This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations (UN). The UN is just a little bit younger than I am myself. Looking back over the past 70 years there is no doubt that the UN has coloured my life. The UN reflected the hope for a new international order based on the rule of law and human rights. Through the family I was raised in and the teachers at both my elementary and, in particular, my secondary school, I experienced the deeply felt desire not to return to the pre-World War II situation. It stimulated me to study law at Leiden University with a view to becoming a diplomat and work for either the Netherlands government or for the United Nations. I am forever grateful to my professors at Leiden University (Van Panhuys, Maas, Kooijmans, Koopmans and Vlekke) for further stimulating my interest in international and European relations, and in particular in the important role international law could and should play in such relations. I took the first course in international human rights law ever taught at Leiden University, not realizing at that time that human rights would become the main area (apart from the international law of the sea) in which I would work within the UN.

Main activities

After graduating from Leiden University in 1969, I first worked in an academic environment at Leiden University, the University of Virginia and the University of Ghana. It was only late 1978 that I joined the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Department of International Organisations, Humanitarian and Legal Affairs desk. It was at that time that the first ever detailed Government Memorandum on Human Rights and Foreign Policy saw the light of day. This memorandum was drafted by Herman Burgers who became my boss; I was further working with such colleagues as Jaap Walkate, Toine van Dongen, and Laetitia van der Assum, who were all deeply committed to the cause of human rights. Since then I have been involved in a large number of different activities within the UN context. This continued even after I returned to academia, moving to Maastricht to set up a new Faculty of Law where I would work with, among others, Theo van Boven, the former Director of the UN Human Rights Division.

The main emphasis of my activities within the UN was on human rights. With hindsight, the past 35 years have seen great advances of the UN in this field. An impressive normative framework has been created; supervisory procedures have been developed. I was privileged to be involved in this development in various capacities: as a government delegate, as an expert within the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities and the Prevention of Discrimination and later within the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Human Rights Committee, and as a representative of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

There is no doubt that in the field of human rights the United Nations has been most successful; which, of course, does not mean that human rights are now universally respected.

It is striking that this success could be achieved in a world arena which is so diverse from a political, economic, religious and cultural perspective. While respecting those differences the UN has contributed to the emergence of a common, universal culture shared by all states around the world.

Some highlights

My best experience within the UN was in the framework of the Second World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, and in which I had the privilege of chairing the Netherlands government delegation. The two week conference saw the participation of more than 170 States and was attended by around 6000 NGO representatives. It was feared that this conference would lead to an erosion of the achievements made in the field of human rights. A draft negotiating text of the Declaration and Programme of Action was almost totally bracketed, implying that in two weeks’ time a large number of major decisions had to be taken. After five days of intense negotiations it proved, however, to be possible to agree on this sentence: “The universality of all human rights is beyond question”, thereby solving one of the thorniest issues in the discussions. I realised at that moment that the conference would become a success. Looking back, it may be safely said that the outcomes of the Vienna Conference and the Vienna Declaration and Programme, have had a very positive impact on the development of human rights. Examples in point are the recognition of violence against women as a violation of (women’s) human rights, and the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

My worst experience took place twelve years earlier in the context of the Law of the Sea Conference. In New York, in the spring session of 1981, the Conference was about to finalize its work on the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). UNCLOS represented one of the most comprehensive, detailed and progressive international law making exercises I have been involved as a member (and later secretary) of the Netherlands delegation. The 1981 New York session was meant to be the last one, with a view to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the draft text of the convention. Two months earlier Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as American president. The new representative of the US in the Law of the Sea conference announced on the first day of a six week session that the new Reagan administration could not participate in the work of the session, since it had decided to subject the results achieved so far to a policy review. This came as a big shock to all present. I even saw delegates weeping after the announcement. One year later UNCLOS was adopted by the Conference with only the US opposing.

The strength of the UN

It is not easy to indicate in a few sentences what the strength of the UN is. From the perspective of human rights, which constitutes my main involvement with the UN over the past 36 years, I would say that the UN provides both a political forum and an expert forum for human rights debates and decision-making. In both these fora, civil society organisations, including human rights and women NGOs, have played and are playing a crucial role.

The inclusion of human rights as one of the three main objectives of the UN can already be credited to some extent to NGOs.

In the development of the human rights normative and supervisory framework, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, NGOs have been actively involved. NGOs further actively contribute to the monitoring activities of the political human rights organs of the UN, such as the UN Human Rights Council, and of the expert monitoring human rights treaty bodies, such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Human Rights Committee. The political human rights organs and the expert bodies are complementary; both are aimed at improving the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the domestic level. The involvement of NGOs in this task has been crucial in the past and will remain so in the future.

The weakness of the UN

It is often said that the UN is as strong or as weak as the member States want it to be. The authority of the UN can only be maintained if all States, or at least a very large, if not overwhelming part of the member States comply with the obligations flowing directly and indirectly from the UN Charter. Again from the perspective of human rights, I would say that the main weakness of the UN is that many States do not care about the recommendations made by both political and expert organs to desist from violating basic human rights and to improve the overall human rights situation. For example, there are many States in all parts of the world that do not allow special thematic rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council to enter their countries; likewise there are many States not complying with their reporting obligations under international human rights treaties or with recommendations made by treaty bodies. States that are members of political human rights organs, like the UN Human Rights Council, have sometimes a clearly bad human rights record and reputation. This list could be easily continued.

What to do about this? My answer would be that 70 years is too short a time for the realization of the human rights objective of the UN.

The main achievement of the UN in this field is undoubtedly that all States are now accountable for their human rights performance.

There is no other way forward than to continue the discussions, to consolidate and strengthen the normative and procedural frameworks, to continue to hold States accountable, and to assist States in their efforts to (further) improve their domestic human rights situation. Furthermore, in those cases where the chips are fully down, where basic human rights and fundamental freedoms are systematically or gravely violated, the UN Security Council must be prepared to use its powers, in the framework of the responsibility to protect, to correct the situation in the country concerned and to assist in restoring the rule of law and human rights.

The future of the UN

There is no future without a history. The UN with all its ups-and-downs, with its inspiring and visionary, but also its timid, Secretaries-General, has proven to provide a platform where the peoples of the world can meet and can make efforts to live up to the purposes and principles of the UN, so well formulated in the preamble and article 1 of the United Nations Charter. The world of today is, of course, totally different from the world of 1945. There is every reason to continue to work hard on reflecting the fundamental changes in the world community since 1945 in the architecture of the UN, in particular in the composition of the Security Council. There is an avalanche of other proposals relating to a restructuring of the UN. They should all be worked on and where possible tested.

It is undoubtedly imperative to adapt the UN to the fundamental changes occurring over time. But it is equally imperative to stay close, now and in the future, to the three closely related objectives of the UN. It was former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who said that there can be no peace and security without social and economic development; he continued by saying that there can be no social and economic development without peace and security; and he finally added that neither peace and security, nor social and economic development are possible without respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. That was true in 1945, it is true at the 70th anniversary of the UN, and it will remain true in the years and decades to come.

From a human rights perspective this means that the hard work of taking small steps must continue. Much has been achieved by earlier generations, but the end result is still of a very fragile character. Consolidation and further strengthening of the UN human rights framework are needed, not as an end itself but as a tool to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights at the domestic level.

Anniversary wishes for the UN at 70

A world without a UN is now unthinkable. The world will continue to be in need of a platform where all concerns can be expressed, where action can be taken, where peace and justice, human rights, and social and economic development go hand in hand. In the world of today States have accepted that they are there for their peoples, and not vice versa; that they can be held accountable at the international level for their human rights policies, and that they are also responsible to a large extent for the protection of human rights in other countries (the “responsibility to protect”). The UN has certainly contributed to providing the once unruly international order in which sovereign States played a dominant role with a constitutional basis for recognising the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals. My wish for the UN is that its member States will be determined to uphold and further strengthen this role in the future.

Concluding remarks

At the outset of these personal reflections I made the point that the UN has coloured my life. Even now a UN flag stands on my desk. I used to have a copy of the UN Charter in my shirt pocket while teaching international law (of human rights). It is a matter of great satisfaction that many of my former students are now serving the international community in different relevant capacities.

Cees Flinterman

Cees Flinterman


Emeritus professor of human rights at Maastricht University and Leiden University
Member United Nations Human Rights Committee