Sandrine Salerno: The City of Geneva in the Fight for Human Rights and the Eradication of Torture and Ill-Treatment
Dear Kofi Annan,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to the Palais Eynard, which, as you know, is our City Hall. Thank you for being here so that Geneva can pay the World Organisation Against Torture the tribute it deserves.
And with this tribute we also express our gratitude. What you have built for the defence of human rights, ladies and gentlemen, and in particular for the fight against torture, against summary executions, against forced disappearances, and against all kinds of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – it is important to spell out precisely the scope of your action – is unique in terms of its extent and its solidity.
As Mayor of Geneva, I formally thank and congratulate you, and most especially you, Mr. Secretary-General, who will pass on the baton this year. You have been both the soul and the pilot of OMCT for all this time, in Geneva, of course, but also all over the world!
What you have built over 25 years is of great historic importance. Your modesty perhaps keeps you from appreciating the true worth of your organisation. And it is doubtless necessary to take a quick look back to understand its reach.
Twenty-five years ago, the world had barely started to emerge from the cold war. Globalisation did not exist. And neither did civil society!
Twenty-five years ago, the world was divided in two. The confrontation between the two Superpowers was winding down, in the North, to a struggle of ideas and the arms race; armed conflict was limited to the South, where the anti-imperialist liberation movements clashed with bloody dictatorships.
Human rights were flouted on a large scale almost everywhere, and even so they lacked – paradoxically - the central importance that they have today.
At the time, both for political justification as well as for military action, the ends too often justified the means. And torture was one of them, tolerated by the media and by public opinion. Human rights were only poorly understood as universal rights. Even if the situation has evolved, the problem remains essentially the same.
No one 25 years ago could guess that the world was turning upside-down; that four years later the Berlin Wall would fall; that the following year would seal the doom of the USSR and that a little over two years after that, from 14 to 25 June 1993, the Vienna Conference on Human Rights would take place, a conference that would mark a turning point in the world history of human rights.
Institutionalising itself in Geneva, year by year, through the strengthening in particular of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights followed by the Human Rights Council, the question of human rights became an integral part of contemporary global governance. We must admit that it was quite a job. But you are right to remind us that it is not enough.
People of my generation, who today are in charge of cities and States, did not themselves live directly and concretely through these historic transformations. Their knowledge is mediated by history books and university theories. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
It is an advantage if one considers that our minds are free of the ideological detritus of the past; that we have neither scores to settle nor debts to pay. We have no nostalgia for the battles and the utopias of yesterday. We look more to the future than to the past. In this sense, we are more free than the preceding generation.
But it can also be a disadvantage if we come to ignore the past, to forget the desperate struggles that had to be waged for rights to be recognised in writing, for institutions to be created from the ground up and for international mechanisms to be established to guarantee them.
Our youth could finally become a handicap if we believe that the rights recognised today to be secure and that we do not need to mobilise to safeguard and expand them.
And that is the reason why it is very important that we are assembled here tonight: to take stock and to delineate future prospects. To mark a “way point” and to adopt a new “road map”.
And it is also the reason why we pay tribute today: for the correctness of your analysis, 25 years ago; for your determination and commitment since then; and for the lucidity that you demonstrate now in seeking to inject new dynamism into your actions for the abolition of torture and all other degrading treatment, by having us sign this new charter.
It was time to act in 1985 … it is time to act today.
It was necessary to set the stage for a global movement 25 years ago … it is time in 2010 to acknowledge that the world has changed, that the struggle against torture has lost ground, especially since September 11, 2001 and the fight against terrorism, and to rebound strategically to continue our struggle.
I say “our struggle”, as Geneva has always been at your side and is determined to stay there.
Geneva is, and wishes to remain, the world capital of human rights. As host city for the United Nations, the City of Geneva will continue – in collaboration with the Swiss Confederation and the Canton of Geneva – to provide the necessary means to offer the best conditions for the international organisations, governmental and non-governmental, to act, directly or indirectly, in the field of human rights. It is our duty and in our interest if we want to contribute in a decisive manner to the cause of human rights and to retain our high international standing.
At this beginning of the twenty-first century, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Cities and metropolises play a vital role, for example, in the struggle against global warming and for the rights of migrants; at the international level, the networks of cities allow for more pragmatic progress than what is authorised by diplomatic relations between States.
In parallel to our work through institutions, we have given ourselves the mission of strengthening transnational civil society. For the last few years, the City of Geneva has chosen to facilitate the work and the visibility of the non-governmental organizations that represent the victims of human rights violations, the women and men human rights defenders, and the journalists, reporters and film-makers who, at great peril, denounce human rights violations.
It is in this spirit that we have recently strengthened our collaboration with the Martin Ennals Foundation, and the City of Geneva will henceforth co-organise, with the Foundation, the awarding of the Martin Ennals Prize for human rights defenders.
It is also in this spirit that we have strengthened our collaboration with the International Human Rights Film Festival. And I know how much OMCT was involved in the creation of and support for both the Prize and the Festival.
This year – as mayor – I will devote my energy in particular to strengthening our ties with the most important non-governmental organisations working to defend human rights, to facilitate their establishment in Geneva and to offer an agreeable and functional framework for the exercise in the best conditions of their mission to challenge established authority.
Because the stronger and more organised transnational civil society is, the more attentive States will be to respecting the documents that they have signed and the more likely that their citizens’ rights will be guaranteed. This is the price of good global governance! States have the duty to respect the law, but there must always be someone to remind them of it, to denounce violations and strengthen the legal framework.
This is what you have been doing effectively for 25 years! And in the most thorough manner!
Soon after the adoption of the Convention against Torture in 1984 (which came into force in 1987), you contributed decisively to the emergence of international civil society first by the creation of OMCT itself, and then of the SOS-Torture Network, of which you act as the secretariat here in Geneva and which has almost 300 organisation members on all the continents. Today you are developing the Network regionally, in Asia and Latin America, which will strengthen its action.
You further your cause through denunciation as well as by slow institutional work, in the antechambers of diplomats, to strengthen the normative system: the universal principles, the international conventions and the institutional mechanisms that make them work.
You act pragmatically in providing urgent medical, social and legal assistance, and you demand that the responsible parties be brought to trial and sentenced and that the victims obtain reparation.
Of course, the women and men militants in the struggle for human rights expected more from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Of course, we continue to be dismayed by the bad faith of too many States and governments. Of course, the universal periodic review, which should have been the keystone of the new UN system, is a disappointment.
But let us not forget that for 25 years, we have made important and decisive progress!
And even though I am perfectly aware of the risks of the current backsliding with respect to the prohibition of torture, I ask you, formally and in the name of the City of Geneva, not to be discouraged and to continue your mission with the same passion that you have displayed for the past 25 years.
I repeat: the City of Geneva will be at your side.