The United Nations – ‘the place where we park our ideals’
In the last few weeks, I have reflected on the debate about the relevance of the United Nations. When genocide ripped through Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, much of the world lost faith in the institutions ability to meet our ideals. It appeared impotent in the face of profound human rights abuses on the streets of Kigali and Srebrenica. But as countless UN leaders keep reminding us, the institution is only as strong as the governments that comprise it and these governments will only be as strong on issues of human rights abuses as the people they represent. We look to the United Nations to somehow fix the world – but the multiple agencies that comprise it; the conventions and declarations that embody it – are only made real and powerful when we (the people) use them effectively and help others to do so.
This has been brought home to me powerfully over recent weeks when I attended the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, an annual event that brings together current and emerging Indigenous leaders from every corner of the world. While Indigenous communities are faced with a range of challenges – from the loss of traditional land and languages to inadequate access to education and healthcare – there exists a powerful document that points to how it should be: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A declaration drafted by Indigenous leaders who represent the 370 million Indigenous men, women and children walking the earth. It sets out, masterfully, the minimum standards required by governments to safeguard the survival and uphold the dignity of Indigenous people everywhere.
The challenge, as always, is to bridge the current reality facing Indigenous peoples with the ideals embedded within the Declaration – this is where civil society must play a role. A range of conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, outline the role of government in safeguarding human rights and maintaining and promoting peace. Almost all governments have ratified these conventions. However, the motivation for them to act in a substantive way to uphold each convention is minimal. Governments know that they will not be held accountable by the public; awareness of the conventions is just too limited. The conventions, and thereby the UN itself, will only become effective when all of civil society are aware of their rights, in direct dialogue with government about their rights and holding governments accountable. From the outset those who helped shape the founding principles of the UN saw the significance of this, none more so than Eleanor Roosevelt who asked:
“Where after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
UNICEF, ever aware of this, has just created a youth-friendly version of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It will be translated into a range of local languages so that Indigenous children throughout the world can learn about their rights and help nudge their governments towards the kind of world that the founders of the UN originally envisaged, a world where all people can live a life of dignity.