Outreach needed, says ‘human rights plumber’

Dr John Pace, a former secretary to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was in Dunedin...
Dr John Pace, a former secretary to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was in Dunedin yesterday. Photo: Christine O'Connor.
Dr John Pace is "apprehensive" about what an "age of xenophobic nationalism" means for future efforts to promote human rights.

But Dr Pace, the former secretary to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (1978-1994), remains cautiously optimistic.

This was despite the challenges posed by President Trump’s "exclusivist nationalism" and by some populist leaders in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Maltese-born, Dr Pace yesterday gave a public talk at the University of Otago on "The future of human rights regimes in an age of xenophobic nationalism".

A citizen of both Malta and Australia, Dr Pace gave the talk in association with the university’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

"I’m apprehensive because it’s a period of uncertainty," he said in an interview.

A key moment in Dr Pace’s 33-year-long UN career came in 1991-93 when he was co-ordinator of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, the then largest international gathering on human rights.

Dr Pace joked that he was not "messianic" about human rights, but had long taken part in practical work to promote them.

"I’m a human rights plumber," he said with a smile.

He acknowledged that some people, including in the US, felt excluded and marginalised and there was a sense that the "political class" had "drifted away" from the people.

He was concerned by moves to bar entry to the US by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and by plans to build a huge wall along the US-Mexico border.

A Washington Post article last year had pointed out that more than 60 such walls had sprung up around the world, including in Europe.

But these did nothing to promote understanding and resolve underlying problems, including inequality.

And the opposite was needed.

"What’s required is to reach out," he said.

● Dr Pace is a senior visiting fellow at the Australian Human Rights Centre, within the University of New South Wales.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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