the child, we all had great hopes that we could help the lot of today's children. How has the implementation of the Convention on the rights of the child been faring? It is your duty to ask such questions and to help provide answers.

There is one idea that has been floated that would seem to have great potential : the idea of encouraging Governments to have a free-lunch programme in schools. It would keep the children of the poor in schools and thereby have a beneficial effect throughout the society. Let me ask you straight-out : what can your research and reflections offer to the poor children of the world?

V. The Challenges of Justice and Empowerment for Women

The injustices perpetrated against women in many parts of the world are shocking to the human conscience. Strategic analysts of the way forward for the world tell us that unless we empower and render justice to women we stand little chance of making a dent on the problems of conflicts, underdevelopment and injustice. Paul Kennedy made a powerful argument along these lines in Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. Anthony Giddens, in Runaway World, did likewise. How are you, distinguished members of the Sub-Commission, going to contribute to the centralisation of women's concerns in the future human rights strategies of the United Nations. You must be able to answer this question - and well!

VI. The Challenges of Democracy and the Rule of Law

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proudly proclaims that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments. Without getting involved in questions as to the meaning of democracy,it would be fair to say that societies in which people are able to participate meaningfully andequitably in processes of governance are societies that have better chance at development, non-discrimination, and justice.

A society in which the rule of law prevails is one in which citizens can have recourse to the courts to arbitrate their rights, economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political rights. The Constitutional Court of South Africa has handed down some historic decisions on the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, including the meaning and import of the concept of progressive realisation of those rights. The rule of law must be one of your central concerns. Let me ask, where are you these days when it comes to the advancement of the rule of law globally?

VII. The Challenge of the National Protection System in Each Country

The concept of the national protection system is one that is being emphasised by the Secretary-General and it has a powerful strategic rationale: Now that we have elaborated a detailed international code of human rights, the challenge is to implement it at home, where people live. International protection is important but it is complementary to what must take place within countries.

A national protection system is one in which international human rights norms are reflected in the national constitution; are incorporated in national legislation; where the local courts can resort to international human rights norms; where there are specialised human rights institutions to promote and protect human rights; where there is national monitoring of the situation of vulnerable parts of the population; and where human rights are taught in schools and other institutions of learning.

We in the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights have just written to all Member States asking them to submit succinct presentations on their national protection systems.The aim is to identify and share best practices.

Next to the concept of the national protection system there are two other key ideas that the Secretary-General has emphasised in his reform agenda. There is the better implementation of the core human rights treaties; and there is the strengthening of the system of special rapporteurs, representatives and working groups, collectively known as the special procedures system.

The Secretary-General's rationale is again a simple one when it comes to the better implementation of the human rights treaties. National protection systems are meant to help take forward the implementation of international human rights norms at home. The foundation for this is the system of human rights treaties. How, might one ask, are you contributing through your research and insights to the better implementation of the human rights treaties? This is an important question. What one is talking about is practical activity to help advance treaty implementation.

Then there is the area of the Special procedures of the Commission Human Rights. In the contemporary world the special procedures are the front-line international protection actors of the United Nations. Their importance is second only to that of the Security Council. What, one may ask, has been your role in helping to analyze the evolving system with a view to strengthening it?

VIII. The Challenges of New Threats: Terrorism and Biotechnolony

Terrorists commit grievous assaults on human rights and the struggle against terrorism is being exploited in some parts of the world to abuse human rights. There are pressing issues to be examined in this area? What are the core principles when it comes to striking a judicious balance between combatting terrorism - something the Security Council has called for - and respecting human rights? We in the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights have just completed a compilation of the core jurisprudence of United Nations treaty bodies, treaty bodies of the African, European and Inter-American systems on this balance. It provides revealing insights thrown up from experience, over decades, in different parts of the world. There is one lesson that comes out from this digest of core human rights jurisprudence, namely that one must be especially vigilant in upholding the rule of law and the principle of non-derogability of the basic rights referred to in Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

My colleagues will be making copies of the Digest available to you and I hope very much that you would be able to take it into account in your work and to contribute to upholding the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights in the struggle against terrorism.

Turning to biotechnology, some years ago this Sub-Commission took the lead in exploring the implications for human rights from developments in science and technology. Nowadays we have dramatic developments in biotechnology. It would be important for the Sub-Commission to examine their human rights implications.

IX. The Challenges of People on the Move,Globally

In today's world, people are on the move globally - whether as refugees, displaced persons, or economic migrants. There is a global regime for the protection of refugees and my colleagues in UNHCR have been advancing innovative ideas to strengthen protection. Within the framework of UNHCR there are on-going consultations on this - as there are consultations within the framework of the International Committee of the Red Cross on how to strengthen protection in respect of international humanitarian law.

Conceptually, legally and in operational terms however, the protection of internally displaced persons raises baffling and vexing questions that receive few answers. Under the aegis of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons an important set of guiding principles has been developed, and the Special Representative, alongside UNHCR, OCHA and other humanitarian agencies, has been doing his utmost to help bring relief to those acutely affected.

But it would still be fair to say that the protection of internally displaced persons is inadequate, to say the least, in the contemporary world. It is, classically, in an area such as this that the study function of this Sub-Commission can come into play and that you can present your analysis and recommendations to the Commission on Human Rights and, through it, to the international community at large. What would you do to make a contribution in this area?

Then there is the issue of migrants, legal and illegal, and their families. This year, the Convention on the human rights of migrant workers and their families entered into force and we all hope that this could have positive effects for this group of humanity. But going beyond this convention, what are the issues that must be given contemporary analysis through human rights lens. One of your great members, Mrs Halima Warzazi, did the original study on this topic for the Sub-Commission a quarter of a century ago. What role will the Sub-Commission play in the future?

X. The Challenges of Inequality

Inequalities, ethnic, racial, gender, social, and other are widespread in the world. This Sub-Commission was originally named the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. How will you maintain a focus on inequality in the world, and what role will you play in the follow-up to the Durban Conference? What is, or should be, your relationship with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Are there groups suffering from discrimination that you have not yet examined? Recently I received a visit from a philantrophist who pleaded with me that some twelve million persons with or recovering from leprosy face acute social discrimination. Is this an issue where you might make a contribution? Do you need a contemporary survey of problems of inequality and discrimination affecting various groups in the world?

XI. The Challenges of Groups at Risk, in Distress

This leads me directly to the challenges of protecting groups at risk, groups that are in distress. Historically, you have played an important role in studying the human right problems of minorities and indigenous persons and you continue to make important contributions on these issues. Your working group on indigenous peoples is a case in point.

But what about other groups? In today's world millions of young women are trafficked into the worst forms of degradation and exploitation. We in the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights have developed Guidelines to promote a human rights-based approach to the protection of victims of trafficking. What more needs to be done in these and related areas? I plead with you : please keep under focus the challenges of groups at risk, groups in distress. The discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS also requires careful attention. We in the Office of High Commissioner, along UNAIDS and other partners, have been promoting a human rights approach to the problem. We need your support in this effort.

XII. The Challenges of upholding human rights norms in a world in convulsion: The minimum guarantees we must insist upon

I should like to conclude this presentation by raising an issue that has troubled me deeply and that continues to trouble me. The human rights movement, building upon the earlier experience of organizations such as the International Labour Organization, is based on a foundation proposition that Governments will implement in good faith the international legal obligations that they have freely undertaken. The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of International Standards, a body with one of the longest experiences in these matters, is on record that it matters not what the legal, philosophical or social system of a country, or its economic and social conditions, what matters is whether it is giving effect to its international legal obligations. This has also been the approach of human rights treaty bodies in the United Nations, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Nowadays, crises of governance, international economic problems, terrorism, and cleavages of values or ideology are placing under stress the principle that Governments must implement what they have committed to. Then there is the element that some Governments simply may not have the resources, financial, human and material,to carry out what they have committed to.

How are we to deal with these stresses and strains on the international human rights regime? I believe that we must continue to insist on faithful compliance with international human rights obligations and that you have a role to play in analysing this issue and helping us uphold this principle. It is a matter of utmost, fundamental, importance. We can never depart from the principle of faithful implementation of international human rights obligations.

Distinguished Members of the Sub-Commission, friends of the human rights movement, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In a series of presentations before different human rights bodies I am deliberately seeking to urge policy discussions on where the contemporary human rights movement is and where it should be headed. I have done so before the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Human Rights Committee, The Sub-Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, Hearings organized by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, African Human Rights Ministers, the African Peer Review Mechanism and, today, before coming to this meeting, to the Board of Trustees of the Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation.

I consider your role as the analytical and thinking part of the United Nations human rights system to be key in helping us steer course to the human rights policies and strategies of the future. I am profoundly committed to the thought that, in human rights, Passion Matters! I should like to invite you to passion for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Thank you.