Jose Ayala Lasso, first United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights (1994-1997)
Speech to the German expellees, Day of the Homeland, Berlin 6 August
Ten years ago, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the
end of the Second World War and the beginning of the expulsion of
15 million Germans from their homelands in the East, you invited
me to participate in the commemoration that was held on May 28th
1995 at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main.
Although I was unable to come personally, since my functions as
High Commissioner for Human Rights required me at that particular
time to be in Rwanda, I did send a statement to you, which I understand
was read out in German translation and subsequently published by
the late Professor Dieter Blumenwitz.
In that statement I recalled the resolutions of the United Nations
Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, in particular
concerning the right to live in one’s homeland and the right
to return in safety and dignity to one’s homeland.
We all remember that in 1995 the war in the former Yugoslavia had
already produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and that a policy
known as «ethnic cleansing» had been put into effect,
a new term to refer to an old and very cruel State practice, that
of terrorizing a civilian population and forcing men, women and
children to abandon their homes and flee to the unknown.
Although the war in Yugoslavia has ended, the world does not appear
to be any safer, and human beings continue to be subjected to the
ravages of unjust wars and unjust peace settlements.
One of my successors as High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio
Vieira de Mello, gave his life in the struggle for a better world
when, in his capacity as representative of the Secretary General
in Baghdad, he perished in August 2003, in the gravest attack ever
endured by the United Nations. I bow my head before his memory.
I am convinced that the United Nations and, in particular, the
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, currently under
the able leadership of Judge Louise Arbour, will persevere in its
patient task of building a universal culture of human rights. Over
the past sixty years the United Nations has performed a monumental
job of codification of norms. Expert organs have been established
to monitor compliance with those norms. Procedures have been developed
to allow individuals to invoke their rights before those organs.
Civil society and non-governmental organizations have actively contributed
and continue to participate in this process. All this legal achievements
are important, but the success of the human rights system very much
depends on the commitment of civil society and the development of
national human rights institutions and infrastructures.
We are now engaged in a transcendental exercise to reform and modernize
the UN System. One of the basic pillars of that reform is to strengthen
the Commission of Human Rights. As the UN Secretary General has
recently said, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues
to be one of the most important achievements of the world organization.
A new vision of the collective security is emerging everywhere and
everybody recognizes the links between poverty and insecurity, respect
for human rights and peace. That is why in his report to the UN
Secretary General, the group of experts created by Mr. Kofi Annan
to make proposals to respond to the challenges of the New Millennium,
suggested to reform the Human Rights Commission and to create a
Council of Human Rights with universal composition and full responsibilities
for the promotion and protection of all human rights.
I think that the grave problems related to democracy, development,
governability, collective security, fight against terrorism, international
relations, are pointing to the need to better promote and protect
human rights. If we really want to create a new international order,
we must recognize that it is urgent and imperative to look forward
a new conscience regarding the supremacy of human rights. A new
humanism must emerge and we must all, individually and collectively,
contribute to the foundations of this new era.
The realization of human rights remains a great challenge to all
of us, since the enforcement of the norms depends on the political
will of the States. There is, of course, no nobler task than to
work for the realization of all human rights.
Among the collective rights, the right to self-determination is,
of course, of particular relevance to all of us. The United Nations
played an important role in the process of decolonization in Asia
and Africa, and in the abolition of Apartheid. Other collective
rights, including the rights of minorities, and the right to one’s
homeland have not been fully realized. Of course, the right to one’s
homeland is not merely a collective right, but it is also an individual
right and a precondition for the exercise of many civil, political,
economic, social and cultural rights.
It was during my tenure as High Commissioner for Human Rights that
the Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights carried
out an important study on «The Human Rights Dimensions of
Population Transfers», and that an expert conference met in
Geneva, chaired by the Sub-Commission’s Rapporteur, Awn Shawkat
Al Khasawneh, today Judge at the International Court of Justice.
In his final Report to the Sub-Commission (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/23)
Judge Al Khasawneh concluded that the right to one’s homeland
was a fundamental human right and that States are not entitled to
displace populations forcibly from their native soil. In the Declaration
appended to his report, we read «Every person has the right
to remain in peace, security and dignity in one’s home, or
on one’s land and in one’s country» (Art. 4, para.
1). We also read «Every person has the right to return voluntarily,
and in safety and dignity, to the country of origin and, within
it, to the place of origin or choice.» (Art. 8)
Even if we are still far from achieving these goals, even if there
are millions of homeless persons in the world today, it is important
to reaffirm these basic principles and to seek ways and means to
implement them. This is why I also endorse the idea of establishing
an international Centre against population transfers which would
not only document and study past expulsions, but would also endeavor
to prevent future expulsions anywhere in the world by educating
and raising consciousness about the horrors of forced population
transfers, by developing early-warning strategies, and by contributing
to United Nations activities in this field. I am persuaded that
Berlin would be an appropriate place for such a Centre.
I believe that the example of the German expellees is particularly
telling. While we acknowledge the magnitude of the expulsion and
the sorrow over the loss of provinces that had been the homeland
of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Johann Gottfried Herder,
Joseph von Eichendorff, and others, we must also recognize the considerable
sacrifice made by the expellees in choosing the path of peaceful
integration. We cannot but admire the moral fiber of these people,
the wisdom of their leaders, who renounced any and all forms of
violence, who decided to build a new homeland in the West, without,
however, abandoning their love for their origins, for the landscapes
where they grew up, the churches and temples where they worshiped,
the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried.
I take this occasion today to recall the «Charter of the
Expellees» promulgated in Stuttgart on 5 August 1950. In this
important Charter, the victims of expulsion formally renounced «all
thought of revenge and retaliation. Our resolution is a solemn and
sacred one, in memory of the infinite suffering brought upon mankind,
particularly during the past decade.» This renunciation effectively
broke the vicious circle of reprisal and counter-reprisal. The Charter
also committed the expellees to work for the reconstruction of Germany
and of Europe, which one day should be united. A remarkable document
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees frequently quotes
a line from the chorus of Euripides’ Medea (verse 650-651):
«There is no greater sorrow on Earth
than the loss of one’s native land»
As former High Commissioner for Human Rights, I would add that
we have an obligation to assuage this sorrow, to show compassion
to the victims of expulsion, to assist them in preserving their
culture and identity, to provide a measure of relief and, if possible,
facilitate their peaceful repatriation. As I said in 1995, the right
to one’s homeland is a fundamental human right that the entire
world community is called upon to respect. If persons have been
forced to leave their homelands, they should be given the option
and the opportunity to return.
Admittedly, there can be conflicting claims to the same homeland.
With good will and international assistance, such conflicts can
be solved peacefully, allowing the enjoyment of the right to the
homeland by all who love their roots. Indeed, love of homeland is
a positive value. Only those who love their homeland will work to
improve it, to make it a better place for their children and grandchildren
and to integrate it in a higher concept of world solidarity.
Sixty years ago the victorious Powers assembled in Berlin to plan
the post-war world. At the Potsdam Conference they discussed the
challenge of peace-making, and they also were confronted with the
huge logistical and humanitarian problems arising from millions
of internally displaced persons, Germans from East Prussia, Pomerania,
Silesia, who had fled before the onslaught of the Soviet Army and
other millions who had remained in their homeland and were being
expelled in that cruel summer of 1945. We bow our heads before the
victims of Nazi aggression in the East. At the same time, we cannot
remain insensitive to the suffering of innocent men, women and children
from East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, Sudetenland and other areas,
who became victims of the unjust and immoral principle of collective
The Nuremberg Trials were convened in 1945 to vindicate the principle
of individual criminal responsibility, and to punish those political
leaders who unleashed aggressive war and who ordered the commission
of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among the crimes for
which the National Socialist leaders were indicted and convicted
were the crime of forced population transfer and the crime of deportation
to forced labor. The Nuremberg judgment was approved by the General
Assembly in 1946, and subsequently the International Law Commission
was entrusted with the task of formulating a code on crimes against
peace and security of mankind. In articles 18 and 20 of the draft
code adopted in 1996, mass expulsion and deportation to forced labor
are defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity. More recently,
the Diplomatic Conference of Rome adopted the 1998 statute of the
International Criminal Court, which in articles 7 and 8 similarly
condemn the crime of expulsion. The creations of the International
Criminal Court is a considerable step toward the strengthening of
the rule of law in the sphere of international relations. Any attempt
to weaking the Rome Statute or to ignore its significance must be
strongly opposed and criticized.
Meanwhile the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
has been prosecuting those responsible for the implementation of
the policy of ethnic cleansing. In a very real sense the trial against
Slobodan Milosevic is a trial to vindicate the right to the homeland,
and not only the right to the homeland of the Bosnians, of the Croats
and of the Kossovars, but ultimately also of the Serbs of the Krajina.
Important international case-law will no doubt emerge from the trials
currently being conducted in The Hague.
Let me conclude with a reflection on the notion of human rights,
a notion as old as humanity, even though only very gradually articulated,
in the Bible, in the writings of the Chinese, Indian and Greek philosophers,
in the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the French and American
declarations of the eighteenth century, long before the advent of
the League of Nations with its system of protection of minority
rights and of the United Nations with its Commission of Human Rights.
This notion so dear to us rests on a broader respect for all living
beings, and on the belief in the equality in dignity and rights
of all humans, regardless of their color, origin, religion and social
status. From this basis, modern societies develop the concepts of
solidarity and interdependence. We can not be indifferent to violations
of human rights, wherever they happen. That is why we must fight
against poverty and injustice, everywhere.
As a Latin American I strongly support the exercise of all human
rights by the indigenous populations. One important step in the
long development of human rights concepts was the long-lasting dispute
in the Council of the Indies in Spain, in the Sixteen Century, whether
the indigenous of America were human beings. Two Dominicans, Bartolomé
de las Casas and Fray Antonio Montesinos argued before the Habsburg
Emperor Charles V that the indigenous populations were human who
had souls and rights. As a result of their interventions, laws were
enacted to protect the rights of the indigenous, which were essentially
human rights laws. And even if these laws were violated with impunity,
an awareness of right and wrong was awakened.
We should remember that the indigenous peoples of America, they
too, had a right to their homeland, and that they were deprived
of their lands and property by force and reduced to the condition
of near slavery.
We are facing in Latin American a new form of an ancient problem.
In the past, the world community has taken measures against the
enforced transfer of populations. Now we are experiencing the transfer
of populations by the way of massive emigration, due to the deterioration
of economic and social conditions in many countries, including my
country Ecuador. More than 20% of the total population has emigrated
in the past 3 or 4 years. The consequences for the homeland are
dramatic and, no doubt, the situation affects also the countries
of destination of these massive migrations. I encourage the Commission
of Human Rights to study this problem from the new optic of solidarity
in the protection of human rights.
The promotion and protection of human rights is a permanent fight
to recognize and respect human dignity. We cannot be indifferent
to this noble cause. In the past, much progress has been achieved
thanks to the combined work of the United Nations, international
organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society.
But the work must be permanent and demands the participation of
all human beings.
Thus I encourage you to persevere in your commitment to human rights,
and to continue working so that all human rights and, certainly,
the right to one’s homeland, be universally recognized and
respected. In this way we will be contributing to the establishment
of a new world order based on basic principles of dignity and justice
I would like to thank your organisation and each one of you for
giving all your devotion and activity to this fight for human dignity.
I think that you are giving a good example to the world and what
you are doing is going to be good not simply for Germany or Europe
but for the whole world, because it is, of course, the spirit which
conducts human beings to good ways, and it is the activity of the
spirit which will bring us to a new world: just, free, democratic,
developed and progressive.
I thank you for your kind attention.
José Ayala Lasso
former UNITED NATIONS High Commissioner for Human Rights