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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva, 14 December 1988

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva, 14 December 1988

14 December 1988

The human rights provisions of the United Nations Charter stand as historic recognition that the treatment by a State of its citizens is not a matter only of sovereign authority and domestic concern, but is a legitimate preoccupation of the international community. Forty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took this understanding a significant step further in offering a code of individual rights against which the conduct of a government towards its citizens could be measured. In doing so, it laid an important basis for a just and more equitable relationship between individuals and States.

At the time of its adoption, the Universal Declaration was hailed as a major symbolic achievement, even while it was clear that abuses of human rights would not henceforth disappear. There were some sceptics who pointed to its non-binding force and spoke in terms of ideals or aspirations with little likelihood of realisation. Yet international moral persuasion is a powerful moderator of government behaviour. Four decades later, it is clear that the force of the Universal Declaration extends far beyond its strict legal form. The years since have repeatedly proved its value as an authoritative statement of inalienable rights, an internationally agreed yardstick for measuring government behaviour and an inspirational source of more precise legal obligations. In all these senses, with some demonstrable success, it has functioned as a restraint on the natural excesses of States.

The Universal Declaration had its origins in recognition of the dignity and worth of the human person and in a determination to promote justice, social progress and peace. These are the same considerations which motivate international protection efforts on behalf of refugees. The philosophy and the standards of the Universal Declaration are integral to international efforts on behalf of refugees. They help to explain international concern and to structure protection efforts as well as solutions to refugee problems.

The protection of refugees proceeds within a framework of individual rights and State obligations and responsibilities. Freedom form persecution and the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, social origin or political opinion are not only basic tenets of the Universal Declaration, but are also of the essence of the refugee definition. The right to life, liberty and security of person; the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the right to freedom of movement and to leave and return to one's country; the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution; and the right to a nationality are among the fundamental rights of the Universal Declaration which are of particular relevance to the refugee situation. The rights of residence, whether civil or political, economic or social, are integral to any lasting solutions to refugee problems.

It is clear that the principles and rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration serve as the broad framework for protection activities on behalf of refugees. State obligations to refugees also, in large measure, derive from the rights recognized in the Declaration. The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which is the basic international instrument regulating the rights of refugees, declares its direct descendence from the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration in its first preambular paragraph. It goes on to lay down standards concerning such basic issues as non-discrimination, the practice of religion, the right of association, property and employment rights, welfare, freedom of movement, naturalisation, or expulsion or return (refoulement) to life threatening situations.

In the decades following adoption of this Convention, international refugee law has not remained static, but has continued to evolve, drawing directly on general human rights values and principles. These have found expression in additional refugee instruments or texts which provide further support for the international refugee protection structures. They include the 1969 OAU Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, for the Latin American region. The OAU Convention also recalls the Universal Declaration and is explicit in regard to certain responsibilities on States to facilitate or grant asylum. The Cartagena Declaration is particularly interesting in the present context for its recognition throughout of the complementarity between human rights instruments, their implementation mechanisms and the protection of refugees.

For their part, international human rights instruments, which progressively have given more precise, juridical form to the principles of the Universal Declaration, increasingly include refugee related provisions. The draft Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is currently undergoing its second reading, contains, for example, a provision on refugee children; the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture has a non-refoulement prohibition in Article 3. Moreover human rights bodies, including those set up pursuant to international human rights instruments to monitor implementation of these instruments, also now focus within the human rights framework on refugee protection problems. During its November session the Human Rights Committee raised such problems directly with government representatives. Within the context of international human rights debates in the UN General Assembly or the Commission on Human Rights, the nexus between violations of human rights and refugee exoduses has been repeatedly examined, including in relation to averting new refugee movements.

The Universal Declaration has had a fundamental impact on the framework and rules for the international protection of refugees precisely because of this direct and close connection between human tights and refugee problems. At its most recent session in October of this year, the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme took note, to use its words, of the "direct relationship between the observance of human rights standards, refugee movements and problems of protection". This observation reflected, inter alia, the long standing acknowledgement by the international community that violations of human rights, including in armed conflict situations, are among the principal causes of refugee movements. Moreover, the voluntary return of refugees in conditions of safety and dignity to countries of origin is not only fully consistent with the right to return as enshrined in the Universal Declaration, but is also increasingly recognized as the most desirable, long-term solution to any refugee problem. Restoration of acceptable human rights standards in countries of origin is, therefore, in many refugee situations, the key to any successful resolution of the problem. Equally important, major protection problems are posed by violations of the safety, security and fundamental rights of the refugees in countries of refuge.

Clearly, human rights considerations are directly relevant across the spectrum of the refugee problem. The safeguarding of refugee rights is a non-ideological and non-political undertaking, equally applicable in all regions and all countries of asylum. It is also a very pragmatic and operational activity, ranging as it does from the issuance of travel documents in one instance, to the prevention of rape and violence against women and children in small boats on the high seas in another. International monitoring of respect for the basic rights of refugees is a direct, day-to-day activity for UNHCR. In this respect, the increasing preparedness of governments to implement restrictive or discriminatory measures which undermine the institution of asylum, a cornerstone of international protection efforts on behalf of refugees and specifically provided for in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, is a fundamental challenge to the established responsibilities of my Office.

Mr. Chairman, what distinguishes the many millions of refugees in the world today from other victimized groups is their inability, be it temporary or otherwise, to return to their countries in security and their resulting dependence on international protection. The provision of this protection requires a co-operative effort by States, carried out through the agency of UNHCR and within the framework of agreed international responsibilities. Beyond these responsibilities, however, there is a moral dimension to refugee protection which States have explicitly recognized. Ultimately, the protection of refugees is not so much dependent on international conventions as it is on the collective conscience of nations. The first and most enduring international expression of this collective conscience was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.