The United Nations Charter includes among its objectives the achievement of international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian nature and the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, irrespective of race, sex, language or religion. Man had to come a long way to arrive at this charter. Respect for human rights goes hand in hand with our democratic way of thinking, a thinking that is based on the awareness of human dignity, on a feeling of responsibility and solidarity and on the conviction that all people are of equal value.
The relationship between democracy and inalienable individual rights clearly emerged long time ago when the Athenian statesman Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration. Pericles was referring specifically to an individual’s equality before the law – in this case men only – in terms of civil rights and freedoms.
We can trace the fascinating relationship between the individual and government or community throughout the whole of European history. Everyone remembers the year 1215 in which the English King John was forced to agree to Magna Charta thus curtailing the divine right of kings in favour of certain personal rights. From the seventeenth century we have the Petition Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act and the Bill of Rights, while we in the Netherlands proudly refer to the ‘Placaat van Verlatinghe’ dating from 1581. The fundamental change, however, came only in the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century saw a radical break with all pre-existing attitudes which had in fact been based on the Christian sense of sin, belief in authority and the group ethic. They were replaced by a high level of self-awareness and individualism. The new ideology lent the concept of human dignity real substance, alongside the familiar feeling for universal humanity deriving from the Christian tradition. Without the idea of human dignity the Declaration of Rights of Virginia and the subsequent American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of 1789 would have been inconceivable.
The concepts of humanity and human dignity are also the foundation of the International Commission of Jurists which we are honouring here today. This non-governmental organization has as its goal the promotion of understanding and respect for the law and legal protection of human rights in the world. The way in which you, Mr. MacDermot, as present Secretary-General, together with your devoted but rather tiny staff in Geneva have sought to achieve these objectives deserves the highest praise. Since 1952, the year in which the organization was founded, numerous congresses and conferences have been held throughout the world on the principles of the rule of law. Valuable academic studies and penetrating reports appear in the newsletter and in the biennial review.
It is thus that reports have been published on the Hungarian insurrection, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Berlin Wall, Spain, Cuba, Apartheid, Brazil, East Pakistan, Uganda, Chile, and about numerous other countries and situations. Some years ago the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights was drafted as a result of two seminars held in Dakar. Recently the European Convention against Torture came into force which stipulates for one thing that lawyers and other observers must be allowed to visit prisons in contracting party states, which is expected to have an important preventive impact. A revision of the Mental Health Act was recently introduced in Japan. This was a significant event, because in Japan patients are often concealed in an unacceptable way by their families, who are convinced that mental deficiency is hereditary, nor had patients in psychiatric hospitals any right or opportunity to appeal when they were involuntarily committed for many years. And finally, to give another example, you introduced the First International Instrument on the Independence of the Judiciary on which work had been done for many years and which was adopted in 1985 at the Seventh Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders and endorsed in that year by the United Nations General Assembly.
Now, most countries contend that they have an independent judiciary, but in many, if not in the majority, practice proves otherwise. The international commission of jurists does all it can to promote the independence of the judiciary throughout the world and has sent observers for instance to trials in South Africa, Tunisia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Denmark, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Singapore, Senegal, Mauritania, Algeria, Israel, South Korea and Pakistan. But you are not only active in addressing issues in the field of civil rights and political rights, but also in cases of flagrant economic or social injustice or where groups of people are the victim of discrimination such as psychiatric and AIDS patients.
Your authority rests on your broad international base in which, regrettably, up to now not all countries are represented; I am thinking of the Eastern European countries. Your influence is based on the thoroughness and impartiality of your verdicts and reports. Of special importance is the influence exercised by the Commission in recent years on the ‘Rule of Law’ in countries becoming independent in the course of the decolonisation process.
I should not fail to mention the high quality of your successive Secretaries-General. I should like to mention in this respect our compatriot, Bart van Dal, who was the first to head your organisation, his successors and your predecessor, Sean MacBride, who did such inspiring work through his creative contribution to the International Law of Human Rights. We realise how difficult your work is when you clash with the sovereignty of states in making an issue of a violation of human rights or wish to prevent this happening or condemn aggressive acts. You yourself said on one occasion: “The great obstacle to peace is the immense concentration of power in the nation’s state, especially when fed by fanatical nationalism; great as our nations are they are not a sufficient end in themselves”. Rightly you asked yourself, in accepting the Wateler Peace Prize in 1985 in The Hague, how the international community can legitimately intervene when the freedom of a nation or its human rights are violated by a tyrannical government or by the aggression of another country – often under the pretext of an liberation movement – as long as the ‘anarchic nature of the world of sovereign states’ continues to exist.
Going over the effectiveness of your campaigns, a process which plays no negligible role is what is referred to as the ‘Mobilization of Shame’, the mobilization of public opinion as a means of exerting pressure. Often your organisation has thus been able to embarrass those involved and this has produced very often mitigating and corrective measures. A telling example was the activity of the International Commission of Jurists – which I have already mentioned – which resulted in the revision of the Japanese Mental Health Act. But in situations which we reject on the grounds of our views on human rights, the problem remains that the deepest questions relating to our convictions and our views of man are ultimately existential ones which do not lend themselves to verification by logic or reason. These differences in convictions are deeply rooted; every individual assumes that his truth has universal validity. As far as respecting the otherness of other human beings is concerned, we still have a long way to go in religion and in politics.
In today’s world, however, we are often compelled to join forces, not only on the grounds of our ethical convictions, but increasingly for pragmatic reasons. The winner of the 1987 Erasmus Prize, Alexander King, demonstrated this using ecological examples. If we are to survive, the same must apply in politics. Zia Rizvi, Secretary-General of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, in a recent speech compared our world to the human body, all of which suffers if a part of it is ill or damaged and which must resort to action if it is to survive.
Today it is a great pleasure for me, Mr. MacDermot, to be able to present you with the Erasmus Prize for the International Commission of Jurists just before you step down as Secretary-General. I am glad to hear not this year, so we still have some time. Nobody has led the organisation longer and with so much success. We know with you that we are only at the beginning of a hopeful future which, to judge by some changes in our world, would seem to lie ahead. Perhaps out of necessity, a new feeling for humanity and human rights is on the horizon, a feeling – let us hope – that includes the whole of mankind and contributes to enriching the sense of world consciousness. It is because the International Commission of Jurists is contributing to this development that I have the honour and the pleasure of presenting you Sir, I just heard a third generation lawyer, with the 1989 Erasmus Prize.