Ambassador Dahinden Shares His Thoughts and Stories about Human Rights
In Conversation with Ambassador Dahinden
On the occasion of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ambassador Dahinden shared his thoughts on human rights and talked about how it has influenced his career.
In the past you worked a great deal on human rights issues. Could you tell us why it’s a topic so close to your heart?
Martin Dahinden: Human rights have almost always been present in my work as a diplomat. Working as a young diplomat on security policy issues, I learned how interlinked human rights, peace and security are. It is impossible to attain a peaceful and secure world without respect for human rights. But it is also about values. You want to live in a world where people’s rights are respected, where they can develop and make their own choices as human beings. Later on, when I was responsible for Swiss development cooperation, it was obvious that respecting human rights is a precondition for a society to develop decently. Overcoming poverty is impossible without including human rights in policies and practice.
What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) mean to you personally?
MD: In any case, it is an outstanding document. The quest for human rights began hundreds of years ago. The UDHR of 1948 is a lesson from the horrors of the time of World War II. Countries came together after having witnessed not only war, but huge violations of people’s individual rights. Think about the concentration camps, about the persecution of minorities, but also about the manipulation of the media and about people not having the right to express themselves or to practice their religion. It is a history lesson that was enshrined in international law afterward. It is a very important and fundamental document.
How do you see Switzerland’s role with regard to human rights?
MD: Switzerland is a strong defender of human rights. They are important in our Constitution, defending human rights is a mandate for our foreign policy. We are committed to working for a world where human rights are respected. To a Swiss diplomat, to those who are involved in Swiss foreign policy, human rights constitute a beacon. They serve as a guideline for whatever you’re doing and whatever context you are working in.
What challenges does Switzerland face with regard to the protection of human rights?
MD: There might be human rights within Switzerland that need better protection. But I will now speak from a foreign policy perspective. In declarations, human rights are often referred to and rarely contested. But as soon as you move away from the sphere of political discourse, you see things differently. Sometimes there is a dramatic lack of implementation of human rights. Millions are deprived of their rights. To me, the challenge is in the implementation of the existing and agreed upon rights. We need to courageously look at where the violations are, and then take action for and with those who are victims of human rights violations.
Where has Switzerland already taken action?
MD: There are many areas because the topic is so overarching. To me, the most important are actions taken on the spot, through our development programs, for instance; not necessarily through special human rights programs, but by including human rights aspects in every part of a program on health, education, rural development, and so forth. Also important are dialogues on human rights with partner countries, where we can take up issues of concern and address them in an open way. Such a dialogue is very different from one country to another. And it can include a broad range of topics from freedom of the press, the right to assemble, the right to practice religion, having access to a functioning court system and so on.
International Geneva has made a name for itself in the world. What is International Geneva’s role with regard to human rights?
MD: Of course, one immediately thinks of the Human Rights Council, where the United Nations has created a body that allows states to exchange information about the human rights situation and to hold each other accountable.
Geneva is known as the world humanitarian capital. Much of the humanitarian law applicable in conflicts was developed in Geneva and by Geneva-based institutions. Humanitarian law and human rights are complementary bodies of law, but they are mutually reinforcing as well. Switzerland is proud of Geneva as a host country for so many efforts in both areas.
How can people stand up for human rights in their daily lives?
MD: The most important is to stand up and speak out whenever a violation of human rights occurs. This certainly happens more often in countries where the rule of law is not respected. Another way each of us can show solidarity is by supporting human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and others. These are the two important things: personal commitment when you see something is going wrong and giving support to institutions working for respect for human rights.
You spent a great deal of time in Africa and you were very engaged in human rights issues. Could you talk about your experiences?
MD: As head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, I looked very closely at individual programs. My colleagues and I asked ourselves questions like: Who are the beneficiaries of this program? Is there discrimination of women or of religious and ethnic groups? That may seem evident, but it is not. When you work together with governments or other local institutions, there is often a bias. Therefore it was always very important to me to have this human rights marker with whatever we did. I would always systematically look at the project and ask myself: What is the impact of the program, on whom, and in what way?
When I was the director of the Geneva Center for Humanitarian Demining, I often met with victims of landmines. I discovered that those mutilated victims were often hidden, discriminated against and looked at as a burden to society. Having been victimized by a horrible weapon, they were often victimized by their society a second time, isolated and stigmatized. By systematically asking questions and by giving victims a voice, it is possible to make a difference in their lives and restore human dignity. The rights of disabled people are also part of human rights, even though that was not in the UDHR, like a whole range of other human rights that were added only later on.
Is there anything you would like to add as the most important takeaway?
MD: It is important not to look at human rights in isolation. The rule of law, democracy, as well as peace and human rights are indispensable parts of societies and a world in which people can live decent lives. A society that does not protect human rights will not be a prosperous one and not a peaceful one. I mentioned that right at the beginning of the interview and I want to state it again.