No room in human rights for spectators

Irene Khan has told the United Nations Human Rights Council that it has a fundamental role to play as the moral voice of the international community. Speaking at a commemorative session on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Amnesty International’s Secretary General told the Council that it must address human rights violations forcefully, clearly and consistently.

“For this to happen, however, all member states must play their part full,” said Irene Khan in Geneva on Friday. “There is no room in human rights for spectators. We call on governments, especially those with influence, to unite the Council in concrete action to make human rights effective on the ground.”

Irene Khan said that, in the six decades since adoption of the UDHR, there have been many significant gains in the promotion and protection of human rights.

“There is a rich tapestry of international, regional and national human rights standards, and a multitude of institutions to give effect to those standards. To a degree unimaginable in 1948, there is now a vibrant civil society committed to human rights.

“The equality of men and women and persons of different colour, the rights of children, a free press and a fair judicial system are no longer disputed concepts; they are widely accepted standards that many countries have achieved and to which others aspire.”

Ms. Khan said that the greatest achievement of the UDHR is that human rights have become firmly entrenched in the collective conscience of humanity.

“Human rights today are the benchmark by which the behaviour of governments is judged.

“However, this is not the time to rest on laurels. As we celebrate successes, we must also acknowledge the human rights failures and the challenges that need to be addressed.

“The gap between the promise of the UDHR and the reality of humanity’s experiences is huge.  Injustice, inequality and impunity remain hallmarks of our world today.”

Referring to terrorist attacks, Ms. Khan said that Amnesty International condemns them in the strongest possible terms as gross abuse of human rights.

“Governments have the duty to protect people against such attacks but they must do so within the framework of human rights and not at its expense. To erode our freedoms in the name of security is to hand victory to the terrorists.”

Ms Khan said that there are also many human rights abuses that do not attract media attention. She pointed to rampant discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation and other forms of identity and opinion.

“Among those hidden human rights scandals is violence against women and girls in the home, the workplace and schools, in times of peace as well as war. Rape has shamefully become a weapon of war in many conflicts. There is an urgent need to make rights real for women and girls.”

Ms. Khan said that the biggest human rights crisis right now is poverty, which affects billions of people in the world.

“In the current economic climate, there is a real risk that millions more could be pushed back into poverty. The poorest and the most vulnerable are paying the price of the greed of the rich and powerful.”

She called on the Council to examine the impact of the financial crisis on human rights and to propose corrective measures.  

“In this room this morning a group of children brought their voices to the demand for human rights. In ten years time, what will they say of the legacy we are creating now?” she asked  

“In 1948, in the face of enormous challenges, world leaders showed extraordinary courage in their vision of the UDHR. Today’s leaders must show courage and determination in action,” Ms. Khan concluded.