Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Welcoming the downtrodden

Countries can enrich themselves by welcoming refugees.

The United Nations must create a sense of renewed purpose to protect the human rights of everyone

By Mary Robinson

Shortly before Human Rights Day in December, I recorded a television message to Ireland where there is currently an intense debate on asylum seekers and refugees. My initial argument was simple: that millions of Irish in the past 150 years were forced to seek a new life elsewhere and this exodus had been met with prejudice, rejection and hostility. I asked that Ireland should be sensitive to this historic role as a source of refugees by welcoming those seeking asylum from other lands.

My other point was more challenging. I argued that just as the Irish exodus enriched communities in North America and Australia, so Ireland can now be enriched by those seeking safety from persecution in Africa, eastern Europe or Asia.

In contributing to this special edition of Refugees Magazine, I take pleasure in becoming part of UNHCR's refugee work and protection of their human rights. This advocacy role underlines what UNHCR and my Office have in common - a commitment to the protection of the rights of individuals and to the international obligation to respect those rights.

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees elaborates on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." The Convention was the first in a series of treaties which turned the ideals of the Declaration into legally binding obligations. The language of the Convention is clear and compelling, defining a refugee as someone with a 'well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

The evolution of international standards in human rights and in refugee law has produced an obligation to protect individuals who are forced to seek asylum. The admission of asylum seekers, their treatment and the granting of refugee status are, themselves, crucial elements of the international system of protection of human rights. Protecting, ensuring and enhancing these rights are at the core of UNHCR's work.

Increasingly, our common concern covers not only refugees but the internally displaced. There are recent examples of both groups returning to areas where the causes of their flight - inevitably involving human rights violations - are still present. Return under such circumstances is bound to be not only short-lived, but often dangerous. The Secretary-General's Representative on internally displaced, Francis Deng, is finalising a set of Guiding Principles addressing protection against arbitrary displacement, protection for the internally displaced and protection for returning displaced persons.

It is no coincidence that in the last four years major human rights offices have been established in countries where there have been large-scale movements of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people including Rwanda, Cambodia, Angola, Burundi and Colombia. Human rights field officers there help train justice officials, work with local authorities and communities to prevent or remedy human rights abuses and help develop and strengthen local organizations and institutions. This is crucial work in consolidating peace and stability and establishing the basis for truly durable solutions to refugee problems.

Another area of common commitment is the development of human rights law - maintaining and asserting the continuing relevance of established standards to contemporary situations. In this anniversary year, I believe we should see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a "living document" - one which speaks directly to today's world, demanding greater reflection and more committed implementation.

The alternative is that Declarations, covenants and conventions become little more than transitory snapshots of rights as understood at a particular time and place. UNHCR has been assiduous in keeping fresh the obligations of the 1951 Convention on the status of Refugees and its regional counterpart, the 1969 OAU Convention governing the situation of refugees in Africa.

UNHCR must ensure that international protection is extended to refugees in accordance with the terms of these conventions. Perseverance and ingenuity are needed to remind and persuade governments to fulfil their obligations under these instruments. As part of its task of supervising States' implementation of these treaties, UNHCR has to ensure that the obligations are interpreted in a manner consistent with their essential object and purpose: the protection of rights.

This work is part of a wider United Nations dialogue with governments and civil society aimed at eliminating abuses and protecting rights. The current structure of international human rights treaty obligations and the mechanisms established by the Commission on Human Rights provide powerful tools for analysing problems and proposing remedial action.

The ties that bind my office with UNHCR are obvious, but it is important we go further and recognize the role of human rights in all aspects of U.N. work. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has scheduled a Spring meeting of senior officials from all agencies in the U.N. to explore the challenge of mainstreaming human rights throughout the system. Mr. Annan has a very clear understanding of the impact of human rights and has been forthright in expressing it: "Human rights are the expression of those traditions of tolerance in all cultures that are the basis of peace and progress. Human rights, properly understood and justly interpreted, are foreign to no culture and native to all nations. It is the universality of human rights that gives them their strength and endows them with the power to cross any border, climb any wall, defy any force."

As we work jointly towards the attainment and maintenance of all human rights - civil and political, economic, social and cultural and the right to development - and as we further coordinate our actions, we can and must create a sense of renewed purpose throughout the United Nations system, inspired and impelled by the principles of the Universal Declaration.

Mary Robinson is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)