I will summarize the opening remarks of Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
The greatest part of my leadership has been sharing with Jimmy Carter and his colleagues in human rights.
I’d like to give a sense of where we are in the big picture. I am extremely concerned about the perceived erosion of the concept of the universality of human rights. This is our biggest problem.
When I was here the year before the challenge was moving the human rights agenda into implementation. The UN had spent so many years writing policies. Now it was time to implement.
Now I see this additional challenge emerging, for which I have very few solutions to propose. This is the perception which has been extremely widespread that human rights is a western concept. What is dangerous about this perception is that it is a tool of the promotion of western interests and more specifically American interests. In a lot of your national work, you also feel in very concrete way the effect of the erosion of this concept of universality and the perception that human rights is a tool of western interests.
There is a general assembly resolution that fleshes out the concept. There are lots of ideas we need to work on related to this concept
It is a fundamental shift from the old right to humanitarian intervention to a responsibility to protect. This says a lot to the position of the interveners. Previously if you had a right you had the right not to exercise it. You could decline. Having shifted that from a responsibility, the focus is on the rights holders. It is not the right of the intervener, it is the right of those suffering. It is not discretionary it is mandatory.
So I think we need as human rights actors we need to understand that profound shift and advocate accordingly
Is this a moral responsibility? Or is it a legal responsibility within a legal framework?
The responsibility to protect.
In the context of this perception that human rights work is always done in the pursuit of western – American – interests. We should be guided first by the principle of do no harm to those you are trying to assist.
If your work could be seen as a way to promote American interest to do it in a subversive fashion makes it worse. If exposed it will further vindicate that perception so we have to think in more creative, strategic ways. Work more effectively and better with international organizations that are truly inclusive. Work with the UN. Clearly it is more difficult but by definition it is more inclusive and not just in the promotion of western interests.
The opportunity of the 60th anniversary gives us a chance to reclaim universality. We need to reclaim a solid core of truly universal values, not seen as purely western – code word for American – interests.