Alfred de Zayas
I am optimistic that we can do it. But for that we need as I say, this multilateralism and this openness and this opportunity, which the United Nations offers all of us of interactive dialogue.
Hello everyone, I’m Natalie Alexander, and this is The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library & Archives Geneva, designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism.
Our guest today is Dr. Alfred de Zayas, the first person to serve as the UN Human Rights Council's 'Independent Expert' on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, a role he took on from May 2012 to April 2018. Mr. De Zayas has a background in history and law, with expertise in civil and political rights. Among his many roles, his latest is as a Professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
He joins host Tiffany Verga to share his latest book, Building a Just World Order. What does that mean and why should it matter as we reflect on the future of multilateralism? He shares about his experiences as an Independent Expert, which led to 14 reports which he presented to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. These reports are compiled in his new book, together with 25 principles of international order for the UN system, which he recommends as holistic and interconnected ways for moving forward to ensure peace, human rights and sustainable development for all.
We also hear why he continues to have hope in multilateralism.
Let’s take a listen.
Welcome back to the Next Page podcast. Just for our listeners out there. I'd like to preface the fact that our guest today Alpha desires is currently sitting in front of me with 15 plus books, by far one of our most organized podcast guests we've ever had here in the library. So a warm welcome to the Library and Archives Geneva and the podcast. Hi, Alfred!
Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Would you mind telling our audience a little bit about yourself and how you came to be working in the field of human rights and international law?
Very well. I was at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard doing both history and law, my passion being history. But I also wanted to have a career and ended up as a corporate lawyer in New York. And from there, after three years of doing mergers and first mortgage bonds, second mortgage bonds, public utilities, etc. I got bored, and I went to Germany to finish a task that I had put on myself to look into matters of refugees, minorities, massive population transfers. At that time, the concept of ethnic cleansing did not exist. And I had learned in history that at the end of the Second World War 15 million ethnic Germans from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, East Brandenburg, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Yugoslavia had been expelled, and it's a huge issue. And I wrote a book on it then, which was actually my dissertation at the University of Göttingen. It came out with Routledge, and it focused on the ethics or lack thereof, as the case may be.
I came in the 1970s to the archives of the League of Nations. I came to work here in the UN library. And I also worked in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, that all flowed into my first book, Nemesis at Potsdam. I then got myself a job at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg for international law. And a good friend of mine there said, say "they're advertising a post for a lawyer for the Human Rights Committee. Why don't you apply?" So I applied. And so I came on board. That was 1980. And I had the privilege to work for the United Nations. And indeed, I had the opportunity of drafting for the experts of the Human Rights Committee. I was extremely pleased in this context. And of course, I wanted to share it as a professor. So while I was an international civil servant, I also took the opportunity of giving lectures here at the Graduate Institute. When I was secretary of the Human Rights Committee. I was the chief of petitions, that's more or less like being registrar or so. I had the opportunity of course, to coordinate the jurisprudence so that one committee didn't say A whereas the other committee was saying B. I took early retirement went back to teaching, taught again at the Graduate Institute. And since then, I've been teaching at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. I teach there international law and history both.
Wow, it's definitely a very fascinating and rare background that you have. And I mean, wonderful that we can welcome you back to the library after so many years. I'm going to explore now the role of an independent expert a little bit more. So you were selected for your mandate as the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, a roll that you carried for six years? And I was just wondering, in your opinion, why did the UN Human Rights Council create this mandate? And why did we need an independent expert? And what exactly is an independent expert for those of us at home who may not know?
As far as expertise, all rapporteurs and independent experts are experts. Actually, the crux of the matter here is the independence. To what extent were we, rapporteurs truly independent? Or did we suffer from group think, and an independent expert actually must be able to jump over his own shadow, must be able to think not only inside the box, but outside the box. So as far as what it means to be a rapporteur, it means you have to actually, listen. You go to a country if you're doing a country mission, or you go to a country in order to learn. You have to be very well prepared, but also very open. You cannot just come with your preconceived ideas. And you have to listen to all sides. If there is one rule of history writing, and a rule of judicial procedure is audiatur et altera pars. You have to listen to all sides, and evaluate all of the evidence and not just what comes your way. You have to proactively go and get it. And then you make your own synthesis, then you make your conclusions and your recommendations. What you have to find out are the root causes. What do you want to do is to prevent those violations and in order to prevent the violations, you have to study what has led politicians, many of them actually democratically elected, to commit gross violations of human rights.
The independent expert really sounds like such a powerful and influential role. And I think what's really nice is that you've illustrated that at the crux of it the power and influence comes from listening to other people and being open to that communication. So building a just world compiles the works and efforts of 14 reports and notes and thoughts you've had throughout the duration of your role and culminates in 25 principles of international order and recommendations for the UN. The title of your book is Building a Just World Order. I was just wondering, in your words, what does "a just world order" mean to you? And why is this concept important as well?
Well, the United Nations Charter is in a very real sense, the world constitution. And if the 193 states parties to the United Nations were to observe the purposes and principles of the Charter, we would have peace, we would have human rights and we would have development. Unfortunately, geopolitics, geo-economics, trade all mixed in. And although we have made a lot of progress since 1945, we have not only issued standards, we have established the mechanisms, we engage in monitoring, we know what the situation of human rights is, and in all fields, whether it would be in the field of labor law, the International Labor Organization as produced some 200 conventions, the World Health Organization with its very important international health regulations, have done a lot international cooperation and international coordination. And that has to be based of course, on multilateralism. It has to be based on the concept of international solidarity. This is a global problem. It demands a global solution. And what is the most important in the United Nations system is that we have full fora that can discuss all sorts of issues from climate change to free trade agreements to the corporate social responsibility, vis-à-vis the consumers. And all of that is an enormous achievement. And it would achieve a lot more if it was properly funded.
Now, back to my book, you mentioned 14 reports. My 14 reports cover what I considered at the time to be the priorities. I have a report on military expenditures. I also had a report in 2014 on self-determination. I am a believer that it's not self-determination that causes conflict. It is the unjust denial of the rights of all peoples to self-determination that causes the conflict, I proposed that the General Assembly create the function of a Special Advisor to the Secretary General, on issues of self-determination, because self-determination certainly has not been achieved by many peoples who aspire to it. We must listen to these grievances, and not just simply ignore them, like if they didn't exist. That is a source of future conflict. An advisor to the Secretary General could act as a form of early warning system.
Another one of my reports dealt with the so-called investor-state dispute settlement arbitrations. These are the investment protection chapters of free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties, etc, with the result that the regulatory space of states has been crippled. Now the ontology of the state is to regulate business, regulate economic and cultural activities for the population, for the well-being of the population. That's why government is there, and the ontology of business is to take risks. So sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But you have to accept that sometimes you're gonna lose. You cannot simply privatize profits and socialize losses. And these investor state dispute settlements result again and again, in governments being condemned, because they have raised the minimum wage. obviously, the raise the minimum wage, the transnational corporation makes less. But I mean, the transnational corporation must have anticipated. It is a foreseeable risk that you can factor in, but you cannot then sue the government to give you a subsidy, because the government has taken social action that is necessary. And that is actually the essence of the prerogatives of government. So what we have to do in international order, is to recast our priorities, so that you can guarantee every human being on the planet, the right to food, the right to water, the right to sanitation, the right to shelter, and the right to education. That's why we have also the sustainable development goals. And how are we going to finance these Sustainable Development Goals? How are we going to finance measures on climate change? If we do not engage in good faith in a concerted policy of disarmament for development, that should be the matrix. That should be the motto, what we need is international solidarity. We need multilateralism, we need cooperation to solve all of these problems that we have.
Now, another topic to which I devoted one of my reports is the right to know, the right to truth, the right to information, Article 19 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This covenant obliges all states parties to guarantee access to information, and unfortunately, because of the conglomerates, the corporate media engages not only in fake news that they have done since time immemorial, but they engage in suppression of information. Now, we are against censorship when censorship occurs by the state. But when censorship is imposed by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, by the private sector, that is undermining democracy. Censorship by government is contrary to democracy because the citizen in order to make a conscientious exercise of a right to vote must have his own opinion and must have the opportunity to frame his own ideas as to a particular issue given that censorship is bad if it's done by government. It's also bad if it's done by the private sector. It is important that everyone have access to a plurality of views, have access to the facts, and to the evaluation of the facts. Without that being, shall we say, manipulated, so as to manufacture consent, the title of the famous book by Noam Chomsky. Now, going back to my 25 principles of international order, because that actually is the added value of the book, I really think I have succeeded in going on building not only on the UN Charter, but building on General Assembly resolution 2625, the famous friendly relations resolution, resolution 3314, on the definition of aggression, and on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Millennium Declaration, then the Millennium Plus Five declaration, the SDGs, etc, etc. They are all in these 25 principles of international order, which could be as the French would say, a mode d'emploi, in order to move in the direction of achieving an equitable and democratic international order. And as I said, I am optimistic that we can do it. But for that, we need as I say, this multilateralism and this openness and this opportunity, which the United Nations offers all of us, of interactive dialogue.
So you've covered quite a few of the key findings or learnings that you had throughout your first main mandate order and just search, and you just touched on the fact that it builds on a bunch of different declarations established worldwide. Why is this book important now, in today's context? Why should people read it? And why do we need to understand it?
Well, as I said, there is a problem of fake news that evolves into fake history, which generates fake law, and gets quoted in fake diplomacy and takes us down the slippery path to fake democracy. I think it is important to go back to basics. I mean, I find that the influence of corporate media. But not only the corporate media, you have the corporate lobbyists, you have the capture of human rights by certain lobbies that have significantly moved the priorities away from the essentials of human dignity, and to, shall we say the consumer society. I find that many nongovernmental organizations today are pushing only what I call "business friendly rights", but they are neglecting economic, social and cultural rights. And that's why in the concluding chapter, I have a section called "a new functional human rights paradigm". What I am demanding actually is a change of mindset, a change of paradigm in abandoning this prejudiced approach of the so called first generation rights, second generation rights, third generation rights or first generation rights - civil and political, second generation rights - economic, social, third generation rights - the right to the environment, or the right to peace, the right to development, etc, etc. So the idea is third generation rights "Oh, we don't have the time enough. Maybe we can think of third generation rights, you know, we're not going to do it." And I say, we have to focus on enabling rights. I have four categories enabling rights, which are the rights that will habilitate you to be able to access the other rights, certainly right to food and water and shelter, etc. These are absolute necessary. Then you have what I called the "imminent or inherent rights". Every right has in it the general principles of law, meaning, you have to apply every right in good faith, not with double standards. There's a right to equality. You have exactly the same right to property as I do, you have exactly the same right to freedom of expression as I do.
Now, another category of rights is what I call "procedural rights". It is the rights that we need in order to complete our personality, in order to reach our potential. We certainly need access to information, we need the freedom of expression so that we can exchange views, we need freedom of peaceful assembly. All of these are procedural rights and instrumental rights because you need them in order to achieve what I call the "outcome rights", the exercise of human dignity in greater freedom. Your right to be you, and my right to be me, and I should not be forced by society into self-censorship. And that is one of the greatest dangers that we're facing in modern society, that people do not dare to say they're dissenting. They fear outing themselves, because there are consequences. Not only will you be ostracized, but more and more, there's a cancel culture in many countries, and there's a very high level of intolerance.
I think that a new approach to human rights is necessary. I am working with Dr. Kirk Boyd at Berkeley, and he launched the idea of an International Bill of Human Rights, building, of course, on what's there before, I mean, we're not inventing the bill. The organization that we found is called Eleanor Lives, after Eleanor Roosevelt. You will see that we already have a draft, International Bill of Human Rights, which tries to combine all of the existing instruments into one and we're calling for the creation of an international court of human rights because the essence of human rights, as I say, in principle 25 of my 25 principles is enforcement. I mean, rights should be juridical, of course, justiciable, meaning that you can invoke them before a court, and they must be enforceable. The court must have a mechanism to make sure that these rights are being enforced. And that is, as I say, principle 25.
But another principle that I have is a principle that goes back to good faith, and that goes back to the general principles of law, to wit that you want that people apply the spirit of the law together with a letter of the law. It should not be what positivists say "the law is the law is the law". We are not there just in order to obey blindly the law; we are there to make sure that the rule of law becomes the rule of justice. As I tell my students, apartheid laws were laws, slavery laws were laws, the laws of the colonial period were laws, and they were all, shall we say, to be obeyed. And we have, of course, the heroes of human rights in prior centuries, the abolitionists who wanted to do away with all of these, what I would call on ethical laws, the Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were laws. Dura lex, sed lex. You have to obey them. Already at the time of the Roman Republic, and Marcus Tullius Cicero said "wait a minute, the excess of law invariably generates injustice." So you have to apply the law intelligently, flexibly, on a case by case basis, so that at the end of the day, you have done justice. It cannot just be blind application of the law. So, if you study the 25 principles, you will see that there is a conscious effort to tell people "look, you have to clear your head of automatisms, clear your head of knee-jerk reactions, and try to understand what is the ontology of the state? what is the ontology of business? what's the ontology of the economy? And try to see how we can use all of this, in order to enable each one of us to reach our potential, to enable us to have a better life."
And as I said, one of the main things to be achieved is to end poverty, one of the Sustainable Development Goals. One of my colleagues whom I very much admire is Professor Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University. Among his many, many, many books, he has one called The End of Poverty, how we can make it happen in our lifetime. I very much believe in this book, and it is cited in my own book several times. He also wants a change of paradigm, but we don't see that in the mainstream media. I think that there is much to be said, for the heroes of human rights, as I mentioned, Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin, and John Humphrey and PC Chang and Charles Malik, and all the others who were enamored with the idea of the dignity of every single individual. And that, in the end, is what I would hope that the Human Rights Council will help us achieve step by step. And for that reason, I think I wrote this book in the hope that they will see added value in the 25 principles and see how the 25 principles can be concretely applied. every country according to its model of government. But I do want to have greater participation by the citizen, that governments listen to the citizen more, that governments understand that the essence of democracy is this correlation between the will and the wants of the people, and the laws and regulations that affect them. So there is a disconnect in many countries, between the elites, between the government and the people. And this has to be breached, and no place better to do it than domestically, with the help of the Human Rights Council, and with the help of the United Nations.
Well, I think there's a lot to learn from your book that you've produced, and I'm sure our listeners will find a lot of value just as you've illustrated that they can gain from it. We'll be sure to link it in the show notes, so if you're listening at the moment, you're on Spotify or Apple, just check the show notes, because we put a lot of useful links there for you. Just to final end of this conversation question: going towards the future of multilateralism. What are your proposals mean for multilateralism today? As well as in the future and how does achieving a just world order contribute to a stronger multilateralism?
Well, the goal of multilateralism, like the goal of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, or the Congress of Vienna, in 1814 and 1815, and at the Potsdam Conference, was to build a safe and secure world for everybody, without wars, without structural violence, etc. I think that is achievable. But there's of course, no fast track to human rights. There's no shortcut. We have to go step by step and in each individual country, taking into account its particular traditions and its culture, and also its historical legacy. There is no fast forward for democracy, the General Assembly has again and again said that there is no single model of democracy, every country in its form of government must find the best compromise, the best arrangement is so that the human rights of the population can be maximized.
Another idea that seduces me is the idea of a World Parliamentary Assembly. I mentioned that several times in the book, we have the General Assembly, which is a fine thing. And I very much want to see the General Assembly actually become more proactive. So if you were to have a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly or World Parliamentary Assembly, in which not diplomats, but individuals were directly elected, and if this World Parliamentary Assembly had advisory functions, they could actually advise the General Assembly, they could have, shall we say, a significant input of ideas, initiatives that are not being promoted by the General Assembly, because the diplomats are diplomats and they're not representing the people necessarily. So I think greater representation, greater participation by everybody would be a welcome development. The holistic approach is which I have in my book, Building a Just World Order, which I have consistently promoted that don't go for the fragmentation of international law, don't go for the fragmentation of human rights, go for a comprehensive, holistic approach to the whole codification of human rights, and see the rights in the light of the other rights, not in competition against the other rights, but how they all fit together, how they are interrelated, and how they are interdependent.
I think that's a wonderful note to end on there. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with our audience. It's been an absolute pleasure to listen to all your stories intertwined with the knowledge and experience that you've had over the last few years. So on behalf of the library thank you for being such a wonderful guest.
It has been my pleasure.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Alfred de Zayas, in conversation with Tiffany Verga. You’ll find links to resources in the show notes for this episode if you’d like to learn more about his book Building A Just World Order, as well as links to his work. If you liked this conversation, we’d love it if you could take a moment to subscribe, rate and review us over on Apple or Spotify or Podbean, and don’t hesitate to share with us your ideas for future episodes. Until next time, bye for now.