This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

  June 1998    

Mary Robinson targets gap between civil and economic rights
Our human rights achievements - when we remember the genocides and the continuing conditions of absolute poverty in the world around us - are a cause for shame," declared Mary Robinson (photo), the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, who gave the keynote address at the Symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, that was jointly hosted by the UNU and Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such major anniversaries provide an opportunity to examine what has been achieved and to reflect on what needs to be accomplished. Ms. Robinson explained to those attending the opening event on 27 January that there is still too much to be done in the field of human rights to rest on past laurels. "There is a huge gap between aspiration and genuine achievement," she said. "We must match rhetoric with action."

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a ground-breaking document. It laid the conceptual foundation for international human rights law and has charted the UN's human rights agenda for the past 50 years. It is different from previous constitutional documents, such as the Magna Carta or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in two important ways. It was the first articulation of rights and freedoms for everyone, regardless of nationality or residence; and it considers political and economic rights to be interdependent. "However, we must be honest and recognize that there has been an imbalance at the international level in the promotion of political and economic rights," Ms. Robinson said, adding "I have committed myself as High Commissioner for Human Rights to work toward redressing that imbalance."

A big part of this disparity stems from the fact that human rights were largely ignored by the Security Council during the Cold War. The Council's permanent members tended to disregard abuses by sovereign nations on their own soil. That has changed as the part of the UN Charter that tells meddlesome governments to keep out of other countries' business is less limiting than it was, as seen in the case of Iraq. And human rights are increasingly becoming the cornerstone of some states' foreign policies. Rich nations frequently use foreign aid as a lever to promote political pluralism and individual freedoms.

This has caused alarm in some developing countries. The rich North and the poor South, it is argued, have different priorities. For the South, the right to economic development is what matters. According to this view, the North should stop complaining about juridical lapses or dictatorial ways and instead do something about low commodity prices and the debt burdens that make the poor even poorer.

Ms. Robinson pointed out that, in theory, the UN's 1948 definition of human rights embraces everything from arbitrary arrest to an adequate standard of living. But, as she made clear, the twin human rights covenants - the ones concerning civil rights and economic rights - are by no means equal. She cited examples of instruments used for upholding civil rights: working groups look into "disappearances" and rapporteurs are attached to particularly controversial countries. Unfortunately, there are no such mechanisms for setting economic abuses right.

Governments argue that it is easier for an authoritarian regime to carry out economic restructuring than for a democratic one. However, Ms. Robinson's keynote address emphasized some distinctions that need to be made.

Rights are not the same as goals. Almost everyone thinks it desirable that jobs, housing, education and medical care should be available to all. But gifts such as these cannot be awarded to everybody, either by judges or by the most generous governments. The best that societies can do it to strive to achieve them.

Rights are different: they can be given by passing laws or adopting international declarations, and taken away just as easily. As Ms. Robinson said, "rights are the weapons of the weak against the strong."

Keeping the heat down in Kyoto Contents Towards a greener UN in the 21st Century