Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be the recipient of the 1999 Erasmus Prize. It is difficult to know how to respond to the words of praise, which I have heard, and to the wording of the citation. However, I am heartened by the fact that the focus this year has been on collective responsibility. There is collective responsibility for the fact that I am here today! Perhaps the best response I can make is to thank you for this prize and to say that in honouring me you honour all those who defend human rights – often at great personal risk – and that I dedicate this prize to their name.

His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard was kind enough in his text to refer to my term of office as President of Ireland. In fact I was elected on 9 November 1990, the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and my election I believe, symbolised for many the opening up of Irish society. Looking back, I can say that it was a most exciting time to serve as Head of State of a country experiencing such momentous change as Ireland has seen in recent years. People find an air of prosperity and confidence about modern Ireland, reflecting the fact that success has been achieved through hard work, prudent management of the national finances and the far-sightedness of investing in education, thus enabling the country’s young workforce to reap the benefits of the technological revolution.

In 1625 Hugo Grotius wrote, what was probably the first comprehensive treatise on international law, his work On the Law of War and Peace. It is sobering to think that Grotius was seeking all those years ago to establish rules of behaviour for nations and individuals and then to recall what terrible conflicts have occurred since his day. It is sobering, too, to consider the issues on the agenda of the two Hague Peace Conferences of a century ago – arms control, humanitarian law, the peaceful settlement of disputes – and to have to acknowledge that we are still far from finding lasting solutions to these problems at the end of this very violent century.

Hard questions are being asked these days about human rights. I welcome that. If human rights are to work, their rationale and effectiveness must stand up to the closest scrutiny. Hard questions are being asked about the gap between the ideals of the human rights movement and the evidence appearing before us daily that shows how far respect for human rights is from being embedded in society. In this year alone we have witnessed gross human rights violations in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region, to mention only some of the worst instances. The placing of human rights centre stage in public life must produce tangible improvements if there is not to be an erosion of credibility and a rise in cynicism. I believe that the greatest challenges which lie ahead – securing peace and development, channelling the forces of globalisation productively, coping with the rapidly changing world we live in – must all be grounded in respect for human rights. The message of human rights is clear. It says to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised: “You are not alone. You are not powerless. You have rights which are universal and fundamental”. Solid progress has been made over the past fifty years in standard setting. Now we face the even greater challenge of putting those principles into practice.

I return to the rubric under which this prize is awarded which is collective responsibility. I was saying to Her Majesty beforehand that I welcomed the challenge of addressing collective responsibility, because we often focus on individual human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells out the importance of this concept when it refers in the Preamble to the fact that: “The peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”. The Preamble goes on to say that: “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

These concepts of collective responsibility, and the determination to act collectively on the basis of those responsibilities, are also spelled out in Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations Charter. As far as the individual’s responsibilities are concerned, champions of human rights have recognised that, just as we possess rights simply by virtue of being human, so also we have responsibilities to those around us. There is an understandable hesitation to place too much emphasis on responsibilities and duties because unscrupulous regimes have been known to argue that duties to the State are more important than the rights of the individual.  The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights considered listing parallel responsibilities or duties to match the rights they proclaimed, but they realised that this might qualify or relativise fundamental rights. So the issue of duties was encapsulated in one article, Article 29 which states that: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. Article 29 makes it clear that our rights are not entirely unrestricted. It goes on to say that: “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in democratic society”. In my view, Article 29 gives sufficient guidance as to the responsibilities of individuals and the balance that should be struck between individual freedom and the rights of our fellow human beings. As I see it, human rights are all about collective responsibility. Their underlying message is that we belong to one global community and that we are responsible for what happens in that community. A few weeks ago, when the crisis in East Timor was at its height, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney said something which struck me as especially relevant. He said: “Everybody has felt the pity and the terror of the tragedy. But I think that we have also experienced something more revealing, which is a feeling of being called upon, a feeling of being answerable”.

That ‘feeling of being answerable’ is a way of saying that we are responsible for the rights of others, and not just for our own rights. It is a key factor in the struggle to establish human rights in society. We have responsibilities, both as individuals and as members of groups, to the people we live and work with, to our country, to the global community. That is what motivates courageous women and men to speak out when governments abuse the rights of citizens. That is what makes us listen when non-governmental organisations shed light on violations and shortcomings. The onus on governments to discharge their responsibilities is clear. Governments may have ceded some of their powers to market forces over which they have little control but they also retain far-reaching powers over citizens. The human rights message to governments is: you should rule wisely and respect the rights of the ruled because these rights are not yours to give or take. When they act responsibly, when they are guided by leaders with vision, governments have the power to do great good. I think of those post-war European leaders who recognised that the cycle of conflict on this Continent must be ended and joined together in the great enterprise that is now the European Union. That is an outstanding example of collective responsibility, though the task of ensuring a peaceful Europe will not be complete as long as conflict rages in the Balkans.

We should not think of human rights as something abstract or for other people far away. In a very true sense human rights begin at home. As Dag Hammarskjöld put it: “The great commitment all too easily obscures the little one. But without the humility and warmth which you have to develop in your relations to the few with whom you are personally involved, you will never be able to do anything for the many”. The more I see of human rights in action, the more convinced I become of the value of collective action at local, grassroots level. Reference has been made to my visit to Sierra Leone in June. One of the terrible aspects of the violence there, particularly in January and February of this year, was the systematic rape of young girls. But I was deeply impressed to meet a Sierra Leone representative of the Federation of African Women in Education (fawe) who was counselling ninety rape victims in Freetown. She had worked with young girls before the crisis and they simply came to her door, and she responded and was determined that her colleagues throughout Sierra Leone would respond as peace was restored. That to me is a great example of real collective responsibility. It was out of recognition of the importance of grassroots human rights activity that my Office established a special fund last year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, to create a kind of microcredit support for human rights work. 

There are three strategies, which I would like to emphasise as having a particular role in strengthening the culture of human rights. The first is prevention. Prevention of human rights violations must become a greater priority than it is at present. Prevention is a normal part of our lives in so many ways but where conflicts are concerned it tends to be honoured on paper but not in practice. We should be alive to the huge advantages of heading off human rights violations before they happen and apply the sophisticated preventive habits we know so well at home to the field of conflict prevention.

The second area is accountability. Accountability is really a form of prevention since it signals that those who commit gross violations of human rights will not get away with it. There are encouraging signs that national judicial authorities are taking the position that grave human rights violations must be accounted for, wherever, whenever and by whomever they were committed. And a major advance has been made with the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In that context I would like to pay tribute to the impressive contribution made over the years by the Netherlands to the development of an effective international criminal justice system.

The third strategy I would support is greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights. This set of rights gets less attention than the better known civil and political rights but I am convinced that an enduring culture of human rights cannot take root where access to food, to education and even to basic healthcare is denied. Whether the description of me as ‘independent-minded and uncompromising but not one of life’s natural mediators’ is accurate or not is hard for me to say. The first part I can agree with, the second I must leave to others to judge. I am happy, though, to accept His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard’s description of me as ‘one of life’s natural activists’. As he said, human rights are too important to be negotiable. Much of my work will, of its nature, be conducted privately with governments. I will not raise my voice to make public comments if quiet diplomacy will achieve results. But neither will I compromise or hesitate to speak out if the occasion demands. In my position as High Commissioner for Human Rights I have assumed a burden of listening: listening to the pain and anguish of victims of violations; listening to the anxieties and fears of human rights defenders. I will go on listening and will continue to speak out for those who have no voice or whose voice is ignored.

Let me conclude by quoting from Aung San Suu Kyi, who in a very true sense lives the values she advocates: “At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilised humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power”.

Thank you again for this prize which I value and treasure very much. The monetary side of it will go in the collective responsibility of my office towards indigenous people, and I know that they will appreciate that very much. Thank you.