Personal involvement as well as trends and developments over a period of more than 40 years

In my school years and during my student life in the fifties of the last century I developed a keen interest in international affairs. And thus, after a year of studies in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship I had the good chance of joining the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Department of International Organizations. It was in those early years in the sixties to the mid-seventies that I was entrusted to deal with certain issues relating to the United Nations in the Ministry itself, and to act as an advisor and delegate in a variety of UN organs, most visibly as the Netherlands Representative in the UN Commission on Human Rights. At that time I acted as a national civil servant. This was followed up by a second stage of my professional life with the UN when I was appointed the UN Director of Human Rights and served for five years as an UN staff member, based in Geneva. Thereafter, during some twenty years in academia, I held a variety of UN functions in an independent expert capacity. The common thread in all those positions – as a national delegate, an international civil servant, and an independent expert – was the promotion and protection of human rights as a sensitive, complicated, and often controversial cause, already enshrined and affirmed in the UN Charter.

During those years we witnessed far-reaching technological developments in communications. We observed and felt the effects of decolonization and the emergence of new powers beyond the Atlantic arena. The ominous effects of the so-called war on terror after 9/11 had a major impact on human security through the erosion of basic values and rights. Coping with the role of non-state actors, such as transnational corporations, business enterprises, and private security agencies became a matter of increasing concern.

The dismantling of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall gave new hope and inspiration but did not prevent new forms of segregation and separation.

The recognition of gender perspectives came more emphatically to the forefront and in many ways civil society managed to influence policies at domestic, regional, and international levels. More specifically in the human rights area, there was a definite trend from exclusion to inclusion in standard setting, procedures, and mechanisms, thus providing hope and redress to the vulnerable. This selection of trends and developments, albeit mentioned in an arbitrary and subjective order, all had an effect on the agenda of the United Nations.

A specific memorable personal recollection

While I have a strong recollection of a good number of special experiences in the UN, positive and negative, the most striking event that took me by surprise, but that was not to everybody’s amazement, was the abrupt notification early in February 1982 from the UN Secretary-General that my contract as UN Director of Human Rights, after five years of service in that position, would not be renewed. In other words, I was dismissed. This event was a personal tragedy for myself and my family and a deception for a number of colleagues and collaborators. It received wide publicity after I announced this decision from UN Headquarters in a plenary session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. My forced departure, what some called ironically “the human rights czar”, drew wide public interest. I received numerous signs of solidarity from civil society organizations, parliamentarians, and political leaders who in public statements and petitions expressed their dissatisfaction and concerns about the decision of the UN Leadership. As a farewell present friends and colleagues collected and edited the policy statements I delivered during my five years (1977-1982) as UN Director of Human Rights. These were published in a book entitled “People Matter” (Meulenhoff, 1982). More recently, in 2013, the same five years were visually recorded in a documentary with flashbacks in Argentina and Chile (directed by Ethan Films and produced by Human Rights in the Picture). In retrospect those five years constituted the most fascinating and rewarding episode in my professional life and I feel vindicated that in later years, when the days of the Cold War had gone, the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created. This mandate reflects in many respects the role I sought to play as a simple Director of Human Rights.

United Nations: strengths and weaknesses

Any anniversary assessment on the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of the United Nations may well recall that the United Nations now surpasses by far the life-time of its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations. In the same vein it may be noted with satisfaction that Member States unexceptionally choose to remain inside the Organization, in spite sentiments of discontent expressed in the ill-practice of withholding financial contributions. The strengths and in particular the weaknesses of the Organization are periodically reviewed in an unfinished story of reform discussion and reform proposals. Most prominent in these reform deliberations figures the composition and the functioning of the Security Council, notably the adverse effects of the use of veto powers by permanent members of the Council. Various strengths and weaknesses can be determined as inherent in the predominantly inter-state structure of the United Nations designed in the aftermath of World War II. This poses the problem how to deal propitiously with non-state actors, having regard for basic freedoms from want and fear. Such non-state actors may be classified as “hard” powers (militarily and financially) and “soft” powers (civil society). One highly significant trend stretching over the last three or four decades, adding to the legitimacy and credibility of the United Nations, is the increasing impact of civil society as a broadly based “soft” but influential power movement rendering an extra dimension beyond the predominantly inter-state structure of the United Nations.

Many remarkable developments can be traced back to initiatives and lobby campaigns by important sectors of civil society.

Among such developments these should be mentioned: making human rights more inclusive and accessible to the marginalized and the vulnerable, strengthening the rule of law and criminal justice, incorporating gender criteria in governance and decision-making, outlawing the production and use of abhorrent and indiscriminate weapons, devising means and methods of fact-finding and monitoring etc. etc. Thus, civil society groups and movements, who have made great progress in organizing themselves and have footholds in all continents, have become increasingly associated and involved with issues featuring on the UN agenda. This trend, which combines elements of strength and weakness, deserves full support and renders, as stated above, more legitimacy and credibility to the United Nations in the realization of its global mission.

Prospects for the future

In order to remain within editorial limits I will only put forward a few expectations and prospects regarding the future of the United Nations.

First, the United Nations will not develop into a World Federation but, as a part of an evolutionary process, will gain legitimacy through the standards adopted with the aim of upholding peace and justice.

Second, the United Nations and its credibility will be enhanced by a higher degree of professional courage and leadership with due respect for Article 100 of the UN Charter underscoring the genuine international responsibilities of the Secretary-General and his/her staff.

Third, while the United Nations will remain the appropriate and competent institution and forum for bringing forward, as the Earth Charter put it, “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace”, regional arrangements in various parts of the world will become more instrumental in implementing the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

An anniversary wish; personal note in conclusion

  • I wish that the United Nations will soon after its 70th birthday see for the first time in its history a woman being appointed to the post of Secretary-General.
  • As a personal note I consider it a privilege to have been associated with the United Nations during a large part of my life. I also consider it a learning and rewarding experience to have been in a position of working together with persons, often close colleagues, coming from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
Theo van Boven

Theo van Boven

Emeritus professor international law Maastricht University

Leiden University
Former Director Human Rights of the United Nations,
UN Special Rapporteur against Torture, Co-founder of the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, Maastricht Universit