Interview With Theo Van Boven
Theo van Boven
Q. Can you give us a little background on the seminar?
TVB: This seminar here in Managua is being organized as a part of the UN program for the Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. This decade runs from 1973 to 1983 and in particular the General Assembly of the United Nations has requested the Secretary General to organize seminars on the various regional levels in order to discuss problems of racial discrimination in these regions and to come up with certain conclusions and recommendations which can serve as further guidance to the various policy organs like the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Q. Who is invited?
TVB: The formula is that all the members of the regional economic commissions of the U.N. be invited, in this case particularly those members of the regional Economic Conference for Latin America.
Q, Is the U.S. a member?
TVB: Yes, the United States is a member. The United States has declined to participate on the basis that they can no longer participate in any activities of the Decade Against Racism and Racial Discrimination since the General Assembly in 1975 adopted the famous resolution that Zionism is a form of racism.
Q. Who else is here at the conference?
TVB: It is very important that these matters not only be discussed by people who are being nominated by governments and who tend to represent official points of view. Particularly in the area of human rights, it is very important that we have an input from non-governmental organizations; that we also give them a voice in our work. And indeed, many non-governmental organizations who have consultative status are being invited to attend our meetings. They do not have a right to vote but certainly a right to make statements, oral and written statements, and to make an input. In many respects their contribution is indispensable to our work. As far as indigenous peoples are concerned, not just governments or outsiders should speak on their behalf but they should speak for themselves. It is certainly a positive development in the last five or ten years that the indigenous peoples now have their own organizations which acquired consultative status with the United Nations and that their voice also is heard in United Nations organs and in a seminar like this one here in Managua.
Q. What does the U.N. hope will come out of this 10-year Decade Against Racism and Racial Discrimination?
TVB: The fight against racism is a very complex one. It is a lengthy one, and we have to use different strategies. For instance regarding South Africa, the U.N. is certainly applying a different strategy. They try to isolate the country. They plead for an arms boycott. In relation to other countries where racial discrimination is not, as such, institutionalized, of course there are different approaches. The United Nations tries to be in a dialogue with these countries in order to impress upon them the need for proper education and training and also advise them, like a committee on discrimination. They advise, for instance, change in legislation, or they advise the setting up of race relations boards and race relations committees. The real fight of course has to be on the national level. The United Nations can recommend and can encourage. It is very difficult to intervene at a national level but certainly we have to press and to encourage change.
Q. Now we are here in Central America. What is the feeling of the U.N. Human Rights Commission regarding racial discrimination and human rights problems here in Central America specifically?
TVB: Well the Commission on Human Rights has not embarked upon a very systematic evaluation of human rights problems in any part of the world. I wish we could come to a more consistent policy in that matter so that we would prepare an overall human rights report regarding all countries in the world. Until now, the United Nations has selected and singled out a number of countries for special scrutiny and special study because it feels that there is a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights in those countries. For instance in Central America, the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly is seized with the situation in El Salvador and Guatemala because of the violations of human rights which occur in those countries. It has decided to take these situations up, to study them thoroughly and to express itself on these situations through the adoption of resolutions. As far as Nicaragua in concerned, the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly were seized with this situation in particular in the years of 1978 and the beginning of 1979. Also at that time there was a reign of terror in Nicaragua. Many people were massacred and killed and tortured, and this was of great concern to the international community and to the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly. They adopted resolutions at that time on the human rights situation in this country. Since the changes in ’79 the Commission on Human Rights is no more actively seized. It only adopted a resolution later in ’79 in order to draw the attention of Nicaragua to certain consulting services which were available. It is not only a matter of condemning violations of human rights, it is also the matter of positive assistance that can be rendered in order to overcome the consequences, the results of these violations.
Q. What is your feeling about the situation here in Nicaragua, either by itself or in comparison to other countries in Central America where human rights are a concern?
TVB: Well it is a very difficult problem because it seems to me that Nicaragua is subject to left and right wing international politics and I have the impression that sometimes a distorted picture of this country is being given. I’m not in a position to investigate, to assess fully the situation here but I do think, and also on the basis of conversations I had with representatives of international organizations who are resident in this country, that the government is really concerned to pursue a humane and humanitarian policy in this country. I also think that there is no comparison between Nicaragua and some of the neighboring countries where life is cheap and where people are being tortured. I am also confident that in this country these kinds of practices have stopped. This is also being confirmed by colleagues of such international organizations as the Red Cross or the High Commission for Refugees who praised the cooperation they have received from the government in pursuing their humanitarian aims.
Q. Has the Government here been open to whatever kind of investigation that the U.N. wanted to do here?
TVB: As far as Nicaragua in concerned, since 1980 it is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it has also accepted a protocol under which nationals of this country can submit complaints to the United Nations. I think this is a very positive step. The country is ready to subject itself to international scrutiny. In addition to that, Nicaragua has accepted visits of various international organizations to investigate the human rights situation in this country. I can mention the visits of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, whose report was published in the course of this year. It contains some criticisms, that is true. Nowhere is there a paradise. But the report is positive about the intentions and about the outlook of the government. I would also like to mention that this country has accepted visits of non-governmental human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists. I welcome this approach by the Nicaraguan government in welcoming anyone who wants to investigate the situation in this country.
Q. When the U.N. investigates countries and comes to the conclusion that there are serious human rights violations or racial discrimination violations, does this have much effect on the country which is found at fault?
TVB: To a certain extent yes, particularly in two or three respects. Certainly a government, once it is being cited by the United Nations or critically commented upon in a resolution, is aware that it is being watched and perhaps this will serve as a certain constraint, as a certain check, so that it will no longer feel free to act as it has been doing. I think that no government is completely insensitive to this. Great efforts are made in the United Nations to avoid being accused or condemned by the United Nations.
Secondly and equally important, I think that such United Nations pronouncements are moral support to those who work in these countries for human rights. I have had many contacts with human rights workers and they tell us, “Don’t abandon us. As the United Nations, you are a matter of hope to us.” I wish we could do more for more countries. We are still selective, that is true. But at least let us work for those peoples where the political circumstances allow us to do so. I think these are important factors.
I may mention a third point which is perhaps of another nature but it also touches on the credibility of the world organization. The United Nations has proclaimed standards through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various human rights treaties. If it is not seen to act when such standards are being violated on a large scale, the U.N. is going to loose credibility. So it is important that the United Nations come to grips with the various human rights situations in countries. As I said, we are not doing enough because there are a lot of political obstacles, obstacles which are related to world politics, to military economic and political interests. But I think now in the last few years we have been able to broaden our concern and to deal with more situations than we did before.
I would like also to mention that we deal not only with countries and country situations, but also with certain phenomena. In the last few years we have been dealing quite actively with the question of disappeared persons and the question of slavery in its various forms, trying to deal in an effective way with that which exists in many countries. I hope that all these activities will have an effect in the long run. Working for human rights is not so easy. You don’t see immediate results but we still have hope and a certain degree of confidence. We are trying to work for a new human order in the world at large but there are, of course, many powers and obstacles which we have to fight and it takes a great deal of moral strength to continue this fight.