October 22, 2008

U.N. Veteran Questions Future of Human Rights

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“Human rights are meant to be of universal application,” said Hon. Louise Arbour, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In her lecture, “Human Rights for All: Beyond our Reach?” Arbour spoke to a diverse group of students and members of the public last night about current threats to the universality of human rights.
“The principle of universality itself is now under attack,” said Arbour, who recently resigned from her post at the U.N. having served since 2004.
Dec. 10 will mark the 60-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Arbour described as, “one of the most important secular documents in human history.”
However, Arbour questioned whether the world has since “betrayed the promise of human rights for all,” delving into the “fundamental concepts of indivisibility and universality,” the institutions that exist to protect universal human rights and the “interplay between law and politics” in relation to human rights.
“[Arbour] doesn’t solve the problem of universality, but she moves us in the direction of implementation. I think that’s hopeful,” said Stephanie DeGooyer grad, who teaches a First Year Writing Seminar called Who Writes Human Rights?
[img_assist|nid=32870|title=A higher cause|desc=United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour addresses the possibility of human rights yesterday in Call Auditorium.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]The Human Rights Council is a U.N. institution that focuses on the protection of human rights worldwide. According to the website for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the council is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.”
The council, comprised of 47 seats, is an auxiliary body of the U.N. General Assembly. “The Human Rights Council deals with quintessentially political issues — matters related to how a state treats people under its jurisdiction and de facto authority, not, and I stress, simply its citizens,” Arbour continued.
The council is a “very political institution,” according to Arbour. “The climate that permeates the deliberations of the Human Rights Council reflects its political nature, which means that interests trump principle,” she said.
What are the respective roles of politics and law in the protection of human rights?
“It seems to me the right question for any country is whether the country is in a state of progress, stagnation or regression on human rights issues,” Arbour said. “We still live in a world where state sovereignty occupies a very large place and the U.N. is based not only on the principle of equality of all human beings but also on the equality of all states, large and small.”
Arbour’s lecture lasted about an hour, after which she took questions from the audience.
One member of the audience asked Arbour if she saw a female U.N. Secretary General in the future, in light of the recent possibility of a female president of the United States.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” she responded, “but if I were: the level of gender discrimination and inequality worldwide on the basis of gender is so universal that one would be tempted to think that there is some sort of sinister hand at play … in keeping women away from the fulfillment of their aspirations and rights.”
Arbour noted that though many highly qualified female applicants for Secretary General have been considered, none have yet been appointed.
“In the Western World, we have put enormous effort on the promotion of the few as opposed to addressing the plight of the many,” she continued. “I think we have to be careful not to view all our battles as symbolically represented by the success or failure of a few, and we should maybe systematically redirect our attentions.”
Another question was raised about the self-determination of groups within governments. Arbour responded that the notion of self-determination is one of the most difficult concepts the U.N. faces. She believes self-determination is a fundamental right.
“The right to one’s culture, one’s language, the right to associate with others is a part of our fundamental human rights, it’s a part of our social nature. The right to self-determination, also, is a fundamental right,” Arbour said.
Several members of the audience were honored by Arbour’s presence at Cornell.
“It’s interesting hearing from such a high authority in the world,” Zinan Cheng ’12 said. “I liked what she said about solidarity, self-determination in nations and the differences between law and human rights.”
“She’s not afraid to be outspoken given the bureaucracy surrounding the position [of High Commissioner for Human Rights],” DeGooyer said. “That’s very commendable.”
Arbour is the 2008 Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellow.
Past Bartels World Affairs Fellows include the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa.