Header image for news printout

"Stand up and join the struggle to uphold human rights"

Statement by Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the ISFIT student festival in Norway

9 February 2017

I am delighted to be in Trondheim for this opening of ISFiT the “International Student Festival in Trondheim”. 

Thank you for this wonderful panel and for your attention. Thank you for understanding the importance of our coming together – in all our diversity - thank you for building bridges when others are building walls.  Thank you for understanding the power of words of kindness, the dangers of weapons of hate, and the nourishment that only tolerance, engagement and acceptance provides. Thank you for recognizing in each other and in all those around us that which we hold in common, that we are born equal in dignity and rights.

Human rights?  Look, human rights are but a binding definition of what it means to be human.  Medicine gives us the scientific concepts that define our anatomy, physiology, musculature.  Human rights give us the legal and values based concepts - collective and internationally interpreted definitions – that recognize each of us as precious, unique, equal. 

And if these conditions, which are human rights upheld, are met, then we can flourish; we can live without fear, without discrimination, express ourselves vocally, intimately, intellectually.  Access food, shelter, justice, identity, participation.  Exercise our rights to freedom and use our freedom to exercise our rights.

Every single country who joined the UN freely signed onto these basic principles – enshrined in the UDHR.  Those principles do not prevent our diversity – they protect it.  They do not limit our expression, they ensure it.  They do not limit our access to culture or belief – they guarantee those things and they set the terms under which our rights may be exercised without cost to the exercise of any other person’s rights.

The opposite of human rights upheld?  Selfishness, bigotry, injustice, tyranny and oppression - toxic paving stones laying down the path to suffering, deprivation, violence and ultimately war.  
Contempt for the stranger; hatred of the foreigner; distrust of those who look or love or worship differently … aided by clampdowns on freedom of the press; stepped-up surveillance on cyber space and on public movement; the closure of national borders to people fleeing persecution; the gagging of activists and the deprivation of essential services – the pounding of these fists grows louder on the doors of our privacy, our mental and physical integrity and against our freedom.  It must be resisted.

After all, humanity has traveled down this toxic path before.  We know it leads to a dead end – to death-ridden ends.  Small acts of every day contempt inflate into brutal intimidation and discrimination against the “other”, and flourish into common every day violence, fueling a persecution that leads to open conflict.

Maybe at this moment, these matters appear to be about political parties.  And for sure there are certain parties’ politicians pedaling pernicious policies in a pugnacious pursuit of power.  But actually, it is not about one political party versus another.

Maybe it appears to be about one leader’s characteristics or approach in contrast to another’s - the victor perhaps as compared to the vanquished.  And for sure there are leaders, across all walks of life - lavishing themselves with license for a lecherous looting of power's spoils.  But actually, it is not about one leader versus another.

Perhaps this appears to be about economic systems - the capricious and callous, cash-coveting, cruelty of capitalism or of communism.  But it is not just a question of one economic system versus another.

As we meet, and for as far as the eye can see, more fundamentally than one particular election, one government, one president, one economic system, we are engaged in a deep struggle.  In this struggle, there is no north or south, right or left, east or west.   There is only the humane and the inhumane.

Our rights to not be subjected to hate, to violence or discrimination. Rights!  From the court room to the board room to the school room to the bed room. That is what hangs in the balance.

It is a fallacy that walls and fences erode our obligations to each others’ rights.  Walls within the human family, on a small and distressed planet in a globalized world, with the largest population of youngest people in all of human history?  Walls are untruths. There is no country on this planet at this time in this interconnected world that can rightfully stand apart, bury its head or absent itself from the table of rights-filled solutions.

Friends, you don’t have to be like me to respect my rights.  I don’t have to be like you to uphold your rights.  We do not have to approve of each other to defend each other’s rights.  Rights are not a beauty parade, a reward system or a prize for good behavior.  They are not the dispensation of the powerful to the powerless.  Rights are for the best and the worst of us, for each and every one of us, to the exclusion of none of us, in the interests of all of us.

And they must be defended.  So… what can and must we do? Stand up!  Use our rights to defend our rights.

In this, take heart.  It may be a most poor and withered thing – yet even in the darkest cells of the cruellest prison; in fragile settlements perched high on remote mountain tops; in the centre of resource-depleted refugee camps; scampering along the barely shoulder-wide alley ways of sprawling slums; among street workers, stall owners, farm labours and indigenous peoples  – there exists – even without a single well-intentioned, carefully-measured intervention by global elites – there exists - however, sputtering, or flickering; however overshadowed by coercive State power; still, there you will find people standing up for rights.

So come on - we too can stand up.  We can be

  • Doctors who provide dignified access to care irregardless of the patients’s identity or social status.
  • Lawyers who cherish the rule of law – equality before the courts and judicial independence;
  • Journalists who love truth; who prize evidence and protect fact no diversify voice.
  • Scientists who pursue knowledge without fear or favour, but deploy its fruits for the betterment of a planet under strain, a climate undergoing horrendous change and a people undergoing inconceivable suffering;
  • Innovators and creators –  to replace more rapidly unfairness and exclusion with something more equal, inclusive and more sustainable.
  • Dissidents who speak truth to power, seeking first not our own elevation but rather the elevation of that in which we believe, that we know to be true.

We can be:

  • Artists who disturb, provoke, illuminate and enchant. 
  • Lovers who seek each others’ consent first.
  • Philosophers who seek to understand and thereby erode our ancient practices of cruelty against each other; 
  • Workers for rights more than consumers of entitlements. 

 (hash tag) Standup for some’s rights today!

The American black-rights activist and singer Billy Holliday stood up for rights when she sang against lynching in the southern states of the US.   “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”.

On the trees of a world that flourishes xenophobia and bigotry, strange fruit hangs.  Strange fruit budding on populist trees – assassinations of human rights defenders and of journalists; arbitrary detention of political dissidents; removal of activists’ passports; rejection of the refugee in flight; daily, banal cruelties of discriminations passing unremarked.

Come on - Stand up!  Every day, in any way – stand up.

Yes, they do hunt down the dissidents.  They do lock up the truth-telling journalists.  They do bar the law-loving lawyers.  And they may again “torch every book; char every page of reason; turn every loving and tolerant word to ash.”  But please know, even so, if we stand up together in and for rights – we will be incombustible. 

Oh?  And rights? – just remember - use ‘em or lose ‘em.