Economic development key to human rights, Swiss president says

The Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, reminded rich countries of their responsibilities Keystone

The Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, has called on rich countries and big business to do more to reduce poverty in developing countries. He told the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva that economic development was the key to improving human rights around the world.

This content was published on March 30, 2001 - 15:50

"A world of glaring inequalities and growing poverty cannot be a world at peace," Leuenberger said. "The right to development is an integral part of human rights."

"Rich countries bear a special responsibility in the face of this immense poverty," he said, adding that protectionism, unequal trade, low levels of investment and cooperation did not favour development.

"Having globalised the economy, we must now globalise political, economic and social responsibility," the Swiss president told the UN commission, which he described as the moral conscience of the international community.

He said, "no government, society, ethnic group or multinational company can escape from its local or global responsibility".

He praised the Global Compact between the private sector and civil society, proposed by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in 1999. Leuenberger said it established a clear link between human rights, the right to work and the environment.

Leuenberger was the first Swiss president not also serving as foreign minister to address the Commission's annual session.

He called for concrete actions - such as political and economic measures against repressive regimes - to combat human rights abuses around the world, saying that "our responsibility should go much father than mere incantation".

Nevertheless, he did single out three of the great powers - the United States, Russia and China for their human rights violations.

He said that, with its new constitution, Switzerland was putting itself forward as a model country with regard to the right of the individual. But he acknowledged that his country had nonetheless been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for discrimination on racial and gender grounds.

"This demonstrates that fundamental freedoms must always be defended, that one must battle for their implementation," Leuenberger said. "These judgements allow my country to improve its legislation so that it can better protect fundamental rights."

The Swiss president also said that he intended to attend the UN special conference on racism in September.

That conference was the main topic of the speech by Annan, who called on countries to step up efforts to make it a success. Preparations for the conference have been hindered by disagreements between industrialised countries and the developing world, most notably over compensation for slavery and colonialism.

"It is crucial for states to cooperate," he said. We need a document that looks unflinchingly at ourselves and the flaws in the societies we have built."

"We need a forward-looking document that acknowledges and builds on the past, but does not get lost there," added Annan, who was on the last day of a three-day official visit to Switzerland.

Three other heads of state addressed the UN Human Rights Commission session on Friday: the French president, Jacques Chirac, Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica. Leuenberger held bilateral talks with all three.

Both he and Chirac expressed their disappointment at the refusal of the US President George Bush to implement the Kyoto Treaty on tackling climate change.

Leuenberger also reassured Chirac that Switzerland's aim was to join the European Union, despite voters earlier this month rejecting the launch of immediate negotiations on membership.

The Swiss president also spoke to his Yugoslav opposite number, Vojislav Kostunica, most notably about the situation in Macedonia. They agreed on the need to "stabilise a very dangerous situation".

He also held talks with Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, about Swiss help in democratising that central African state, and about the frozen assets of the former Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Leuenberger told reporters he had informed Kabila that Kinshasa should follow the proper legal avenues, that is formally applying for Swiss judicial assistance.

by Roy Probert

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