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Jose Ayala Lasso, first United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1994-1997)

Speech to the German expellees, Day of the Homeland, Berlin 6 August 2005

Ten years ago, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the expulsion of 15 million Germans from their homelands in the East, you invited me to participate in the commemoration that was held on May 28th 1995 at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main.

Although I was unable to come personally, since my functions as High Commissioner for Human Rights required me at that particular time to be in Rwanda, I did send a statement to you, which I understand was read out in German translation and subsequently published by the late Professor Dieter Blumenwitz.

In that statement I recalled the resolutions of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, in particular concerning the right to live in one’s homeland and the right to return in safety and dignity to one’s homeland.

We all remember that in 1995 the war in the former Yugoslavia had already produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and that a policy known as «ethnic cleansing» had been put into effect, a new term to refer to an old and very cruel State practice, that of terrorizing a civilian population and forcing men, women and children to abandon their homes and flee to the unknown.

Although the war in Yugoslavia has ended, the world does not appear to be any safer, and human beings continue to be subjected to the ravages of unjust wars and unjust peace settlements.

One of my successors as High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, gave his life in the struggle for a better world when, in his capacity as representative of the Secretary General in Baghdad, he perished in August 2003, in the gravest attack ever endured by the United Nations. I bow my head before his memory.

I am convinced that the United Nations and, in particular, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, currently under the able leadership of Judge Louise Arbour, will persevere in its patient task of building a universal culture of human rights. Over the past sixty years the United Nations has performed a monumental job of codification of norms. Expert organs have been established to monitor compliance with those norms. Procedures have been developed to allow individuals to invoke their rights before those organs. Civil society and non-governmental organizations have actively contributed and continue to participate in this process. All this legal achievements are important, but the success of the human rights system very much depends on the commitment of civil society and the development of national human rights institutions and infrastructures.

We are now engaged in a transcendental exercise to reform and modernize the UN System. One of the basic pillars of that reform is to strengthen the Commission of Human Rights. As the UN Secretary General has recently said, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues to be one of the most important achievements of the world organization. A new vision of the collective security is emerging everywhere and everybody recognizes the links between poverty and insecurity, respect for human rights and peace. That is why in his report to the UN Secretary General, the group of experts created by Mr. Kofi Annan to make proposals to respond to the challenges of the New Millennium, suggested to reform the Human Rights Commission and to create a Council of Human Rights with universal composition and full responsibilities for the promotion and protection of all human rights.

I think that the grave problems related to democracy, development, governability, collective security, fight against terrorism, international relations, are pointing to the need to better promote and protect human rights. If we really want to create a new international order, we must recognize that it is urgent and imperative to look forward a new conscience regarding the supremacy of human rights. A new humanism must emerge and we must all, individually and collectively, contribute to the foundations of this new era.

The realization of human rights remains a great challenge to all of us, since the enforcement of the norms depends on the political will of the States. There is, of course, no nobler task than to work for the realization of all human rights.

Among the collective rights, the right to self-determination is, of course, of particular relevance to all of us. The United Nations played an important role in the process of decolonization in Asia and Africa, and in the abolition of Apartheid. Other collective rights, including the rights of minorities, and the right to one’s homeland have not been fully realized. Of course, the right to one’s homeland is not merely a collective right, but it is also an individual right and a precondition for the exercise of many civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

It was during my tenure as High Commissioner for Human Rights that the Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights carried out an important study on «The Human Rights Dimensions of Population Transfers», and that an expert conference met in Geneva, chaired by the Sub-Commission’s Rapporteur, Awn Shawkat Al Khasawneh, today Judge at the International Court of Justice. In his final Report to the Sub-Commission (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/23) Judge Al Khasawneh concluded that the right to one’s homeland was a fundamental human right and that States are not entitled to displace populations forcibly from their native soil. In the Declaration appended to his report, we read «Every person has the right to remain in peace, security and dignity in one’s home, or on one’s land and in one’s country» (Art. 4, para. 1). We also read «Every person has the right to return voluntarily, and in safety and dignity, to the country of origin and, within it, to the place of origin or choice.» (Art. 8)

Even if we are still far from achieving these goals, even if there are millions of homeless persons in the world today, it is important to reaffirm these basic principles and to seek ways and means to implement them. This is why I also endorse the idea of establishing an international Centre against population transfers which would not only document and study past expulsions, but would also endeavor to prevent future expulsions anywhere in the world by educating and raising consciousness about the horrors of forced population transfers, by developing early-warning strategies, and by contributing to United Nations activities in this field. I am persuaded that Berlin would be an appropriate place for such a Centre.

I believe that the example of the German expellees is particularly telling. While we acknowledge the magnitude of the expulsion and the sorrow over the loss of provinces that had been the homeland of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph von Eichendorff, and others, we must also recognize the considerable sacrifice made by the expellees in choosing the path of peaceful integration. We cannot but admire the moral fiber of these people, the wisdom of their leaders, who renounced any and all forms of violence, who decided to build a new homeland in the West, without, however, abandoning their love for their origins, for the landscapes where they grew up, the churches and temples where they worshiped, the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried.

I take this occasion today to recall the «Charter of the Expellees» promulgated in Stuttgart on 5 August 1950. In this important Charter, the victims of expulsion formally renounced «all thought of revenge and retaliation. Our resolution is a solemn and sacred one, in memory of the infinite suffering brought upon mankind, particularly during the past decade.» This renunciation effectively broke the vicious circle of reprisal and counter-reprisal. The Charter also committed the expellees to work for the reconstruction of Germany and of Europe, which one day should be united. A remarkable document indeed.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees frequently quotes a line from the chorus of Euripides’ Medea (verse 650-651):

«There is no greater sorrow on Earth
than the loss of one’s native land»

As former High Commissioner for Human Rights, I would add that we have an obligation to assuage this sorrow, to show compassion to the victims of expulsion, to assist them in preserving their culture and identity, to provide a measure of relief and, if possible, facilitate their peaceful repatriation. As I said in 1995, the right to one’s homeland is a fundamental human right that the entire world community is called upon to respect. If persons have been forced to leave their homelands, they should be given the option and the opportunity to return.

Admittedly, there can be conflicting claims to the same homeland. With good will and international assistance, such conflicts can be solved peacefully, allowing the enjoyment of the right to the homeland by all who love their roots. Indeed, love of homeland is a positive value. Only those who love their homeland will work to improve it, to make it a better place for their children and grandchildren and to integrate it in a higher concept of world solidarity.

Sixty years ago the victorious Powers assembled in Berlin to plan the post-war world. At the Potsdam Conference they discussed the challenge of peace-making, and they also were confronted with the huge logistical and humanitarian problems arising from millions of internally displaced persons, Germans from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, who had fled before the onslaught of the Soviet Army and other millions who had remained in their homeland and were being expelled in that cruel summer of 1945. We bow our heads before the victims of Nazi aggression in the East. At the same time, we cannot remain insensitive to the suffering of innocent men, women and children from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, Sudetenland and other areas, who became victims of the unjust and immoral principle of collective punishment.

The Nuremberg Trials were convened in 1945 to vindicate the principle of individual criminal responsibility, and to punish those political leaders who unleashed aggressive war and who ordered the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among the crimes for which the National Socialist leaders were indicted and convicted were the crime of forced population transfer and the crime of deportation to forced labor. The Nuremberg judgment was approved by the General Assembly in 1946, and subsequently the International Law Commission was entrusted with the task of formulating a code on crimes against peace and security of mankind. In articles 18 and 20 of the draft code adopted in 1996, mass expulsion and deportation to forced labor are defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity. More recently, the Diplomatic Conference of Rome adopted the 1998 statute of the International Criminal Court, which in articles 7 and 8 similarly condemn the crime of expulsion. The creations of the International Criminal Court is a considerable step toward the strengthening of the rule of law in the sphere of international relations. Any attempt to weaking the Rome Statute or to ignore its significance must be strongly opposed and criticized.

Meanwhile the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been prosecuting those responsible for the implementation of the policy of ethnic cleansing. In a very real sense the trial against Slobodan Milosevic is a trial to vindicate the right to the homeland, and not only the right to the homeland of the Bosnians, of the Croats and of the Kossovars, but ultimately also of the Serbs of the Krajina. Important international case-law will no doubt emerge from the trials currently being conducted in The Hague.

Let me conclude with a reflection on the notion of human rights, a notion as old as humanity, even though only very gradually articulated, in the Bible, in the writings of the Chinese, Indian and Greek philosophers, in the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the French and American declarations of the eighteenth century, long before the advent of the League of Nations with its system of protection of minority rights and of the United Nations with its Commission of Human Rights.

This notion so dear to us rests on a broader respect for all living beings, and on the belief in the equality in dignity and rights of all humans, regardless of their color, origin, religion and social status. From this basis, modern societies develop the concepts of solidarity and interdependence. We can not be indifferent to violations of human rights, wherever they happen. That is why we must fight against poverty and injustice, everywhere.

As a Latin American I strongly support the exercise of all human rights by the indigenous populations. One important step in the long development of human rights concepts was the long-lasting dispute in the Council of the Indies in Spain, in the Sixteen Century, whether the indigenous of America were human beings. Two Dominicans, Bartolomé de las Casas and Fray Antonio Montesinos argued before the Habsburg Emperor Charles V that the indigenous populations were human who had souls and rights. As a result of their interventions, laws were enacted to protect the rights of the indigenous, which were essentially human rights laws. And even if these laws were violated with impunity, an awareness of right and wrong was awakened.

We should remember that the indigenous peoples of America, they too, had a right to their homeland, and that they were deprived of their lands and property by force and reduced to the condition of near slavery.

We are facing in Latin American a new form of an ancient problem. In the past, the world community has taken measures against the enforced transfer of populations. Now we are experiencing the transfer of populations by the way of massive emigration, due to the deterioration of economic and social conditions in many countries, including my country Ecuador. More than 20% of the total population has emigrated in the past 3 or 4 years. The consequences for the homeland are dramatic and, no doubt, the situation affects also the countries of destination of these massive migrations. I encourage the Commission of Human Rights to study this problem from the new optic of solidarity in the protection of human rights.

The promotion and protection of human rights is a permanent fight to recognize and respect human dignity. We cannot be indifferent to this noble cause. In the past, much progress has been achieved thanks to the combined work of the United Nations, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society. But the work must be permanent and demands the participation of all human beings.

Thus I encourage you to persevere in your commitment to human rights, and to continue working so that all human rights and, certainly, the right to one’s homeland, be universally recognized and respected. In this way we will be contributing to the establishment of a new world order based on basic principles of dignity and justice for all.

I would like to thank your organisation and each one of you for giving all your devotion and activity to this fight for human dignity. I think that you are giving a good example to the world and what you are doing is going to be good not simply for Germany or Europe but for the whole world, because it is, of course, the spirit which conducts human beings to good ways, and it is the activity of the spirit which will bring us to a new world: just, free, democratic, developed and progressive.

I thank you for your kind attention.

José Ayala Lasso
former UNITED NATIONS High Commissioner for Human Rights

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