“We must focus not on our successes but on our failures”

Kofi Annan. Photo: World Economic Forum. flickrLast week Lund University together with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and the Association of Foreign Affairs had the honour to host a lecture on Implementing Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law – the Individual Responsibility in memory of Raoul Wallenberg. Among others, the speakers at the lecture included Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi A. Annan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström.

Naturally all of them honoured the work and memory of Raoul Wallenberg, especially Annan who has a family connection to Wallenberg through his wife, Nane Annan.

Pillay spoke enthusiastically of the projects and efforts presented by her office.  Among other things she mentioned their success in including human rights in the revised Millennium Goals.

Annan was not equally eager to talk about his accomplishments. Instead, he said

“We must focus not on our successes but on our failures. We must always ask ourselves: what more can we do?”. Even though the world has left the dark period under which Rauol Wallenberg operated, Annan mentioned the failure to prevent conflict in Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.

“Civilians continue to be killed and targeted in too many places around the world. Thousands of them remain unjustly imprisoned. Human rights violations, crimes against humanity and war crimes go unpunished in Sri Lanka, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ”, Annan said.

In theory, international law and institutions are effective means to prevent genocide and war crimes. Still there is abuse and torture, human trafficking, and targeting of civilians during conflicts. These were some of the failures that Annan shared. 

According to Annan there is no good or bad timing for implantation of human rights in a conflict or potential conflict areas.

“If we protect human rights we have a better chance to avoid armed conflict. And if we through peaceful means can end conflicts that do erupt we protect human rights.”  Annan was concerned with the contrasting messages of the international community; on the one hand encouraging individuals to take a stand against human rights violations (like Rauol Wallenberg’s actions) and on the other hand ignoring these individuals when they are in need of that support.

“We must speak out against these double standards”, he said.

Margot Wallström and Navi Pillay. Photo: Sara-Stina BergstedtMargot Wallström has also stated that determined individuals hold the key to stopping violations of human rights. In her work, with regard to sexual violence in conflict areas, there are examples of sexual violence in conflict areas all over the world and throughout history.

“Sexual violence in conflict is neither cultural nor sexual, it is criminal, and needs to be treated as such”. The blame is too often put on the assaulted victim, which, according to Wallström, becomes a problem for the whole community; even though women are most commonly the victims, men and boys too are victimized, indirectly.

Even though Annan shared areas of failure in the field of human rights he emphasized the need to remain optimistic. According to Annan the improvements of dialogue in conflict has decreased the number of deaths in conflict. As an example he mentioned R2P (Responsibility to Protect), which declares that if a state is unable to protect the population’s human rights – the UN should do so.

“State sovereignty is no longer an absolute shield behind which governments can hide …

We must be ready to use all diplomatic means and sanctions to protect people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” , he said.

Pillay pointed out the importance of rhetoric in her work, as well as, off course, taking action. She mentioned twitter-campaigns against racism as an effective mean to reach masses of people. However, she understands that her credibility depends on her office’s ability to respond, being independent and giving service on the ground. According to her an important part of her work is to facilitate implementation of human rights.

“We strive to work from rhetoric to practice.”, she said.

Neither Kofi Annan nor Navi Pillay were taken by surprise when the Arab Spring erupted last year. The fact that instabillity is fuelled in places where human rights are being ignored is well known. Annan pointed out that the world has been alerted of these conditions for a long time.

Pillay broadened the subject of human rights to include events both within and outside conflict areas.

“Sometimes it seems that political and economic leaders have forgotten that health care, education, housing and access to justice are not commodities for sale for some. Rather, they are rights to which all are entitled without discrimination.”, she said.

Following the lecture discussions started in the University building. Students, who represented the majority of the audience, will hopefully be inspired by these three prominent persons in the human rights field. Even though there was a feeling of admiration stemming from both the listeners, eagerly photographing Annan and the other dignitaries, as well as from the lecturers, honouring Wallenberg, there was still room for criticism; Annan admitted failure and critical questions were posed towards the lecturers.



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