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The voices of the people cannot disappear from the United Nations

Seventy years after its founding, the United Nations is still far from realising the lofty words of its charter. How can UN member states seize their collective responsibility to protect human rights?

Hina Jilani
9 December 2015
Destroyed house, Syria. Flickr/Peter Stevens. Some rights reserved.

Destroyed house, Syria. Flickr/Peter Stevens. Some rights reserved.The founding charter of the United Nations opens with the words “we the peoples”, placing human beings and their rights at the very heart of the organisation. As we celebrate Human Rights Day in 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the UN, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on the achievements that the international community has made in bolstering human rights and protecting the most vulnerable.

For me, a key aspect of this is the work of women human rights defenders and the protection they are afforded by the UN and other international bodies. These brave women do essential, risk-laden work to bring communities together and to protect human rights in times of conflict.

Having worked for the United Nations as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders for over eight years, I have seen how the UN can empower and protect human rights and their defenders worldwide.

But there is much more to be done.

I have seen how the UN can empower and protect human rights and their defenders worldwide. But there is much more to be done.I welcome the most recent resolution on human rights defenders adopted by the General Assembly. However I note with regret that for the first time, the resolution was put to a vote and not adopted by consensus as in the past. The fact that Pakistan was one of the 14 countries that opposed the resolution is deeply worrying for its human rights community. 

Human rights defenders and their ability to work freely in society are crucial in building a peaceful society. Conflict situations quickly lead to the complete destruction of normal life, and often the rights we have worked so hard to implement and promote are immediately eroded. The work of human rights defenders is often the first target.

Over the past 70 years, the nature of conflict has shifted from questions of contested territory to “identity” issues. This makes the work of human rights defenders, especially women, more important than ever. However, when promoting these values in times of conflict, women are seen as betrayers of their communities and traditional values, and are often silenced.

In my home country of Pakistan, where identity-based conflicts centred around religion and extremism are prevalent, this is all too common. The issues raised by human rights defenders are cast aside when there is a ‘larger’ battle to fight. I have heard countless times that women “complicate” peace processes. But this complication comes from a desire to ensure that the dimensions of peace with which women are familiar are not left out of any political settlement. The work of human rights defenders is often the first target.

In the 2004 Pakistani parliamentary elections it became compulsory for political parties to fill up seats on a proportional basis specifically for women. This brought great improvements, for women and for human rights in general. The Human Rights Commission report of 2012 found that almost all human rights legislation was tabled by women, regardless of what political parties they belonged to.

This is an important lesson: women can and do secure progress for all, despite the obstacles presented to them. In Pakistan especially, the work of women human rights activists has been very influential. If this dimension is left out, sustainable peace, in any situation, will never be achieved. Women from all religions suffer from similar problems, their problems and grievances transcending any identity-based conflict.

Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room, Palace of Nations, Geneva. Wikimedia/Ludovic Courtès. Some rights reserved.

Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room, Palace of Nations, Geneva. Wikimedia/Ludovic Courtès. Some rights reserved.I also witnessed first-hand the crucial work carried out by women human rights defenders during my time in Darfur when I conducted the United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2004. I recall visiting women in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp and I learnt a valuable lesson. What women want is very much what international and human rights law protects. It is in our duty to provide them with sufficient safeguards and conditions to promote peace and human rights.

Human rights are an integral pillar of the UN system, but my fellow Elders and I are fully aware that they have not been respected in many ways. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France and China — need to live up to their responsibility to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

If ever there was a moment for UN member states to seize their collective responsibility to protect human rights, then this is it.

This is especially true in the case of Syria, where war has raged for five bloody years. The international community as a whole, including in the UN, has so far failed to devise an adequate response to end the conflict and protect the human rights of those caught up in it. We see refugees grossly misrepresented in the media and national governments failing to produce a collective plan of action to confront the refugee crisis. If ever there was a moment for UN member states, and especially the Security Council, to seize their collective responsibility to protect human rights, then this is it.

Civil society also has a key role to play in ensuring human rights are respected and grassroots voices are heard. The Elders believe these voices need to be heard in the corridors of power, to empower those on the front line who work tirelessly to protect human rights when the state has failed them. It is imperative that civil society groups in conflict-affected countries have a voice in the Security Council. The voices of the people cannot disappear from the United Nations.

Hina Jilani (second from right) and fellow Elders. Richard Lewis/The Elders. All rights reserved.

Hina Jilani (second from right) and fellow Elders. Richard Lewis/The Elders. All rights reserved.Within peace processes, civil society voices must be protected and heard by the Security Council to ensure a lasting peace. The Council needs to understand better what is happening on the ground. But it is also morally important, so that those people most affected by conflict have the chance to be heard.

We need to work to improve the United Nations so that it fully protects the human rights of the world’s seven billion inhabitants, and doesn’t just pay lip service to the lofty words in its charter. On Human Rights Day, we have much to celebrate; the past 70 years have seen great progress in achieving comprehensive human rights standards for all. Bolstering and strengthening the United Nations will empower human rights defenders on the ground and their ability to uphold these standards for the next 70 years ahead.

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