Human Rights Issues with Kate Gilmore (OHCHR)
Kate Gilmore is the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. On the 13th of December 2017, Kate hosted a live Q&A on Goodwall for the Yale Young Global Scholar (YYGS) alumni community. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a UN agency that works to promote and advance Human Rights around the world. It provides assistance to governments and works with other institutions and organizations to help implement international human rights standards globally.
The session was joined by 35 students from all over the world.
Gosh! Egypt? What a sad and tough time for human rights, and most disturbingly for human rights defenders too. We are deeply troubled that peace loving, principled people who simply wish to see justice advanced in Egypt are being subjected to such persecution. From the UN Human Rights Office standpoint, we are monitoring carefully individual cases, documenting the facts and using our influence to urge the authorities to uphold rights, to fulfil the constitutional obligations that they have (i.e. their human rights duties are not imposed from the outside but flow to them from the founding documents of the country!), and we hope that influential actors – partners, friends in the international community, and investors – will put pressure on the Government to step up for human rights.
The story of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory/ State of Palestine is a long and troubled one. No one wins when a conflict is so protracted, and no one can be proud of the reality that there have been decades of intense suffering for Palestinians in particular. That is not a success for any of us and most certainly not for Israel either. Hence, when any other authority – a government, an inter-governmental organisation, the UN, etc – seeks to take a step to address or engage the situation, the aim must always be to de-escalate suffering, to alleviate tensions, to stride towards peace, justice, and an end to suffering. It is almost impossible to see any way in which this recent decision on Jerusalem could be said to be consistent with that!
On the issue of human rights as western beliefs, I just urge people to get their history right! Of course the fiction that these are western ideals alone is one promoted by many seeking to duck their human rights responsibilities. No torture victim has ever claimed that they are ok with being tortured because after all the prohibition against such conduct is western! The reality is that throughout the centuries, in every religion, culture and tradition, you can find evidence of this longing for compassion, this hunger for justice, this ideal that we all have dignity – dignity of all, not dignity for just some. What’s more, if the values were western then wouldn’t we expect the West to be exemplary in their adherence to them? By the measure of respect for human rights, even the West is not West! Human rights are universal as is the longing for and the right to human dignity.
The essence of the human rights project is to recognize and secure the conditions for dignity of the autonomous individual – the dignified individual is the core building block of fair and just societies. Under human rights jurisprudence, this dignifying rights-holding begins at birth. The foetus is not an autonomous entity with independent interests (rights). Therefore, the answer to the question of “who is the rights holder in this context” is “the mother”.
In many countries, certain draconian conditions are imposed on her choices as a rights holder in this context. But even then in the overwhelming majority of countries, the mother is recognised as the key rights holder and thus the key actor to determine – in consultation with her doctor/s – what should be done when her pregnancy is unwanted, unchosen or not viable. Law reform is urgently needed to leave women free to make the tough choices that must be made under such circumstances and to avoid the risk that she ends up being cruelly criminalized simply because of, for example, spontaneous miscarriage.
The situation of people in Libya is grave by many measures – for both Libyans themselves and for migrants and refugees passing through Libya.
For those – usually people on the move – who are trapped into modern slavery, their suffering is beyond comprehension. Such slavery is not a recent invention or a recent discovery and the UN has been working – alongside others – over a number of years to find entry points to address modern forms of slavery. But in conflict zones, in settings of extreme lawlessness, when criminality far outweighs good governance, the options for/the means by which to affect prevention of such human rights violations gravely narrows.
We are working to urge the EU to change the terms of its cooperation with Libya’s authorities so that the scourge of modern slavery is more deeply and more effectively tackled. But, without a platform of commitment from Europe and others to provide refuge to people who have suffered such violations, hope for those who are being subjected to slavery is elusive. We need more people to stand up against the criminal conduct of people smugglers, traffickers and slave traders – people as corporates, as government officials, as police, as consumers. For those who run slavery it is all about making money. We have to change that and it makes ending slavery the business of business, of supply chain management and all of us who need to make different consumer choices – checking and insisting that what we buy is not slavery-tainted.
The Security Council (SC) is in a tough space. Recall the permanent, and thus most powerful members of the council – the “P5”? Russia? China? The USA? The UK distracted by Brexit? And France? You can imagine how difficult it is across just those five countries to find consensus! So while the Council still denounces conflicts in a number of countries, decisive action will not come from a divided and unbalanced SC.
The SC exists in large part to stand with people when their governments fail them. But, where do we go when the SC too fails? That is one of the toughest questions on the global stage today. The answer is that we have nowhere else to go – at least not for positive, constructive engagement. So we just have to keep working to try to boost the SC up to the performance that the world needs from – to address tough issues, at tough times, in tough places.
NGOs don’t have armies, NGOs don’t run prisons. NGOs don’t operate the courts or person the parliaments or staff the executive branches of government. Their capacity to do true harm? It is little indeed compared to the harm that the State can do to its citizens.
If you want to donate to or support an NGO, by all means, ask: what are their ethical policies? What are the means by which they handle complaints? How do they evaluate their practices? How do they guard against discrimination or exclusions? But, in terms of harm that might be done? Frankly, while NGOs may be far from perfect, NGOs are the least of our worries. More harmful still is the opposite of civil society – our complacency, our cynicism and our failure to step up and get involved and get organized; to step up and hold our governments accountable.
On Israel and settlements? Fortunately I don’t have to think! The Security Council had done that already, and by their resolutions we are told that what is happening is illegal, unacceptable, and should be stopped.
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The political influences on our work at the UN Human Rights Office can be very disheartening. However, the UN is a political space. It is the world’s piazza – where the world’s governments come together to discuss common concerns and issues of global significance. The whole purpose, in fact, is to bring political actors together. So why should we be surprised when things get political? Of course, it is tough to see failures of leadership, to see issues not dealt with through principles or resolved bravely and to see promised actions not implemented as they should be. But the more basic question is: if we were not holding these discussions with governments – political as they inevitably are – what would be the alternative? To have no such discussions? I don’t think so!
On EJEs in the Philippines – and the thousands who have lost their lives without ANY due process and yet with the endorsement of the President – we can only decry this as one of the gravest of today’s failings of an otherwise legitimate duty bearer. At the same time, we celebrate the brave actions of activists who all over the country are standing up to this heinous bullying, and celebrate in particular those young people who are taking concrete steps to resist the hate, fear and policy-ignorance that drives these killings. We stand in awe of their courage and we will do all that we can to stand too in solidarity with them.
Working in cooperation with local and international civil society, the killings must be documented. The evidence gathered must be used then to inform others – to help pave the way to justice and away from impunity. We must also advise on and promote sound public policy alternatives. Overall, we must never ignore, turn blind eye or forget. And we must persist. Because that’s what the people of the Philippines deserve and indeed that’s what they are doing themselves. In the final analysis, the best hope for the Philippines are the people of the Philippines.
The core message of the SDGs is the promise to “leave no one behind”. That is a promise to people! And wherever people are involved, so too are human rights. In other words, the SDGs are a human rights action plan. But, some governments, in their implementation of that plan, no doubt will try to duck these human rights obligations, but we mustn’t let that happen. The real test of the SDGs will be whether, over the course of its implementation, it changes prejudice not only material poverty, bigotry and not only sanitation; not only access to education but also access to justice, and full participation in community life not only peace as the absence of conflict!
I was invited to apply to work for the UN and I will be forever grateful for that. It had been a hope of mine to do but on my own assessment, I was not qualified! The very best part of my job is working as deputy to the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He is a wonderful brave voice for human rights, a warm and generous boss and a great inspiration to all of us in the Office!
In countries where tolerance for hatred drives policy rather than respect for love, we all have to stand up! Stand with (those against whom hate is directed) and stand out (for the principle that we all are born equal in dignity and rights)! Meaning, form partnerships with people from the countries that you are interested in. Understand what they know the local dynamics to be and then figure out what options there are to gain some leverage on those… Let me give you an example: last week I was in Australia to launch the UN Standards of Conduct for businesses in tackling discrimination against LGBTI people. A number of those businesses – with whom we were talking – have investments in countries where same sex relationships are still criminalized – about 12 countries in the Asia Pacific region and 70+ countries in the world over. If you want to help change things, then identify the companies in your county that are doing business also in the country that you are focused on and press them about what they are doing and should be doing to stand up for LGBTI people – in their work forces, locally, with Government, in their supply chains etc.
People have a right to flee persecution, even journalists! Each of us has to make our own decisions about how to best contribute to the advance of human rights. Nelson Mandela famously was sentenced to prison for 27 years because he would not retreat and still, even from within his prison cell, he advanced human rights. But what if he had died there? We always need brave people locally but we also need to figure out how to make it sustainable and safe for people to choose to stay. Neither you nor I are in a position to instruct anyone to remain when to do so is to face attack. None of us can instruct a woman to risk rape for human rights or a young person to risk torture for human rights or a journalist to risk deprivation of liberty and voice for human rights… Thank goodness we have thousands upon thousands of brave human rights activists who do decide to stay, to take those risks, to risk their safety, wellbeing, even their lives to the advance of rights. We owe so much to their courage.
Pakistan? We again are deeply concerned and deeply troubled too by recent developments. We are making representation to the authorities on this but – as I mentioned before – the most powerful hope for Pakistan is Pakistanis! A vibrant civil society, an independent legal system, a free press – these are the building blocks on which a truly democratic Pakistan can be (re)built. We need to urge all sectors in the country and those with an interest in the country to be strong for human rights, to resist incitement to injustice, to hate and to fear, and we need all leaders – formal and informal – to stand up for a just and equal Pakistan and to pledge themselves to their own accountability in this.
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The situation of young people today in many countries is just plain unacceptable. Frankly we talk too much about the “problems” that young people represent and not enough about how the main problem for young people is that of older people – older people who will not share the space hanging on to power, being greedy about decision making, not handing over opportunities. What is important is that we never give up, that we organize, that we seek to build coalitions and that we build up our emotional and intellectual stamina so that we don’t get too worn down or cynical in the face of governments who fail to open the doors for young people.
Human rights action plans or strategies are important for implementation in crisis and in peace times too. Some rights can never be violated. For example, there are no excuses for torture, ever. But some components of economic, social and cultural rights – such as the right to education, to health, to adequate housing – are deemed subject to progressive realization. This means that governments should take steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of these rights.
Benefits versus harm of aid? Do you know that, compared to the economy, the aid budget is but a drop in a bucket in a puddle in an ocean! The New York City Fire Department has a larger budget than the UN! So, while the unintended consequences of aid can be a problem – when poorly managed it aids corruption rather than alleviates poverty – the greater imperialism is that of a globalization, capitalism and consumerism unchecked. Of profit over people. Of concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the vast majority. That’s where we should put our energy!