HUMAN RIGHTS DAY COMMEMORATION
PRETORIA : MARCH 27, 2002
I have received an invitation from the Director-General to participate in this commemoration of Human Rights Day organised by our Department. In the invitation, I was asked to provide an overall view on the history of human rights protection and then to focus on how it affects our Department, with the added invitation to provide an exposition of the political, social, economic and global dimension of human rights. This would be an invitation to speak about an extremely wide subject matter and to do so for hours. However, given the short time frame available to us, I think I am better advised to limit my remarks to some general considerations and some specific issues which affect our Department.
In general terms, we must be aware that we celebrate Human Rights Day to create an opportunity to ponder how much has been achieved and how much remains to be done. Human rights protection is not achieved in its full measure once and for all. It is a culture and a practice which needs to be monitored and strengthened whenever possible. This celebration should not be an empty ritual. In order to be meaningful it must focus on the challenges of the present. If today we merely speak about past achievements, we will have failed to bring forward the eternal quest for human rights protection. We need to consider today’s and tomorrow’s issues rather than merely resting upon yesterday’s accolades.
We have achieved a lot in the past ten years to bring freedom and liberty to a country which knew little about it. What has been achieved through the liberation struggle and the establishment of democracy and through the hundreds of legislative reforms that our Government has passed is, indeed, a monumental achievement with no comparison in our history and with few in mankind’s history.
However, we could make no greater mistake than believing that the job is finished or that what we have achieved is safe and beyond being threatened. The truth is that much needs to be done and human rights are now as much in jeopardy as ever before. The gap between legality and reality is still very wide. To the majority of our people the declarations of rights contained in the Constitution have little significance. The most fundamental right of all is that of a dignified life, free from want, need and fear. This right can only be fulfilled by getting our country into a much higher gear of economic growth. We need economic prosperity and social stability in all our communities especially amongst the poorest ones, to give meaning to human rights protection. Our Government is doing a lot and yet it does not seem sufficient when compared to the ocean of needs confronting us.
We must also accept that if human rights are indeed in constant jeopardy, we ourselves are those who may threaten them. We need not only to fulfil human rights, but also to protect them from ourselves. Any Government, no matter how good, is a latent threat to entrenched human rights. As part of Government, we must be aware of this. Only by making this paradigm shift will we be able to become vigilant in entrenching high degrees of human rights protection. Our laws and the actions of our Government are the primary potential sources of human rights violations. We need to permeate our actions with a culture of vigilance that questions the way we go about doing things. Government must avoid its policies being inspired by an understandable sense of righteousness, which leads it to believe that because it is inspired by good motives, it should not be concerned about the means employed. We are using power to improve upon the lives of people but we must never grow to believe that anyone is beyond the possibility of abusing power. Whenever power has been abused it has always been done for reasons which appeared or were portrayed as good reasons.
In this respect I wish to point out how I myself became aware of the possibility that some of our most important reforms could give rise to the abuse of power. The HANIS project is one of the greatest achievements of our Government and the pride of our Department. It will leap-frog our administration into much higher standards of service delivery. When launching HANIS, unprompted and unsolicited by anyone, I realised that such powerful collection of data and personal information could give rise to abuses and possible violations of the right to privacy, and took the initiative to request Professor Fink
Haysom to suggest to me guidelines or possible legislation to ensure that under no condition could HANIS offer the opportunity of turning the positive aspects of social control into abuses.
I believe that on this occasion we must clearly focus on the relationship between abuse of power and the economic decline of a society. Throughout history, whenever power is abused, a civilization begins to decline. In our context, it is essential that we commit ourselves to never forget that prosperity and democracy are inseparable. Whenever power begins to be abused, prosperity declines. For this reason, we need to become self-vigilant and constantly review our own laws, regulations and practices, to determine how they comply with and promote the highest standards of human rights protection. For instance, we know that one of the most important human rights entrusted to our line function is that of the protection of the rights to citizenship. In this respect, we will need to verify how some of the provisions which we are executing, such as that which determines the loss of citizenship for such a trivial reason as the use of a foreign passport, make the grade of constitutionality.
Similarly, the Immigration Bill which is now in the process of being enacted by Parliament will increase substantially the degree of human rights protection entrenched in our function of migration control. This will not make things easier for the Department and there is no doubt that it will make our jobs much harder and more difficult. This is exactly what a culture of human rights is all about. We must accept that acting in compliance with the highest standards of human rights protection is our chosen option not because it is the simple, expedient thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do even though it might be the hardest of all ways of doing it.
One of the other great challenges that our Department will be confronted with in its line function is that of dealing with the issue of xenophobia. During the last major international human rights conference, which was a conference on the elimination of all forms of racism and discrimination held in Durban last year, the issue of xenophobia was squarely placed on the international human rights agenda. The Immigration Bill predicted this development and created a new line function responsibility within our Government which is that of preventing, deterring and redressing xenophobia, and vested this function in our Department. We will need a shift of capacity to build on the requirements of this function. We will need to understand what the problems are and how one goes about redressing them without making the mistake of believing that we are either prepared to meet this challenge or that we know enough about it. We will need to learn and change attitudes, and a shift of our mind-set will begin as we realise that we ourselves are those who are the major threat when it comes to developing a xenophobic attitude in the exercise of our own functions.
This will become an interesting test case of how we need to exercise a line function responsibility as difficult as that of deterring, detecting and deporting illegal foreigners within a human rights culture environment which forces us to fight xenophobia. This gives the measure of our challenge and encapsulates the challenge before any organ of the state which, through its action and zeal, may violate or reduce the areas of individual freedom and liberty.
If we are committed to preserving freedom and liberty, we must be committed always, everywhere and against anyone who can place them in jeopardy. We cannot close our eyes because certain threats come from people we like, or from those we need, or even those who are higher up in the hierarchy. This message should go from those who are leaders into all our communities, so that people can defend their rights whenever their rights are placed in jeopardy, whether it is in their families, or within their communities or within their work-places. We need to give the example that we are the first to stand firm for human rights and the rule of law, so that all our people can do the same under their own circumstances. It is unfortunate that often we do not rise to these high standards and we allow the rule of law to be bent to accommodate specific personal agendas. I believe that as a country, South Africa must protect the rule of law in our country and abroad.
We cannot use double standards. Freedom and democracy are freedom and democracy and, if we deserve them, anyone else in the world has an equal right to them. If we begin closing our eyes to violations of freedom and attacks on democracy in other countries, especially when they are close to us, then our own democracy is weak and in jeopardy. We must stand by the strength of our democratic convictions and have the courage to state that tyranny will not stand either at home or abroad. If we allow tyranny to stand when we had the opportunity to condemn it and possibly knock it down, we will be tarnished with its crimes.
Martin Luther King once said that freedom always comes with a price and it is expensive. We must mount the political will to accept paying this price wherever and whenever it is necessary, and once we do so, it will become simpler and clearer to determine what needs to be done.
Both internationally as well as domestically, rights come with responsibilities. Too often the emphasis on responsibility is absent. There is no right without a concomitant responsibility. We as a country have responsibilities towards our neighbours, which are the people of the countries around us, not necessarily their governments and leaders. We as a government have the responsibility to our society to be productive, efficient, effective and corruption-free. Our people have responsibilities which they must fulfil in their families, communities and work-places. As civil servants we have a special obligation to serve, to be responsible and to be dedicated to others. Only by fulfilling this obligation to the best of our capacity and with zeal, shall we be able to provide an individual contribution towards promoting human rights.
On this occasion we must commit ourselves to practice a culture of responsibility to ensure that our people understand the need to improve upon themselves, every day of the year, so that they may become better spouses, better parents, better employees, better employers, better community members and better citizens. This effort begins with all of us in our offices, houses and communities. It is only through a will to improve upon who we are, and how we are, that we can transform the courage of our convictions into a living reality which can make South Africa grow into a better place for all.