"At the centre of global governance: seeking a life of dignity for every human being"

Bern, 02.03.2015 - Geneva, 02.03.2015: Address by Mr Didier Burkhalter, Federal Councillor, on the occasion of the opening of the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council - Check against delivery

High Commissioner,
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues and friends,

I once again have the great pleasure to wish you a warm welcome. Welcome to Switzerland! And to Geneva, which is in a way the home of the Human Rights Council.

Welcome to this – most crucial – debate. Because no achievement can ever be taken for granted. Even the freedoms for which so many people have earnestly fought over the centuries. Even the inalienable rights of all human beings; the rights we call human rights; the rights whose existence fills us with pride, the rights that protect that which is most dear to every one of us: human dignity.

Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. They apply to all of us in equal measure, in all regions of the world and in every situation. We must reaffirm this with vigor – and drive it home – at a time in which human rights are called into question and relativised, and in which their universal nature is being challenged.

This relativisation has become a serious danger whose consequences can be felt all over the world in several ways: freedom of expression is restricted; censorship and self-censorship are increasingly widespread; there is growing intolerance; dialogue and mutual understanding are breaking down as a result of prejudice, accusations and the desire for revenge.

Last year, as the chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (the OSCE), I saw how fundamental rights are under pressure in many countries. The freedom of the press, the freedom of peaceful assembly and the activities of human rights defenders are among the many areas undermined. We must fight with conviction for fundamental freedoms, which is what Switzerland is doing.

Human rights underpin shared values based on tolerance towards different religions, ideologies and ways of life. We need to fully embrace this tolerance, and stand up for it here first of all – at home, in our everyday lives. When these universal values come under attack, when they are met with hatred and intolerance, to reaffirm and strengthen them is the best defence. Tolerance and the acceptance of difference is what makes our open, liberal society strong. We must retain this strength.

When human rights are under pressure, stability and peace are undermined. And that is certainly what is happening today…

Human rights threatened by instability

In 2015 a multitude of crises are raging around the globe. Behind every refugee and internally displaced person is an individual human tragedy. And there haven’t been this many tragedies since the Second World War…

Nearly a million people have been displaced by the crisis in Ukraine; more than 11 million children, women and men have had to flee their homes as a result of this protracted civil war in Syria. This international environment is fertile ground for arbitrary acts and human rights violations and abuse from all quarters. We must pay even more attention to this situation and work even harder to help the Syrian refugees and to find a political solution to the Ukraine crisis.

Switzerland works hard to ensure human rights are respected at all times, to ensure the protection of men and women even in international crises and armed conflicts. Two examples :

• The first is torture. To commit inhuman acts, even under the pretext of the struggle against barbarity, feeds the spiral of violence. We need to act without ever undermining the strength of our values.
Nothing justifies the use of torture and other punishments or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment anywhere in the world, even in situations as tragic as in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine. 
Switzerland is strongly committed to preventing torture under any circumstances; it made preventing torture one of the priorities of the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship last year and will pursue this strong commitment.

• The next is humanitarian law. Human rights are particularly at threat during armed conflicts.  Alongside human rights, specific provisions – those of international humanitarian law – apply in the context of armed conflict.  Humanitarian law limits the methods and means used to wage war and protects the injured, war prisoners and civilian populations.  Nearly 200 states are party to the Geneva Conventions and have undertaken to "respect and ensure respect" for the conventions.
The Geneva Conventions and the human values they embody are truly universal.  Nevertheless, they are regularly flouted.  That is why Switzerland has launched a joint initiative with the ICRC to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law.  We are counting on everyone’s support to push through the outcome of the initiative this year at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. 

Human rights threatened by terrorism

Human rights are not only threatened in countries in crisis. Anywhere terrorism exists, human rights are at threat. They are threat from terrorist groups that attack our basic values in the name of obscure ideology.

What could possibly be sadder or more depraved than forcing little girls to blow themselves up in a market place full of people? What could be more cruel than to launch an attack on young school pupils preparing for life’s challenges? What could be more cowardly than to seek to silence free speech? What could be more intolerant than to seek to destroy the symbols of whatever religion and to attack those who practice it – be they Jewish, Muslim or other.

We need to do more; and we need to do things differently, too. We need to fight the root causes of terrorism and to face up to terrorism through our values by reaffirming human rights around the world.

Two additional examples of Switzerland's commitment:

- First, preventing violent extremism, which is one of Switzerland's counterterrorism priorities. We are working to offer alternatives to terrorism, especially to young people who might be tempted to commit terrorist acts by a lack of prospects or alternatives.
For this reason, Switzerland supports the efforts of the GCERF (Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund). This new public-private partnership initiative was launched a year ago in Geneva. It aims to implement a long-term strategy to encourage the private sector to create more jobs and thus better prospects to reduce the attraction of all kinds of extremism.
Switzerland has long practised the inclusion of all sections of society through education and employment. This is the best way to prevent people from turning to violence while at the same time promoting human rights.

- Second, Switzerland strives for the abolition of the death penalty, which is not an effective or credible response to terrorism. It does not make society safer. If we answer barbarity with barbarity, we allow terrorism to win. Here too, we must confront it with our values, and not with helpless hatred. That is why Switzerland strives for worldwide abolition of the death penalty by 2025.

Human rights threatened by authoritarian states

International crises and terrorism pose a threat to human rights. Moreover, basic rights are under pressure when states give in to arbitrary rule and violence.

Limiting the space for civil society through laws that restrict outside sources of funding or by creating a climate of fear: all of that will only take us backwards. To move forward together, it up to us to show the importance of a strong and free civil society, and to protect human rights defenders and give them a voice.

Strengthening human rights institutions

All of us in the international community must help states to shoulder their responsibility to respond to human rights violations and prevent them from taking place. Four elements are central to this: resources, an agenda, the fight against impunity and the involvement of non-state actors.
First, the resources: the "human rights pillar" is one of the three pillars of the United Nations system alongside the pillar of development and that of peace and security. However the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is impeded by a chronic lack of resources in carrying out activities mandated by the Human Rights Council and other UN organisations. We need to be more coherent and the UN must invest more in human rights.

Second, the agenda: the discussions currently under way to define the post-2015 sustainable development agenda are a major opportunity to strengthen human rights at the global level.  The process must set out and adopt a robust agenda anchored in human rights that places the most vulnerable, in particular women and children at the forefront of states' preoccupations, and at the centre of global governance.  The international community must firmly commit to seeking a life of dignity for every person on the planet.

Third, taking action against impunity, which is a prerequisite for a society respectful of human rights. The Human Rights Council has put in place a number of instruments in this regard.

Independent commissions of inquiry, for example. On the margins of this session, Switzerland will jointly launch a practical guide for the members of future fact-finding committees to help them in their difficult task of monitoring violations and the protection of victims.
Fourth, the inclusion of non-state actors: the efforts of the international community in favour of human rights must include non-state actors. The role of private business and civil society stakeholders is essential.

With so many global challenges, we simply have to work together; pool our resources to implement solutions, while recognising our weaknesses and differences. Almost exactly one hundred years ago at a time when the world was embroiled in a serious crisis, the President of the Swiss Confederation at the time called on us to "overcome that which divides us and cultivate that which unites us". Today, I ask you to do the same – to overcome that which divides us and cultivate that which unites us.

It is in this sense that Switzerland wants to focus its efforts; and that my country is submitting its candidacy to become a member of the Human Rights Council for the 2016-2018 period.  And in this sense too, Switzerland wants to shoulder its responsibility, strengthen dialogue and promote constructive debate that includes different perspectives, to help protect and promote our most valuable achievement: human rights.

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