Students Staff

13 March 2015

Former Slovenian President praises Essex's students, teachers and researchers

Between ‘The Spirit of our Age’ and ‘Realities of Our Time’: Human Rights in an Era of Doubt

Dr Danilo Türk, former President of Slovenia, gave the keynote speech at the University of Essex’s 50th anniversary event in Geneva, 11 March 2015, where the contribution of its world-leading Human Rights Centre was celebrated.

Dr Türk’s speech:

Anniversaries invite reflection and thought. They provide the opportunity to look at the years past with affection and pride. At the same time they allow thinking about the future. The more glorious is the past, the higher are the expectations for the future.

The 50th anniversary of the University of Essex is precisely such an anniversary. Five decades ago the University of Essex started its work with 122 students and became, in a very short period of time, one of the leading academic institutions in the United Kingdom as well as one of the globally renowned schools of high learning and research.

Dr Danilo Turk

Dr Danilo Turk, former President of Slovenia

This is an achievement of historic proportions. The outside observers might think that the University of Essex is a much older institution - after all it works in a country that prides itself with long history, including a long history of the academia. However, the quick success of the University of Essex is not entirely surprising for it proves the continued intellectual vitality of people of the United Kingdom and, above all, the creative spirit of the country’s intellectual elite.

It is precisely this intellectual vitality and creative spirit that has made the University of Essex so remarkably open to international cooperation and to participation of students, teachers and researchers from every corner of the world. The University’s research agenda and programmes of studies are highly relevant to the global issues of our time.

Nothing expresses that openness to the world better than the human rights programme of the University of Essex. Even a superficial look at the publications, the research programme and human rights courses reveals a profound understanding and strong commitment to human rights, the ‘flagship programme’ of the University.

It is only natural that an important part of the anniversary celebrations is devoted to human rights and is taking place here, in Geneva, a city that has become the global capital of human rights.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Human rights represent a great and optimistic idea, an idea with tremendous transformative power and an unparalleled record of improvement of human condition. Some of the “stellar moments” in our recent history were marked by the progress in the field of human rights. The period around the adoption of the Universal Declaration almost seven decades ago was such a moment. The victory of human rights in the period between mid-1970s and late1980s was another.

It is therefore not surprising that the World Conference on Human Rights that met in Vienna in 1993, invoked, in its solemn document,

“...the spirit of our age and the realities of our time which call upon peoples of the world and States members of the United Nations to rededicate themselves to the global task of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms so as to secure full and universal enjoyment of these rights.”

The statement of the World Conference was a powerful expression of the belief of the time, the post cold war era, and of the optimism, inherent in human rights.

However, as the conference deliberations were unfolding in Vienna the atrocities were mounting in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a year later a full blown genocide exploded in Rwanda. In one of the bitter ironies of history the call to end impunity had to address - not human violations committed in the past - but the new and unexpected violations of titanic proportions.

The realities of our time have, so it seemed, prevailed over the spirit of our age.

We have not recovered from the shock ever since. An era of doubt has set in. The responses to the new wave of human rights violations and crimes against humanity were, indeed, made. The establishment of international criminal tribunals and the International Criminal Court has been the most visible example. Many perpetrators of the most brutal crimes were tried and punished. However, court trials have not removed the doubt.

And then, there is, among the responses, the new normative concept of the Responsibility to Protect, designed to prevent the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, this valiant effort has, so far, yielded only mixed results.

At the same time when all these efforts have been going on, new doubts have arisen. Terrorism represents a heinous violation of human rights. And as of recently we are seeing its expansion - both in the geographical sense and in its ever more brutal operation. The number of victims of terrorism has been growing dramatically, in particular in territories controlled by the combatants of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’. The international community is not yet able to fully understand the internal working of this phenomenon. Consequently, the policies of counterterrorism are incomplete and often heavy handed. As such they sometimes raise doubts about their compatibility with the standards of human rights.

And finally, all the earlier doubts have been compounded by the disruptions in the democratic political systems in many parts of the world. Today, the most visible disruptions take place in the countries that are often described as “countries in transition.”

This brief summary suggests that “realities of our time”, brutal and power - based, are prevailing over the “spirit of our age”, once hopeful and optimistic and today charged with doubt and concern.

Is there a way out, a way forward? Can human rights be, once again, an inspiring force and a practical vehicle of positive change? What needs to be done for such a role of human rights to become possible and effective in our era of doubt?

I believe that the 50th anniversary of the University of Essex is the right occasion for such questions. The search for a coherent set of approaches requires a solid intellectual base and a careful policy design.

It is logical that the main attention of discussions today is devoted to the operational questions, i.e. the operationalisation of human rights.

At the same time, it is necessary to keep in mind - with the highest attainable level of clarity the basic premises for the formulation of the operational human rights policies. Let me highlight three among them:

First, the inherent optimism of human rights must be well understood, both with regard to its origins and its limits. It is not human nature that makes human rights an optimistic concept. Human beings, the "crooked timber of humanity" - to use an apt description by Isaiah Berlin, are not good by nature. They become good as a result of their ability to learn, mainly from experience.

It is therefore essential that in all practical situations human rights scholars and activists understand the experience of the people concerned in order to be better able to suggest a particular course of operational activity. History and politics that define the fate of individuals and communities in different parts of the world must be a subject of study by human rights specialists, as much as the norms and standards of human rights themselves.

Second, Human rights are an expression of universal human values. However, the concept of universality must not be overextended. Human rights are not ‘a secular religion’. Human rights are not above politics, in the real world they are always part of political struggle. All of the human rights norms emerged as a result of political struggle - from the freedom of thought, conscience and religion to the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to work and a decent standard of living. Therefore, the question of promotion of human rights has to be dealt with as a question of policy and not merely as a question of belief.

The policies intended to strengthen human rights have to be adequately contextualised and their priorities have to be set right. Let me offer an example:

In situations where religious or ethnic diversity represents the major characteristic of a society it is necessary to devise policies with great sensitivity to the principle of equality and non discrimination. However, this is not enough. In such situations we need a good understanding of the requirements legitimacy of politics and state. These requirements include self-limitation of the majority, respect for minorities, power sharing among all and sometimes territorially defined autonomy. Human rights can thrive only in an appropriately organised political environment. They are not above politics but very much a part of politics.

And third, human rights are for those who need them, the victims, the weak and the poor, the downtrodden. Priorities of human rights action have to be designed with these needs in mind. While it is clear that the principle of non-discrimination guarantees human rights to all, it must not be overlooked that its actual intention is to protect the weak.

The strong, the rich and the powerful are generally able to protect their human rights. The weak and the poor need human rights policies as a means to establish or to restore agency. Human rights represent an idea with a purpose.

The basic premises of human rights activism and struggle, such as the mentioned three examples, can be operationalised in a variety of ways.

In specific situations on the ground, the operationalisation often comes as a result of the need, as an available response to a problem that has already become visible and is well understood. So, for example, a power sharing arrangement or a territorial autonomy regime in a multiethnic environment almost inevitably becomes an operational target of human rights policy.

At the international level there are two basic approaches that need to be pursued simultaneously: the pragmatic and the systemic.

The first, the pragmatic approach, builds on the international standards and is bound to proceed from the normative and institutional arrangements from the past decades. The system of international treaties and their implementation mechanisms, special procedures and human rights courts are a vital element in human rights action.

Development of legal standards and their growing sophistication are an important element of operationalisation of human rights.

Development of indicators to measure performance in the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights is vital for the future of human rights in general. Therefore, these indicators too are an important ingredient of the operationalisation of human rights.

Development of the key institutions such as the Human Rights Council, currently meeting here in Geneva, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights represent an important international institutional underpinning of human rights action.

The system of special rapporteurs, currently around fifty, and their country visits bring the international institutions closer to the real problems of human rights around the world and help the efforts for their actual realisation.

The institutional growth in the field of human rights has been impressive. New and potentially important themes are being presented in this context, such as the theme of business and human rights.

The growth in the domain of norms, institutions and thematic concerns as well as the practice of dealing with specific cases of systematic violations of human rights require, more than ever before, strategic leadership. This is the challenge that affects the High Commissioner for Human Rights most directly. It is the High Commissioner who is required to demonstrate such a leadership.

However, the High Commissioner should not be left alone with this daunting task. The entire human rights community should be prepared to help. Strategic leadership is a pragmatic task, but can be carried out most effectively when it is adequately assisted. The academic and the NGO communities would be well advised to look into the question of strategic leadership of the global human rights system as a question per se. A focused debate on this question would be timely now or in the near future. The University of Essex has the necessary expertise and experience and could play a leading role in this regard.

This brings me to the second, the systemic approach. Human rights are an important area of concern but they do not exist in isolation. They are part of broader development of societies and of policy making in general.

In September this year, the UN General Assembly will adopt the Sustainable development goals for the long term period following 2015. In addition to the pragmatic approach it is necessary to integrate human rights activities within the sustainable development goals. The basic conceptual framework has been provided, in particular in the goals: 1 (ending poverty), 10 (reduction of inequality among and within countries) and 16 (promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies).

Mainstreaming of human rights has been an important policy orientation for a number of years by now. However, the impression continues to persist to the effect that the conceptualisation of this idea still requires a lot of work. The international human rights community and in particular its intellectual leaders will be well advised to pay attention to this task and find ways forward.

Some of these ways forward may very well be in the area of application of human rights standards and the use of human rights indicators in the process of implementation of the sustainable development goals. Some of the relevant techniques of doing this - such as those used in the UNDP’s human development reports are already well known. Others may still have to be developed. Mainstreaming of human rights in the broader development activities remains an important area of work that is leaving much to be done in the future.

Ladies and gentlemen.

We are gathered tonight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Essex. The first fifty years were marked by an exuberant process of thought and practical work. Let the next fifty years be equally productive and successful. The program of work for the next period may write itself, as a result of the work done in the past. And the people of the University of Essex - its students, its teachers and researchers will ensure the highest levels of achievement and the best quality of results.

I thank you for your attention.

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