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The Human Rights Imperative in Law

Public lecture by Cherie Blair at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh Sunday 10th January

Through our global commitment to Human Rights, we have proved ourselves capable of altering, adjusting and amending domestic law and practice, including, at times, our own constitutions, to create fairer, more just societies.

Honourable Chief Justice, Honourable Justices, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Colleagues.
It is a real pleasure to be among fellow lawyers - and a delight to return to this fascinating country particularly on this important day in the history of Bangladesh - the 38th anniversary of the return of the father of the nation to Bangladesh from prison in Pakistan.
This is my third visit to Bangladesh. Each time I come, I understand a little more about this remarkable country. Each time, too, I am bowled over by the warmth of the welcome and the determination, energy and talents of its people.These qualities, found here in such abundance, give real hope for the future despite the many challenges Bangladesh faces. But talents and potential, of course, are not enough on their own. They must be coupled with the opportunity to make the most of these inherent abilities. I know the vital importance of education is fully recognized here in Bangladesh. And just as education is necessary to see individuals flourish, for societies to thrive justice and the law are equally crucial. So I want to talk briefly today the necessity of education for genuine equality of opportunity, promotion of rights and the health and strength of our economies and societies. I intend as well to touch on the importance for our societies of ensuring our national legal systems are receptive to international standards on rights. And this will leads me on the central place that human rights norms should play in creating just societies. Each of these topics speaks to a human rights imperative in law - an imperative for Bangladesh, for my own country the United Kingdom, and all other nations committed to the attainment of an open and transformative democracy.
Let me begin first with the importance of education, equality and human rights. Education is a subject about which I feel passionate. And indeed, I am here in Bangladesh as Patron of the Asian University for Women - a superb initiative which I am absolutely delighted to support. I want to pay particular tribute to the Bangladesh Government for their whole-hearted support of the AUW - and especially thank Sheikha Hassina. She was a founding Patron of the AUW during an earlier Preminership and has, through the current government, re-affirmed her commitment to the project.These thanks come not just from me but from the students who will be attending the AUW and the communities and countries which will benefit when they return.This is, of course, a very exciting time for the University, based in Chittagong. I visted ther yesterday to see the students and the faculty and to see for myself the site of the new campus which will make Bangladesh a regional centre of excellence for womens education. Their first academic programme, the pre-collegiate Access Academy, has just provided an initial crop of students for its undergraduate course.The University has a wide reach, drawing students from diverse geographical backgrounds, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China, India and of course 25% of the places are reserved for students from Bangladesh itself. But while they may come from many countries, the students have, in common, disadvantaged backgrounds. For every one of the All Access Academy students are the first in their families to get a university education. Through initiatives such as this, the University aims to break the cycle of social exclusion and economic deprivation endemic in under-served and under-educated populations.
Now I have particular personal reason to support such programmes. I, too, was the first of my family to attend university. I come from a relatively disadvantaged background in the UK, brought up by a lone parent. Without the opportunities and confidence that education and university gave me, I would not be standing here today. I would not have had the chance to become a barrister or QC - and indeed would not have married who I did as we were both to studying to be barristers at Lincolns Inn when we met. So I stand here as living proof of the transformative power of education for the individual.
As Nelson Mandela put it in his biography, A Long Walk to Freedom:
"Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation". But the impact, of course, goes well beyond the student. For wherever you are in the world, education is a dynamic tool for change. Education is the motor for prosperity in the economy and for the health of our communities. And this, of course, is particularly true for the education of girls. There is now a wealth of evidence that investing in the education of girls is the best possible investment any country can make. Better even than investment in boys, important as that is, because of the inter-generational impact on families. And yet girls and women in many parts of the world still face barriers including prejudice which prevent them receiving the education that they deserve and from which their societies would benefit. It is these obstacles that AUW is intended to help lift by offering high quality educational opportunities to women.
The aim is to prepare women of high ability and talent to help their societies - and our world - overcome the challenges we face. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this goal. As your Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s has said: "there can be no greater force for change than a band of women educated and empowered who carry a vision of their own and have the courage to defy and overcome whatever resistance that may be in their way". I am delighted to say that the courses on offer will soon include law. A School of Law & Human Rights will open in August 2012 in time to enroll 50 current AUW students who will have completed their liberal arts and sciences course by then. Even more important, the law school is planning to put a special emphasis on human rights law. I believe this focus is absolutely right. Human rights, as I will argue, are far too important to be confined to a niche area fro a few specialist lawyers. It is vital that all lawyers receive a solid grounding in human rights law. I welcome, for example, the law school’s desire to produce commercial lawyers who have a clear understanding of how human rights law will impact on their work. Our legal systems and societies can only gain if all lawyers recognise the need to make sure the law and judicial systems are just and accessible to all in society. This exciting initiative has been a truly international process, already involving Universities in Australia, India and South Africa. It will help produce graduates practically equipped to contribute to the democratic development of their own countries. It also helps underline two essential points:
First that human rights must be brought into the mainstream if they are fully to help drive real and wide-reaching change. And second, the increasing internationalization of human rights law and the influence for good on national judicial systems.
Let me begin with the importance of emphasizing the transformative power of human rights on our societies. This power goes well beyond safeguarding freedom of expression or ensuring fair trials. Human rights imperatives include labour rights, fair living standards and increasingly access to health and education. So there is a strong connection between human rights imperatives and the development of a good society. Human rights do not, as sometimes seem the case when they are discussed back home in the UK, belong only to the prisoner or those who are persecuted. They belong to us all and are about the basic entitlements of every human being. Such imperatives must be placed at the very centre of our everyday lives - exactly where those who drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wanted to see them. This involves a fundamental shift from rights being perceived as aspirations to legally enforceable obligations. And if this is the case, such obligations form part of any modern conception of the rule of law and must, therefore, at appropriate times, rightly constrain executive action.
That brings me neatly onto the second, and related topic - another brake from time to time on executive action. And this is the importance of allowing our national legal systems to be open to the inspiration of the international legal order. The human rights imperatives I have been speaking about are in the first instance devolved from our own constitutional and legal practices. But they are also increasingly driven by the legal obligations contained in a host of international agreements; including the UN Charter, and various Conventions, Treaties and Declarations to which countries voluntarily sign up. In many ways, the globalization of law mirrors, and indeed is in some ways linked with, the globalization of our economies. Over the last 50 years, international law norms have had both a revolutionary and harmonizing effect.Through our global commitment to these norms, we have proved ourselves capable of altering, adjusting and amending domestic law and practice, including, at times, our own constitutions, to create fairer, more just societies.Bangladesh has ratified all the core human rights treaties (ICCPR, ICESCR,CERD, CEDAW, CAT, CRC). However it has entered reservations to several treaties. It has accepted the individual communications procedure under only one treaty (CEDAW) and does not accept any inquiry procedure by any treaty body. In addition to the core instruments noted above, Bangladesh is a party to the Genocide Convention, the Geneva Conventions, several key ILO Conventions as well as treaties on women’s political rights and on consent to marriage. It has signed, but not ratified, the Rome Statute on the ICC and the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families. It has not as yet acceded to the Refugee Convention, or the Convention on Protection from Enforced Disappearance, or ILO Convention No169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples 1989. Increasingly judges around the world are being asked to consider how international norms impact and influence the interpretation or even the very existence of their own constitutional arrangements.
A prime example of this is of course the Supreme Court of India who by an innovative use of international norms have handed down a series of transformational judgments in environmental law, women’s rights and discrimination law amongst others.
This has, of course, understandably sparked debate and criticism from those on their guard from outside interference. But I profoundly believe that permitting these universally agreed standards to influence and embellish national domestic standards does not undermine our democracy or our sense of national identity. Rather it strengthens it, by shoring up our commitment to the rule of law and enhancing our belief in ourselves as truly progressive and democratic nations. I accept, however, that this process is not always an easy one. Such legal and judicial deliberation frequently goes to the very core of national sovereignty: to the arrangement of power within the state between executive, judiciary and legislature. No country is untouched by such debate. In the UK, for instance, our own - long-standing - commitment to the European Convention of Human Rights remains the subject of intense and vigorous political and judicial argument. This whole topic could provide the basis for a very lengthy lecture in its own right.
I wish here simply to stress that the interaction and interpenetration of public international law and domestic constitutional laws needs to be acknowledged and debated. Whether we like it or not, judges and lawyers are increasingly powerfully positioned between domestic and international legal regimes in their role as guarantors of fundamental rights.
So, as lawyers, how should we approach these issues?
Should we be fearful of the inculcation of such standards?
Should we concern ourselves about the politicisation of such commitments by those who seek to undermine them? I think we have a choice. We can believe such norms usurp or undermine our ability to control our legal systems, or we can allow these imperatives positively to inform our view of state sovereignty, of legitimacy and of democracy itself.
My belief , it won’t surprise you hear, is that all democratic countries have little to fear from the influence of international standards and a great deal to gain.
I truly believe that we should see such standards, not as alien or contrary to our legal processes, but as a reflection and safeguard of our most precious legal traditions.
It is also the case that unfettered legal sovereignty is not possible in the globalised world of the 21st century and there must be severe doubts whether such freedom of action is beneficial.
For if we look around the world, it is those countries which ignore or flout international norms whose citizens are most likely to lack democracy and the rule of law.
I accept, however, this does not always make life easy for lawyers, judges or, at times, politicians. If we see human rights as a core feature of the rule of law, then there will again be times when judicial decision-making is a proper and essential constraint on an executive. This requires an independent judiciary determined to make the protection of the law real. But it also needs, of course, a Government that accepts such independence and won’t interfere with it. Even when, as is bound to be the case from time to time in every country, it does not agree with the decisions made.
This is not easy, at times, for any Government to accept. But it is an essential part of promoting the rule of law and creating a stable, secure, democratic and prosperous society. That brings me to my third and final point - the central place that human rights norms should play in creating just societies. The rule of law creates predictable and fair justice which ensures fair access to the courts, to information and to education. This permits rights to be argued for and violations to be remedied. Of course, by making these comments, I am adding my voice to a continuing dialogue on the need to enshrine the respect for human rights in our legal and social processes. In reality, this poses challenges for every country. Theoretical and practical problems abound. In Europe for instance, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg faces a potentially fatal case overload. Here in SE Asia it is becoming increasinglt obvious that delays in the courts mean that justice is not merely delayed but denied to too many litigants and there is an urget need fro procedural reforms on the scale of the Wolf Reforms in the mid 1990’s in England and Wales which have transformed legal practice and speeded up justice. What is clear, however, is that whatever the solution to the problem of delay, we must continue to ensure that human rights are viewed as the very cornerstone of our democratic states. Any progress we make in the pursuit of their realization can only add to the health and strength of our societies. So, taking a wider perspective, my view is that human rights imperatives are not just about laws but about the way we frame just societies and ensure fairness in our international community.
Part of our commitment to human rights is to make these standards legally binding, ensuring respect for equality, dignity and non-discrimination.But we must also encourage education, foster participation, empower minorities and ensure democracy, through a constant process of objective evaluation and monitoring. This process of placing human rights at the centre of policy work and legal action has been a particularly effective strategy in the pursuit of gender equality. Human rights norms make non-discrimination a legal obligation and provide a legal impetus for the equal provision of and access to services. This is not just right in principle - a matter if you like of justice - but also right in social and economic terms. Human Rights norms also cry out for properly trained, articulate lawyers who understand that they not only need to know the nuts and bolts of the law but also its social and political context. Who understand that legal skills go beyond the core competencies of investigating, drafting and negotiating into counseling and mediating. Who understand their duties not only to the Court, their clients and professional standards but to the wider society especially the underprivileged and who understand that peaceful and expeditious fights in the courtroom will siphon off violent fights in the streets. For as I have already made clear, there is irrefutable evidence in terms of a stronger economies and societies from empowering women. So equality of opportunity between the sexes - something which the AUW will help promote - may be demanding objectives but they are also essential goals for which we must all strive. As the eminent Indian jurist Krishna Iyer J said
"The fight is not for women’s status but for human worth. The claim is not to end inequality of women but to restore universal justice. The bid is not for loaves and fishes for the forsaken gender but for cosmic harmony which never comes till woman comes";This all requires us to understand that respect for human rights strengthens the legitimacy of all state action as well as providing the basis for a prosperous and healthy society.
As Kofi Annan reminds us so concisely:
"There is no security without development, no development without security and there can be neither without respect for human rights".
In conclusion, I would hope that when we talk of rights, we can agree that we talk not of charitable dispositions or occasional commitments but of the whole range of an individual’s fundamental legal entitlements. Viewing rights in this way has crucial ramifications. For rights demand both accountability from those obliged to ensure their protection and redress for their violation.They also require a culture of awareness, education and participation.
As lawyers, we have a key role to play in promoting such awareness and insisting on the legal protection and enforcement of rights. It should….. it must…. matter to all of us. So, I urge you all to join in the conversation. Don’t leave it to those who specialize in this area for human rights affects every area of law and every aspect of our lives. Begin to think honestly, and aloud, about what a commitment to human rights looks like. Consider how international and domestic mechanisms allow us to advance human rights while remaining sensitive to the legacies of our culture and history.Human rights awareness certainly brings scrutiny, which may be discomfiting, but it also helps drive positive change. This has certainly happened in the UK where the impact of such commitments has enabled us to hold up a mirror so we can view our strengths and correct our weaknesses. It has provided a reflection that we may otherwise never have seen, or chosen to see, and that has proved essential for our own development.
I’ll end with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt - a heroine of mine who chaired the committee that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and who was, incidentally, the wife of a politician who was regularly in trouble for being outspoken.
Launching the declaration she answered those who saw human rights as irrelevant to most of our lives:
Where, she asked, do universal human 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 an individual person; the neighbourhood 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".
Her statement was right 60 years ago - and is equally right now.