“Human rights are the heartbeat of humanity” Remarks on the occasion of the opening of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council (en)

Bern, 03.03.2014 - Genf, 03.03.2014 - Rede von Bundespräsident Didier Burkhalter - Es gilt das gesprochene Wort

Mr Secretary-General,
Mr President of the General Assembly,
Mr President of the Human Rights Council,
Madam High Commissioner,
Ladies and Gentlemen, and dear friends,

On behalf of the government and people of Switzerland, I would like to extend to you a cordial welcome to Geneva for this, the 25th regular session of the Human Rights Council. It is an honour to receive your here and to address you.

Human rights: they are the very heartbeat of humanity. They are fundamental rights, held by every one of us, by virtue of our own humanity. They are universal rights and all human beings must be protected by them, without discrimination based, in particular, on race, on gender, or on religion. Human rights are also rights that are pre-state, inalienable, and indivisible. No one – no state or any other actor – may take away from any human being his or her fundamental rights.

But this shining vision is not something that can be taken for granted: in real life, respect for human rights is never fully guaranteed. Safeguarding these rights is an ongoing struggle; just as liberty must be won through struggle – in times of peace, and all the more so in situations of conflict.

In armed conflicts, even the minimum standards of respect for human dignity and human life are made a mockery of. This is today, sadly, still the case, 150 years after the entry into effect of the First Geneva Convention, which bore witness to a desire to impose rules on war and to preserve a modicum of humanity even in the midst of conflict. 

One need not – regrettably – look far to find numerous examples in the world today:

- After nearly three years of fighting, in which the violence has been extreme, the situation in Syria is of the utmost seriousness. Switzerland calls first and foremost for a continuation of the political dialogue. A settlement of the conflict is possible only by political means. Switzerland also condemns the violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights, regardless of who has committed them; and, on behalf of the countless victims in that country, Switzerland calls on all of the parties to the conflicts to respect, and to ensure respect for, human rights and international humanitarian law. In view of the impunity that has reigned in Syria since the start of the crisis, there is a need to allow justice to take its course, as has already been urged by some 60 countries in a request that the situation in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court.   

Switzerland is of the opinion that the mandate of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria should be extended, considering that the ongoing effort to systematically document violations of international law in Syria is of crucial importance. A sustainable peace will be able to grow only if rooted in the soil of truth, justice, and reconciliation.

- In the Central African Republic, for nearly a full year, the entire civil population has suffered massive violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law. Switzerland supports the UN Security Council Resolution calling for the rapid establishment of an independent International Commission of Inquiry, and also supports the mandate of the Independent Expert on the human rights situation in the Central African Republic.

The struggle against impunity is indispensable to the restoration of a lasting peace in that country, and the perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights must be brought to justice in national or, if need be, in international proceedings.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Syria and the Central African Republic are but two examples of the massive and systematic violations that take place in times of war, and which remind us that prevention of such violations remains one of the primary challenges facing the international community.

Because of this, Switzerland supports the Secretary-General’s “Rights Up Front” initiative aimed at improving the UN’s capacity to protect civilians, particularly before and in the very early stages of crises, by placing human rights at the heart of its prevention and response strategies. This is an ambitious plan of action requiring that the UN’s human rights pillar be further reinforced, an effort to which Switzerland fully subscribes.

At the same time, however, it remains a matter of concern that the human rights pillar is underfunded in the UN’s regular budget. This situation places restraints on the activities of the High Commissioner’s Office and makes them overly dependent on voluntary contributions.

When speaking of human rights in times of armed conflict, there is one group that is particularly vulnerable, and whose rights are an issue that is especially close to my heart: the children. The sufferings of children in war can take a thousand forms. Instead of being allowed to dream their futures, they are compelled to live a nightmare. Instead of going to school, they are, far too often, recruited to take part in the fighting. It is estimated that no less than 250,000 children are currently serving in the armed forces of governments or armed groups.

The involvement of minors in armed conflicts leaves serious scars, a lasting mark not only on the lives of the children but also on the society as a whole. Because of this, Switzerland intends to make the struggle against the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers a high priority in its human rights policy.

Switzerland strongly encourages those states that have not yet done so to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in Armed Conflict.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I address you today also in my capacity as Chairperson-in-Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, as a regional organisation under the terms of Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter, works to contribute to the UN’s efforts to maintain or restore peace, security, and stability at the international level. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognised for the first time that violations of human rights constitute as much of a threat to stability and security as do arms and economic crisis. Today, this multi-dimensional concept of security is more relevant than ever. Because of this, a primary focus of the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE is to strengthen cooperation between regional organisations and the UN in order to improve implementation on the ground of international norms relating to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

The recent events that have unfolded before our eyes in Ukraine have shown that security, peace, and human rights are not fully assured in Europe either.

Those events have demonstrated the need for promoting dialogue, restoring confidence, reaffirming common values, and rebuilding bridges between the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian regions.

It is important that we unite our efforts to support Ukraine in this difficult period. I urge all participating States to respect the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, especially the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine within its existing and internationally recognized borders. A stable, democratic, and united Ukraine is in the interest of all. It is against this background that the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE has proposed the creation of an international contact group for Ukraine.

The main task of the contact group will be to support Ukraine in this period of transition. The group will act as a platform for the coordination and exchange of information on international aid and project-related activities in Ukraine. The impartiality and inclusiveness that characterise the OSCE make it particularly well suited to host and provide guidance for such a group. This is all the more so, given that Ukraine and all of the international actors involved in the crisis are participating States of the OSCE.

We are currently making a concerted effort to set up this contact group and call on all of principal actors to join us in this endeavour. This very morning, a Special Permanent Council meeting is being held at the OSCE in Vienna to discuss this subject - as well as other ideas such as the dispatch of an OSCE observer mission to Ukraine that would focus on minorities and human rights.

With regard to the human rights situation, I encourage the Ukrainian government to invite the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to send an on-site mission to make an assessment of the human rights situation and, in particular, to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the incidents that have taken place in Ukraine. This mission would then recommend measures for dealing with any serious violations of human rights that may have been committed during the crisis. The mission would also prepare a report on its conclusions for promoting national reconciliation in Ukraine.

I have also named Ambassador Tim Guldimann to serve as my personal envoy to Ukraine. He will coordinate, on behalf of the Chairmanship, all present or future OSCE activities in Ukraine.

Turning to North Korea, the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea are a source of grave concern. The Commission has established that serious and systematic violations of human rights and crimes against humanity are being committed on a large scale in that country.

The international community cannot remain indifferent and must find an adequate and urgent response to a situation that, in the words of the High Commissioner, is without parallel in the contemporary world. Switzerland supports the Commission’s recommendations, including that of referring the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Violations of human rights in times of war and crisis are often highly visible. But this must not lead us to forget that most countries are at peace, and that human rights are nevertheless also violated there. Switzerland sees as a matter of particular concern acts of repression, which are carried out, sometimes violently, in the context of peaceful protest.

During the past year, thousands of political activists have faced trial, under the pretext of anti-terrorism laws, without any solid legal basis. Freedom of association, assembly, and expression are essential elements of the rule of law.

No individual should face charges, be threatened, or subjected to abuse or intimidation for participating in a peaceful demonstration.
Working with the Human Rights Council, Switzerland seeks to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protest. It will be presenting a third resolution at this 25th session. The principal aim of that resolution is to establish guidelines for facilitating the protection of non-violent protest, based upon good practices.

Civil society plays a crucial role in the implementation of international obligations and commitments undertaken by states with regard to human rights – and its place in the public sphere must be preserved. Our governments must listen to their citizens and respond to their demands.
It is in this spirit that Switzerland has made civil society a central focus of its activities during its Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2014. The need to strengthen the voice of civil society for the protection of human rights will, indeed, be the subject of a conference that the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE will host in Bern on the 10th and 11th of June this year.

As technology has evolved, our societies have gained greater awareness of the right of freedom expression. More and more people in the world are taking part in public debates that were once the preserve of members of the elite or of journalists. This is a positive development that we must welcome.

The men and women around the world who are working to increase awareness and respect for human rights merit our support. For it is they who take often very high risks, in dangerous situations, to help their fellow citizens be able live their lives in dignity. It is for this reason that Switzerland has prepared a set of guidelines for strengthening the international commitment on behalf of human rights activists.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We can no longer imagine daily life without electronic communication. It opens possibilities never before imagined, encourages the global exchange of information, and promotes participation in democracy.

But, both states and corporations are gathering data in large quantities. Complete surveillance of the conduct of individuals is becoming increasingly simple from a technological point of view. Complex personality profiles can be created on the basis of seemingly insignificant data and can be used to predict future conduct. Making human beings as transparent as a glass is no longer a utopian vision, but a real technological possibility.

Protection of the private sphere is a fundamental pillar of every democratic society and must be respected also in virtual space.

Ensuring the protection of the private sphere poses a formidable challenge to states and corporations in the use of global digital communication. We must do everything possible to meet that challenge. For, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would sacrifice liberty for security are likely, in the end, to lose both. This is equally true in today’s digital age.

Discussions conducted this past week at an expert seminar organised by Switzerland together with six other countries have prepared the ground for a debate on this subject, which will be held under the auspices of this Council in the coming months.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The promotion and protection of human rights is an undertaking that requires stamina. Human rights do not become a reality on their own, but must be fought for and preserved through long struggle.

We, the peoples of the United Nations, bear the responsibility for human rights. Here, within the framework of the United Nations we have important instruments at our disposal. We must put them to the best possible use so that they can help us to fulfil our obligations.

For what is lacking is respect for, and the effective implementation of even the most basic human rights. It is here that the commitment of the international community is required.

Switzerland is doing its part to help improve respect for human rights throughout the world. The protection and promotion of human rights is a value of central importance in all Swiss policy.

I would like to express my warm thanks to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Madam Navi Pillay, and to all those who work beside her, for the tremendous achievements they have made over the past years. You may rest assured that his successor as head of the Office of the High Commissioner will enjoy the continued support of Switzerland in pursuing these invaluable efforts with strength and independence.

It is in this spirit that Switzerland will continue to support and reinforce the Human Rights Council. And it is in this same spirit that Switzerland will be presenting its candidature for re-election as a member of the Council for the 2016-2018 term.

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