Theo van Boven reflects on 70 years United Nations

December 16, 2015

Theo van Boven – former Director of the UN Human Rights Division – was asked by the United Nations Association of the Netherlands to express his personal views of the UN and his role in the development of the human rights sector. Under the title “THE UNITED NATIONS AT THE AGE OF 70″ he said inter alia the following: 

Theo van Boven 2011

Theo van Boven 2011

  1. Personal involvement as well as trends and developments over a period of more than 40 Years

The common thread in all [my] positions – as a national delegate, an international civil servant and an independent expert – was the promotion and protection of human rights as a sensitive, complicated, and often controversial cause, already enshrined and affirmed in the UN Charter. During those years we witnessed far-reaching technological developments in communications. We observed and felt the effects of decolonization and the emergence of new powers beyond the Atlantic arena. The ominous effects of the so-called war on terror after 9/11 had a major impact on human security by the erosion of basic values and rights. Coping with the role of non-state actions, such as transnational corporations, business enterprises and private security agencies became a matter of increasing concern. The dismantling of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall gave new hope and inspiration but did not prevent new forms of segregation and separation. The recognition of gender perspectives came more emphatically to the forefront and in many ways civil society managed to influence policies at domestic, regional and international levels. More specific in the human rights area, there was a definite trend from exclusion to inclusion in standard setting, procedures and mechanisms, thus providing hope and redress to the vulnerable. This selection of trends and developments, albeit mentioned in an arbitrary and subjective order, all had an effect on the agenda of the United Nations.

  1. A specific memorable personal recollection

…the most striking event that took me by surprise, but not to everybody’s amazement, was the abrupt notification early February 1982 coming from the UN Secretary-General that my contract as UN Director of Human Rights, after five years of service in that position, would no more be renewed. In other words, I was dismissed. This event was a personal tragedy for myself and my family and a deception for a number of colleagues and collaborators. It received wide publicity after I announced this verdict from UN Headquarters in a plenary session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. My forced departure as, what some called ironically “the human rights czar”, drew wide public interest. I received numerous signs of solidarity from civil society organizations, parliamentarians and political leaders who in public statements and petitions expressed their dissatisfaction and concerns about the decision of the UN Leadership. As a farewell present friends and colleagues collected and edited the policy statements I delivered during my five years (1977-1982) as UN Director of Human Rights. These were published in a book entitled “People Matter” (Meulenhoff, 1982) [see link below]. More recently, in 2013, the same five years were visually recorded in a documentary with flashbacks in Argentina and Chile (directed by Ethan Films and produced by Human Rights in the Picture). In retrospect these five years were covering the most fascinating and rewarding episode in my professional life and I feel vindicated that in later years, when the days of the Cold War had gone, the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created. This mandate reflects in many respects the role I sought to play as a simple Director of Human Rights.

  1. United Nations: Strengths and Weaknesses

……Many remarkable developments can be traced back to initiatives and lobby campaigns by important sectors of civil society. Among such developments should be mentioned: making human rights more inclusive and accessible to the marginalized and the vulnerable, strengthening the rule of law and criminal justice, incorporating gender criteria in governance and decision-making, outlawing the production and use of abhorrent and indiscriminate weapons, devising means and methods of fact-finding and monitoring etc. etc. Thus, civil society groups and movements, who have made great progress in organizing themselves and have footholds in all continents, have become increasingly associated and involved with issues featuring on the UN agenda. This trend which combines elements of strength and weakness deserves full support and renders, as stated above, more legitimacy and credibility to the United Nations in the realization of its global mission.

  1. Prospects for the Future

First, the United Nations will not develop into a World Federation but, as a part of an evolutionary process, will gain legitimacy through the standards adopted with the aim of upholding peace and justice.

Second, the United Nations and its credibility will be enhanced by a higher degree of professional courage and leadership with due respect for Article 100 of the UN Charter underscoring the genuine international responsibilities of the Secretary-General and his/her staff.

Third, while the United Nations will remain the appropriate and competent institution and forum for bringing forward, as the Earth Charter put it, “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace”, regional arrangements in various parts of the world will become more instrumental in implementing the purposes and principles of the United Nations..

see also:

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