Interview

Dima Yared: ‘This year is a commemoration, but it’s not a celebration’

The on-going 75th commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights initiated by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), better known as Human Rights 75, offers some important core messages.

Dima Yared. Photo

About Dima Yared

 

Dima Yared is the Deputy Coordinator of Human Rights 75 at the UN Human Rights Office. She has over 17 years of experience working on human rights at the UN and in the civil society sector.

 


Human rights are a problem-solving tool with huge transformative potential. They can, and should, be seen as a unifying force, not a divisive factor. Penholders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) represented a worldwide community drawing inspiration from values across cultures. And universality and indivisibility of rights are crucial – the rights to housing, health, work, and sanitation go hand in hand with freedom of expression or the right to be free from torture.

Dima Yared, Human Rights Officer at the OHCHR, was in a conversation with Jemina Holmberg, Programme Manager for Human Rights at the Foundation. We gained insight into the background thinking and objectives of Human Rights 75 which aims at looking to the future and strengthening the human rights ecosystem.

‘This year is a commemoration, but it’s not a celebration,’ said Dima Yared describing the backdrop to Human Rights 75.

‘It comes at a time of growing division and polarisation, conflict and violence, geopolitical tensions, and at the tail end of the COVID-19 [pandemic] with all its detrimental effects for many human rights. At the same time, 2023 marks several anniversaries within the human rights sphere: 75 years of the UDHR, 30 years of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and 25 years of the UN Declaration of Human Rights defenders. Those anniversaries offer a unique opportunity to rekindle the spirit that led to their adoption.’

‘But it is more than a campaign, as it is an opportunity to push for real progress on human rights. That is why the High Commissioner is calling on all actors, national, regional, and local – states, businesses, civil society, and national human rights institutions – to make concrete pledges throughout the year on action for human rights. These commitments will be made public at a high-level event in Geneva in December this year, which is the milestone event of the year where all of our activities culminate’, she said.

‘The call for action is also directed inwards and the High Commissioner is asking each UN entity to take action for human rights within their respective mandates to fuel efforts of embedding human rights across the spectrum – from how we deal with humanitarian crises, to preventing conflict to long-term development’.

‘It also aims to strengthen common ownership and shared responsibility within the system for work on human rights. Human rights were meant as one of the cornerstones of the UN, the third pillar, meaning that though the OHCHR is the ‘home’ of human rights, they should be integrated into all pillars. The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights in 2020 was a strong signal in this direction but yet, the gap between theory and practice remains wide,’ Dima Yared continued.

Everyone is asked to do more, but at the same time, critical voices are claiming that the UN aspires too much without sufficient coordination of objectives and efforts. What is Dima Yared’s message to those seeing Human Rights 75 as yet another initiative demanding time and resources that are already thinly stretched?

‘The UN is engaged in a lot of processes and there is a sense that we work in silos. But the ultimate objectives of each and every one of these is the same, improving lives and the situation for people’, she answered.

‘All these processes and agendas are interlinked, and we have agreed that human rights need to be at the heart of all our work’.

Dima Yared gives the example of the New Agenda for Peace, springing out of Our Common Agenda, which aims to help us understand and address the drivers and systems of influence that sustain conflict. ‘Human rights are absolutely central to this, as to so many other processes and agendas. Human Rights 75 is there to engage with these processes and make sure that the national commitments made at, for example, the SDG Summit are complementary to their Human Rights 75 pledges. Or that pledges made in different processes follow a human rights-based approach’.

We asked her how the initiative can reach out to states and groups who are less inclined to discuss human rights or who are not convinced of the need to promote and protect them, but with whom the needs for engagement are perhaps the greatest.

‘It’s probably one of the greatest challenges. We listen and try to understand where the blockages and sources of cynicism and scepticism are coming from. Sometimes the reasons are political, other times it is a lack of understanding. But the High Commissioner always says he is prepared to speak to everyone – conversations that sometimes take place in public, sometimes in private. We try to show that human rights are efficient policymaking tools, it’s not only about pointing out violations. If human rights-based data showing discrimination, for example, are used and properly integrated into laws and policies, human rights work can be transformative. We try to show that’.

‘If we keep weakening, or rather the other way around, fail to strengthen this work, the devastating effects of these and other crises will just keep multiplying’.

She adds that ‘skepticism may also come from a sense of selectivity, that the system only criticizes some regions and not others, or that it tends to focus on certain crises and ignore or forget others. People may feel that the system is not universal, but selective. This is something we need to listen to and continuously assess – securing universality and indivisibility and making sure the system addresses all issues across the board, regardless of where they occur’.

At the same time, she reminds us that the Human Rights pillar is chronically underfunded, being the least financed of the three pillars receiving around 4% of the UN’s regular budget and being strongly dependent on voluntary contributions. Magnifying the consequences of the gap between the means and the demands is another objective of the Human Rights 75.

Dima Yared asks us to consider the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, migrants dying in the Mediterranean – they all demonstrate how fundamental human rights protection is.

‘If we keep weakening, or rather the other way around, fail to strengthen this work, the devastating effects of these and other crises will just keep multiplying. Very concretely, the progress that was being made on some of the Sustainable Development Goals, like combatting extreme poverty, was fully reversed when COVID-19 hit.

Obviously, political will for investing in human rights is needed. But still, the message needs to be repeated continuously. And though states may be the main duty bearers for human rights, actors like the business community and civil society carry responsibilities too and of keeping on shining the light and making the case for human rights. All pieces need to come together’, she said.

‘We’ve also seen that when young people protest or take action, whether it be on climate justice, migrants’ rights or women’s health, they are really speaking the language of human rights’. 

For the OHCHR it was clear from the start the Human Rights 75 needed to have a strong focus on young people.

According to Dima Yared ‘it’s the generation with the most at stake and while the consequences of the decisions being made today will fall on them, they’ve often been left out of decision-making. There is growing activism by young people and there has also been a shift in how we understand this activism – we don’t look at them as young human rights defenders anymore but as human rights defenders who happen to be young’.

‘This confirms the relevance of these rights as a unifying force. Following an open call resulting in 2500 applications, a number of young human rights defenders with a background in activism were selected to be part of the Youth Advisory Group of the Human Rights 75, representing a range of human rights issues across the world. Their recommendations are being integrated this year and beyond and finding a way of meaningful integration of the voices of young people and children in member states’ and UN decision making is one of the top priorities of the year’, she explained.

In 2047, the 100th anniversary of the UDHR will be commemorated. How would you like the story to read? What will ideally be the key changes to look back on that happened in 2023 that affected the trajectory for the work on human rights, call them shifts or breakthroughs if you like? Her wish list is long.

‘I hope 2023 will be remembered as the turning point for understanding the transformative nature of human rights. That we rekindled that realisation that human rights can bring us together, influence policies and laws’, she said.

‘2023 will be the year when commitments were made to create real space for young people in decision-making. The ‘home’ for human rights, whether it be the OHCHR, national human rights institutions, or regional mechanisms, was strengthened. It was the year when the OHCHR finally became right-sized, grew, and was given the proper resources. And when its independence was valued – when the breadth and scope of its mandate was seen as a value. An understanding that we’re there to help support and build systems that work better, for all’, she concluded.


Photo: United Nations

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Jemina Holmberg By Jemina Holmberg

About Jemina Holmberg


Jemina Holmberg is the Foundation’s Programme Manager for UN Leadership. She brings extensive experience as a manager and expert in the Swedish civil service. Jemina held various positions in the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters and she worked as the Chief of Staff of the Uppsala County Governor and  the County Administrative Board.

She holds a master’s degree in International Studies from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, a Bachelor of Science in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and completed the Diplomatic Training Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.