The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 4, with Bertrand Ramcharan

December 2, 2020

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, NY, November, 1949.
CREDIT: Wikimedia (CC)

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to the fourth and final installment of Looking Back to Look Forward, an interview series that Carnegie Council has been producing this fall to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I'm the editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

This series builds on the work of the Fall 2020 edition of Ethics & International Affairs. That issue features a special collection of nine essays on "The United Nations at 75," organized and guest-edited by Dr. Margaret P. Karns. To explore the content in that issue, we encourage you to visit eiajournal.org.

For this episode, it is once again my pleasure to introduce Dr. Karns as our host. Dr. Karns is professor emerita of political science at the University of Dayton, and since 2015 she has been a visiting professor in the Global Governance and Human Security Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has published widely on UN peacekeeping, post-conflict peace building, global governance, and the future of the UN system.

I should also note that in addition to being our host and the guest editor on our special issue, Dr. Karns contributed a co-authored essay to that collection with Kirsten Haack and Jean-Pierre Murray, titled, "The UN at 75: Where are the women in the United Nations now?"

Today Dr. Karns is joined by Bertrand Ramcharan. Over the years, Dr. Ramcharan has held numerous high-level positions within the United Nations, including acting UN high commissioner for human rights. Today's conversation will center on exactly that—human rights and the United Nations.

Without further ado, I will hand things off to Dr. Karns to get things started. Enjoy the discussion.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you, Adam, for that very generous introduction, and thank you, Bertie, for joining me in this interview and for agreeing to write an essay on human rights for this special issue. When I was invited to do the special issue, human rights was clearly at the top of the list, and I couldn't think of anyone I would rather have had to write this issue.

To provide others with a bit of an introduction, Dr. Bertrand Ramcharan of Guyana is a barrister of Lincoln's Inn with a Doctorate in international law from the London School of Economics and a Diploma of international law from The Hague Academy of International Law. He has been chancellor of the University of Guyana, professor of international human rights law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and also visiting professor at both Columbia University and Lund University.

In his long career at the United Nations, Bertie served in the Centre for Human Rights as special assistant to the director, as the secretary-general's chief speechwriter, as director of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the UN peacekeeping operation in the former Yugoslavia, as director of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, and also as political advisor to the peace negotiators in the Yugoslav conflict. He has also been director in the UN Political Department, focusing on conflicts in Africa.

In the human rights area, yes, as Adam mentioned, Bertie had the good fortune but also the misfortune to serve as acting UN high commissioner for human rights following the death of Sergio de Mello in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. He subsequently also has served as commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists and as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2019 Ramcharan received the award of Eminent Caribbean Jurist from the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Where he found the time to do so, I do not know, but Bertie has published several books on international law and human rights including Contemporary Human Rights Ideas: Rethinking theory and practice and Modernizing the UN Human Rights System, as well as books on preventive diplomacy at the United Nations and international peace conferences.

It is my distinct pleasure to do this interview with you, Bertie.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: Thank you.

MARGARET KARNS: In your essay you describe the UN human rights pillar as being in the "throes of crisis." What do you see as some of the features of that crisis?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: The bottom line is that if human beings are being arbitrarily executed, tortured, enslaved, suffering discrimination on a widespread scale, trafficked, and if violence against women is pervasive, then something is terribly wrong with the world and something is terribly wrong with the United Nations.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has a system of investigators. They are technically called "special procedures"—we don't need to go into that now—but every year they document all of these violations in numerous parts of the world. So when I say that the United Nations' human rights pillar is in crisis, what I mean is that it doesn't matter what the good intentions have been, it doesn't matter how many norms we have established—I refer to that in the chapter—it doesn't matter how specious we are in saying the good things that the United Nations is doing. The bottom line is that people are being savagely treated in many, many parts of the world.

Of course, the United Nations as an institution does the best it can. The United Nations is its member states basically. Since the establishment of the Human Rights Council in 2006, the terms of reference of the Human Rights Council explicitly state that the Council is to engage in "dialogue and cooperation" over human rights issues, even in the face of egregious violations of human rights. So you will find many, many situations that come before the Council, and the refrain from powerful states is: "Let us dialogue and cooperate."

I have to tell you that in my career I helped very much to establish this system of investigators, and I feel deep within my being that we cannot accept a situation in which people are being brutalized and then we just have to "dialogue and cooperate" over it.

There are other things that I could say. I could refer to what I will call "structural factors" or "the symptoms of violations," but you have asked me a straight question—why is it in crisis?—and I have given you my answer. It's a simple question.

The ethical society at its core has a belief that one should be ethical towards one another. I have to say that for large parts of the world there is no justice and there is no ethics. That's why I think the UN human rights system is in crisis.

MARGARET KARNS: It's interesting. So many people talking about the current time might point to the rise of more authoritarian governments around the world, to internationalism and populism, but you have gone to deeper factors. But are these more recent developments something that also contribute to perhaps deepening the crisis around human rights?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: Yes. I helped one of my former colleagues write a chapter on populism and human rights, so I looked at the literature a bit. I will allow myself to mention the case of Hungary. It is a European country. As a young researcher, I spent a week with the secretariat of the European Convention on Human Rights in Strasbourg, so I kind of absorbed the spirit of the European Convention.

Now you have a phenomenon with a populist government basically moving away from the precepts—I don't want to put them on the spot; I am just using this as an example—of human rights. And I want to be fair. Secretary of State Pompeo established a commission to define what are "unalienable rights," and there is no doubt that behind that the idea was to diminish American recognition of what are inherent fundamental rights.

So your question to me is populism, authoritarianism, and without a doubt, yes, one can point to many countries in the world where authoritarian leaders are trampling over the rights of their own people and not having a regard for this idea that countries, governments, should respect some basic principles, some basic norms in the treatment of their own people and in the way they relate with other countries as well. So yes, I would have to accept that without a doubt populism, authoritarianism, and I would have to say a fundamental lack of good governance in so many countries—you are a professor of governance, so you will understand that the phenomenon exists at both the international and national levels.

I will not go into it, but after I left the United Nations I did a degree in history with the University of London and then I did a degree in philosophy with the University of London. At one stage, I had to look at the literature on human rights in some of the countries of the Near East and the traditions, the patterns that have brought them to where they are. So yes, without a doubt, this issue of fundamental lack of good governance in numerous countries is a major problem.

MARGARET KARNS: You organize your essay around five ethics—ethics of human survival, normative ethics, ethics of protection, institutional ethics, and the ethics of the human predicament—which is an interesting way to approach the subject. You argue that each of these has a part in the UN's contributions on human rights, but that it is particularly in the area of normative rights and normative ethics where the United Nations has made its greatest contributions to the cause of human rights.

And yes, you note that the United Nations now focuses what you call a "tottering consensus." What made it possible in the first 75 years, even including the Cold War years, to make this normative progress, and why are these norms now under such challenge?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: If one looks at the drafting of national declarations on human rights, the process is one in which people had grievances, they sought correction of those grievances, they made claims about rights, they articulated principles, and then they negotiated these principles. There is a book by a woman called Lois Schwoerer, and she wrote about the drafting of the English Bill of Rights, and this was the process. If you will let me say so, it is also the process in relation to the French declaration and the American Declaration—grievances, claims, normative statements, negotiations, and recognition of rights.

It is the same process that has taken place at the international level. If we go back to the early years of the United Nations, the Holocaust, the launching of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in all of these processes, the Universal Declaration, the two covenants, and the subsequent conventions, you have a number of things happening. You may have a governmental initiative for a proposed normative instrument. Often you have a non-governmental organization (NGO) initiative, and so now the idea is launched that the United Nations should draft some rights.

I remember the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons to Freedom of Religion or Belief was drafted. It was a very difficult negotiation. Your question to me is, what contributed to the success? It's this combination of governmental engagement, governmental negotiations, push from the NGOs, and persistence over a period of time. For example, the Universal Declaration recognizes the right to property, but the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not. That is part of the horse trading that took place.

At the end of the day, the answer that I want to give you if I may is that it is a patient process, a persistent process, involving well-disposed governments, involving NGOs, and involving academics. The vision of an international bill of rights was first put forward by the great Sir Hersch Lauterpacht. He wrote for the American Jewish Committee a draft of an international bill of rights, and he put this work in his landmark work, An International Bill of the Rights of Man. It is this persistent combination.

Allow me to give you an example, if I may. At the time when the idea was launched that there should be an international Convention on the Rights of the Child, this idea came, for whatever reason, from the government of Poland, and the Western governments at the time were skeptical of this—"Why is Poland pushing the idea of a Convention on the Rights of the Child?" But then the NGOs saw merit in this, and the NGOs owned this process, and then the NGOs brought UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) into the process.

I am repeating myself now, but it is this persistent, patient process of commitment, negotiations, and compromise that has resulted in—and nowadays, I want to say this, if the United Nations publishes a collection of human rights documents of the United Nations system and of some of the regional organizations, there is hardly an area of the relationship between the individual and the state that you will not find a normative provision covering it.

I put the normative provisions as one of the great successes of the United Nations because I think U Thant once addressed the International Law Commission—on which, by the way, I did my Doctoral thesis—and said: "The work that you are doing is for the long term." So these instruments in human rights are for the long term.

Anyhow, you asked me how they came about, and I have gone on a little bit, as you can see.

MARGARET KARNS: That's all right. But I am curious if there are any particular areas today where you think norms still need to be established, and what will it take? Will it take this same patient, persistent effort by states and NGOs to address these particular areas?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: I wrote a chapter of The Oxford Handbook of International Human Rights Law, and the chapter is on the normative process. The International Law Commission was established in 1945, and when it met in 1947 it commissioned by the same Sir Hersch Lauterpacht a survey of international law, and he discussed areas that the Commission might focus on in its work.

In the human rights field, this has been very much an ad hoc process, and in my chapter for the Oxford Handbook I suggested that from time to time the Human Rights Council should have an agenda for future norms, a discussion paper saying, "Okay, let's think about this, and let's think about that," maybe call in some think pieces, so that it is not left entirely to chance.

For the purposes of this discussion, I would mention three areas that I think one should think about: the whole area of human rights and scientific and technological developments. There are many facets of this. At one stage, the United Nations Subcommission on Human Rights had a program on this, and they did numerous reports and studies, and this topic has fallen by the wayside. There is a Sri Lankan-Australian professor who subsequently served on the International Court of Justice, Mr. Justice Weeramantry, and Mr. Justice Weeramantry wrote a book on human rights and scientific and technological developments.

To cut a long story short, I think this is an area that needs a think piece. The whole idea of the "singularity," humans and artificial intelligence, bioethics, and whatnot. But I group all of these under the heading of human rights and scientific and technological development.

It's a bit farfetched, but when I was at the London School of Economics I earned a diploma in air and space law. I think that humans are about to go into space. When the first "expeditions" were launched into space, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution: "Outer space is the common heritage of humanity." I think that we need some work here. We need to think about this.

Then, of course, in many systems, before you actually go into the process of legislative drafting, you have a white paper discussing the issues, giving governments a chance to think through them. I think we need a white paper there.

I will stop with those two areas. Now there is a whole area also of new forms of discrimination. The United Nations has been struggling since the Durban Conference in 2001 as to whether or not it could supplement its standards in the area of discrimination. I think this whole area of human rights and nondiscrimination is so—I will stop there, but let me make the point in this way. I think we need a think piece. This could be done in the academic world even. A group of people ought to sit down and say: "Well, yes, let's help to think this through."

MARGARET KARNS: Very interesting because I think you could put certainly issues related to gender identity and indigenous people. Both fall in those areas, where you could probably get declarations or resolutions. There is a great deal of controversy, but you're right. A think piece could be particularly useful.

In what ways has the United Nations actually been able to provide some protection for those whose human rights are violated?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: You see, Peggy, I wrote a book called Contemporary Human Rights Ideas. It is now in a second edition. In this book I have a chart. I listed a number of areas of the activities of the United Nations under the banner of protection. I scale them 1 to 10. I shocked some of my own friends and colleagues when I said that the highest rating for protection that I would give any part of the UN human rights machinery are the investigators, and I would only rate them at 3 out of 10 because protection means that you are putting a protective shield around people who are either at risk or who are undergoing violations. I am afraid that not much of that happens, and as you know rather well even the great Security Council does not really engage in protection.

But at the same time, I want to be fair here. I have already discussed normative protection. The idea of drafting the norms is hopefully to prevent. When the phenomenon of disappearances surfaced in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, the NGOs launched the idea that we should have a convention against enforced and involuntary disappearances. Enforced and involuntary disappearances are still rampant in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, the convention is there. I want to give some credit to normative protection.

Then I want to refer to what I would call "jurisprudential" protection. Under the UN human rights treaties there has been some significant jurisprudence. Some years ago in Canada there was a case involving a Maliseet Indian woman, the Loveless case, and according to Canadian law, if a woman married outside of the tribe, she lost her rights on the reservation, but a man did not. The Canadian government wanted to change this. This case went all the way up to the Canadian Supreme Court, which held against Sandra Loveless.

Then she brought the case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which operates under a similar political covenant, and the Human Rights Committee held that she was denied the right to live in community with members of her tribe, a great, great decision. I can give many others. I would credit jurisprudential protection.

Then I want to put in what I will call "fact-finding" protection. The most authoritative source that documents violations of human rights in the world still are the annual reports of the UN fact finders that I referred to earlier. When they do their reports—and there are many of them; they do a lot of pages—sometimes they get attention, and sometimes they don't. But these are the people I assessed at 3 out of 10, my highest assessment.

Fourth, I would have to give credit to what I would call "diplomatic" protection. U Thant, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, in his memoir View from the UN tells the story that in the pages of The New York Times he was being pilloried for not doing enough to help protect Jews in the then-Soviet Union and to help them emigrate. At the time, U Thant had made an arrangement with the senior Soviet on the secretariat-general and the Soviet government that they would quietly let people leave the Soviet Union. U Thant writes: "At the time when I was having significant successes, I could not speak about it."

When I served as high commissioner, I had a case from Nigeria, a woman called Amina Lawal. Amina Lawal had allegedly committed adultery, and she had been sentenced to death by a Sharia court. As high commissioner, what did I do? I asked our legal advisor to prepare a brief that this would be contrary to international human rights law. I shared that brief discreetly with the Nigerians. I don't know if it had the influence, but the Nigerian Supreme Court subsequently overturned the sentence of death. I just cite that as an example of what I call diplomatic protection, and you will find instances of that sort.

I have said basically the following things: Protection is putting a protective shield around people. The United Nations does not do that very well. The fact finders I will give a grade of 3 out of 10, but the United Nations strives to its utmost with normative protection, jurisprudential protection, fact-finding protection, and diplomatic protection, keeping in mind what I said at the outset that the human rights pillar is still in crisis.

MARGARET KARNS: You have shed some interesting light on the possibilities of what a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights can do, what often seems, however, like a thankless job to get governments to stop gross violations of human rights.

I wonder if you have another story you might share in your own experience or of another one of the other high commissioners who has made a difference in protecting a particular individual or more generally in promoting human rights.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: I would like to answer your question in this way. I think there is a need for scholarly investigation of the evolution of the position of high commissioner. As I look at it right now, I am going to use my words carefully and without comment on any occupant. I have respect for them all. I know that they have a difficult job. At a time when the international landscape is so difficult to operate in, the difficulties tell also on high commissioners.

A high commissioner wears many hats. A high commissioner wears a moral hat, a political hat, and an administrative hat. The moral hat is the high commissioner should represent the voice of conscience. Okay, if the high commissioner goes out there like a voice in the wilderness without any real authority, it's not so easy. So that's the moral hat. The political hat is that the high commissioner has to recognize the political forces that are at large in the world, and if a high commissioner ignores those political forces, the high commissioner is not going to get very far. The administrative hat; apart from the fact that you have to administer—they have some 1000 personnel right now—it is a fact of life that powerful states are squeezing the high commissioners all the time in key areas of the program because they have to vote the budget.

I want to tell you a story that happened to me. I went once when I was high commissioner before a body called the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions. There was a delegate—I will not mention the country—who was a rather obnoxious individual. He asked me a question, which I tried to answer in good faith. But he wanted to show off, and so he took the floor and said: "High Commissioner, I have to tell you this. You have not really answered my question, and unless you answer my question you will not get a penny of your program." This obnoxious pipsqueak could marshal a lot of support.

Anyhow, a high commissioner has to navigate these three hats. When I finished the 14 months as high commissioner, I wrote a book called A UN High Commissioner in Defence of Human Rights: No License to Kill or Torture. Initially I gave it the subtitle, Leadership, Troubleshooting, and Diplomacy, which I didn't retain in the end, but hold these three words—leadership: A high commissioner must lead intellectually, a high commissioner must engage in troubleshooting in situations of difficulties, and a high commissioner must engage in diplomacy.

When I used to teach human rights at Columbia University, I found myself saying to my students that I want to put human rights work into two categories, the category of seed planting, and the category of the fire brigade. The fire brigade is putting out the fire hopefully, but what really matters is seed planting. There are two seeds to be planted. The first seed is to help countries establish or enhance their national protection systems, and the second seed is to teach human rights in primary, secondary, and other institutions of learning.

When I have thought about it, keeping in mind the political currents that are at work in the world, if I had to spend the time of the high commissioner, I would say that the high commissioner should remember my three words: lead intellectually, at a time when universality is under challenge. That is what I mean by lead; troubleshooting: There are situations that clearly call for the attention of the high commissioner; and diplomacy: the high commissioner should go out there and talk to the government of my country, Guyana, and say, "Guyana, can we talk discreetly about how we can enhance your national protection system?"

Discharging the responsibilities of the high commissioner called—if I may, Peggy, allow me to take on the mantle of a serious scholar as I address this issue. I am not being judgmental; I am being reflective, but I think that a high commissioner has to carefully assess where she or he can best make a contribution.

I want to give you an example, if I may. There was a moment when Madeleine Albright was secretary of state, and Mary Robinson was the high commissioner. I was her deputy at the time. Madeleine Albright came then to the Commission on Human Rights. Mary Robinson was a woman of high integrity and high principles. She had a 45-minute meeting with Madeleine Albright, and she proceeded to lecture Madeleine Albright on the death penalty in the United States.

I could not help thinking: Was that the wisest way for her to use her time? Might she have said to the secretary of state: "Secretary of State, there are issues that I would like to discuss with you on some occasion, including the death penalty in the United States. But may I focus this conversation on areas where you might be able to help me spread the human rights cause, the mission, around the world?

There are many issues here. What I am saying to you is launch a political science study to enter the Office of the High Commissioner. We need some dispassionate thinking here.

MARGARET KARNS: Core lesson in politics—the art of the possible.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: The art of the possible, always keeping in mind—I need to bring in this concept. I have what I call the "theory of expanding circles" when it comes to human rights. At the center of some circles is a dot that I call the "center of commitment," and outside of the first dot there is a small circle, what I call the "circle of achievement." Outside of that there is another circle that I call the "circle of immediate opportunities," and outside of that is a wide, wide, wide circle, the "circle of the world" with all of its problems. The challenge is to keep pushing outwards that circle of achievement. I don't want to bow entirely to the concept of the art of the possible. I like my presentation of the expanding circles.

MARGARET KARNS: I think we would be remiss if we didn't touch briefly at least on the Human Rights Council in this conversation, Bertie. When it was created in 2006, hope was that it would correct some of the flaws of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Yet now we see the council mirroring some of the same problems that were present in the old Human Rights Commission, with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China being elected as members, despite the expectation that states' contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights would be important considerations in their election.

You talked recently about the political and financial pressures on the high commissioner to be less critical of governments, to use softer methods, and so on. But what hope do we have if we now have the council sliding in the direction of its predecessor and becoming more and more one might say politicized and more of its members being clear violators of human rights?

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: I want to answer you first as a professor of political science, if I may. When the Commission on Human Rights was under stress, this very issue of what I would call "insalubrious governments" wanting membership on the commission came up. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called me up for a discussion. In that discussion I told him that when the Commission on Human Rights was established, there was a procedure—never used—whereby governments elected onto the commission would inform the secretary-general of the names of their proposed representatives, and the secretary-general would engage in a process of consultation with the government.

This had never happened. I told him that we need to see if there might be ways in which we could help reinforce the integrity of membership in the commission. To his credit, he asked me if we could elect the members of the commission in the way we elect judges of the World Court. I didn't think that governments would agree to that, but he asked me for a paper on the subject, which I did put up to him.

The reason for telling you this is that at the time there might have been ways of addressing the difficulties of the commission that would have addressed the root causes, namely the "spots of the governmental leopards," and in the Human Rights Council the spots of the governmental leopards have remained the same. So now we are back to this inherent structural problem.

The idea when the council was established was that regions would have open contests for membership. We have more and more regional slates, and that is why some of these insalubrious governments still get elected. That is the first thing. The second thing is that in the United Nations, which is a political body, governments are engaging in mutual protection, and mutual protection still takes place in the Human Rights Council.

Having said that, I recently was in a panel discussion on the Human Rights Council. There are undoubtedly good things that happen in the Human Rights Council: It can meet in special session at short notice, it can respond to situations of gross violations, it can establish commissions of inquiry, which it does, and it can consult among its membership and seek to marshal attention to situations of concern. So there are some good things that have taken place in the Council.

But this brings us back to the point where I started. At the end of the day, if gross violations of human rights are rampant in the world, and the mantra in the council still is that the council "must engage in dialogue and cooperation," we have a deep, deep, deep ethical and political problem.

I spent 33 years in the United Nations, and allow me to say that the great bulk was in the human rights area. I wrote a book called The Advent of Universal Protection of Human Rights: Theo Van Boven and the Transformation of the UN Role, which focuses on Theo Van Boven as the director of human rights, and I was his special assistant. The point that I want to make is that I have seen the process and participated in the process. Those who are in and around the United Nations have to try to help the United Nations function to the extent that this is possible.

Why do I say this? Those who are now around the Human Rights Council have to ask themselves the question: Are there areas in which it might be possible to draw maximum benefit from the council? Within the council, there is something called the Universal Periodic Review process. I think the outcome of that process is still largely inchoate. We don't know what it gives each government.

Go back to two concepts that I have tried to put before you so far—the fire brigade and the seed planting. The fire brigade function of the council is under stress. There is room to expand the seed-planting function of the Human Rights Council, and I actually think that where policy should be focused is based on the documentation and the consultations that take place under the Universal Periodic Review process. The United Nations should try to publish periodically a global report on national protection systems, a positively oriented report so as to help governments do better when it comes to protecting human rights.

Going back to the Human Rights Council, the fire brigade and the seed planting, I have to be honest and tell you that the council remains vulnerable when it comes to dealing with gross violations of human rights because in the world now—let's mention a few practical phenomena.

Let me start with your own country. Historically your country has shielded its friends and sought to punish its adversaries when it comes to human rights. That has always been the case. That is number one. I started deliberately with your country out of fairness.

Second, there is a Chinese judge of the World Court, Judge Xue Hanqin, and she basically says in a course of lectures that she gave at The Hague Academy of International Law which was published: "We believe when it comes to human rights our pursuit of human rights is based on socialism with Chinese characteristics." In Russia they advocate what are known as "sovereign rights."

One of the things that I have not addressed sufficiently in this interview is the challenge to universality coming from these powerful states. In answering your question I am saying that we need some reflection on how we might be able to help the Human Rights Council define a role where it can serve the world without entrapping itself in the shoals of real power politics.

I want to tell you a little anecdote. I have just decided to do a course on global security and strategy, and my son, who teaches these subjects—now the son is teaching the father—says to me: "You must focus on international organizations and the good that they do in the world."

Then I said to him: "Well, now, listen. I have to focus on the power that moves the world."

The Human Rights Council has to navigate its way in the world of power. I gave you a long-winded answer; forgive me, but as you can see, I have spent some time reflecting on these issues. At the end of the day, you asked me, so I am just doing the best I can in answering.

MARGARET KARNS: You have done very well.

I want to close with a very quick question. This interview is scheduled to air shortly before the 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and I wonder if there is one thing you might name that you would celebrate about what the United Nations has been able to accomplish in this pillar of human rights.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: I would have to say immediately that the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is by far the most inspirational, practical, and political event in the history of the United Nations ever.

Forgive me for mentioning it, but I did a book called Asia and the Drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and I have a book that just came out a month or two ago, A History of the UN Human Rights Programme and Secretariat. At the end of the day, Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a provision that reads as follows: "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights stated in this Declaration may be realized." It is an ennobling provision.

John Humphrey was one of the lead drafters of the declaration. I have not only read his memoirs, he has four volumes of his diaries, and in his diaries he tells of what it took to get the Universal Declaration adopted. I will leave aside the fact that it has been translated into some 400 languages in the world and whatnot, but at the end of the day I think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the rallying document of our civilization.

MARGARET KARNS: That's a lovely phrase.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: I'm glad you agree.

MARGARET KARNS: That makes an upbeat note on which to end in talking about an aspect of UN work that is often not so upbeat.

This has been a very rich interview, Bertie, and I want to thank you very, very much for giving so generously of your time to write both the essay that appears in this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs as well as doing the interview with me today. It has been great to see you again.

BERTRAND RAMCHARAN: Thank you.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Thank you both, Peggy and Bertrand, for joining us. That was a delightful conversation.

This has once again been a conversation between our host, Dr. Margaret Karns, and her guest, Dr. Bertrand Ramcharan, as part of the Ethics & International Affairs series The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, produced by the Carnegie Council.

Once again, my name is Adam Read-Brown. I am the editor of the Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the other episodes in this series, the first with David Malone on the Security Council and the legacy of the United Nations at 75, with Dr. Maria Ivanova on environmental efforts at the United Nations, and with Noeleen Heyzer on women in the UN system.

For more information about this and other Carnegie Council programs, visit carnegiecouncil.org, and for more information about the Council's journal, including our recent special issue on the United Nations at 75, visit eiajournal.org.

Thanks so much for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed the program.

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