UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

We finish the first decade of the post-Cold War era decidedly discouraged. Instead of a peace dividend and a new unity in achieving common objectives, the century closed with a series of savage conflicts in the Balkans, the horror of the Rwandan genocide with recurrent conflicts in the Caucasus, massive displacement in Colombia and largely-ignored misery across the African continent.

Clearly there is an imperative to do things differently in the next century, to think in new ways on how governments, corporations, international and regional organisations respond to challenges to human security and human rights.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has offered valuable intellectual leadership by proposing limits to state sovereignty and introducing new definitions of the national interest of states. He has also consistently underlined the importance of human rights in peace and security issues, and thus played a key role in putting human rights at the centre of international affairs.

Still more is needed. There must be an end to the paradigm of the 1990s where interventions by armed forces stopped atrocities only after the fact and then donor governments were asked to contribute billions of dollars to rebuild shattered societies.

There is agreement that any new approach must be based on prevention – an idea which is normal in all cultures and societies. The assumption is that accidents and disasters can be avoided if you think ahead while preparing for the worst. This common sense thinking is advanced by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ana Lindh who argued that it is high time to transfer and strengthen the sophisticated preventive habits we know so well at home into the field of international security.

If we accept this argument and the proposition that today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts, it follows that reports of such violations should compel action. We go into the next century well equipped – with internationally accepted, legally-codified definitions of human rights, a network of reporting mechanisms from the Special Rapporteurs appointed by the Commission on Human Rights, the major non-governmental organisations and the work of individual human rights defenders.

My office is also fostering the development of independent national human rights institutions to help embed a culture of human rights to reduce the risk of systematic violations.

All that is lacking for real progress in prevention is a willingness to engage in work which is long term and usually low profile. Indeed, successful prevention will often go unnoticed and unrewarded. It involves diplomatic and economic engagements and measures of arms control, including small arms, which are based on the broadest view of national interest. Engagements which ensure that the fault lines in a society are recognised so that economic assistance programmes fill in those fault lines rather than wedge them further apart. It means encouraging policies which put housing, medical care and education for all at the centre of national priorities, recognising that these too are basic human rights.

Although the view back is discouraging, it can serve to strengthen our resolve going forward. As we worked so hard in the 1990s to alleviate the suffering of millions, the task ahead is to work more effectively to prevent that suffering.