A New Functional Paradigm of Human Rights

Alfred de Zayas’s Building a Just World Order (Clarity) is fascinating and erudite book that encompasses in fourteen sections the spectrum of human rights issues dealt with by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where the author worked as a senior lawyer for over two decades, and which he also served as a consultant and UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order (2012-18).

In his 14 reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly, Professor de Zayas proves that UN rapporteurs can be more than bureaucrats, paper-pushers, ideologues, politicians or narrative managers.  Each report has added value, and this book, which builds on those reports, is not a mere compilation of information available on the internet, but provides a coherent analysis of the challenges faced by the UN Secretary General, High Commissioner, Human Rights Council, and civil society in identifying problems and devising pragmatic and implementable solutions.   Books like this give us hope that the sometimes cumbersome and sclerotic human rights protection system may yet deliver on human rights and inspire legislators to go beyond lip service to human rights and adopt the necessary laws and enforcement mechanisms.  The author’s vision is that with perseverance and good faith, human rights can be made juridical, justiciable and enforceable.

What strikes the reader confronted with 480 pages of dense text and thousands of footnotes is the logical arrangement of distinct but interrelated issues, which the author tackles methodically, taking the reader by the hand onto the human rights arena, walking him about, elucidating the Realpolitik of conflict-prevention, peace building, sustainable development goals, achieving economic and trade justice, and concluding with a new functional paradigm of human rights. The book describes the tasks and possibilities of UN rapporteurs, addresses the mechanisms for the democratic pursuit of human rights, proposes concrete reforms to the Security Council and UN Secretariat, declares peace to be a human right, denounces extravagant military expenditures, pleads for disarmament for human security, states that the realization of the right of self-determination of peoples is a crucial conflict-prevention mechanism, demands that the “rule of law” evolve into the rule of justice, declares the right to information together with the right to truth to be a conditio sine qua non for a functioning democracy, proposes a charter of rights of whisteleblowers, who should be recognized as human rights defenders, reaffirms the international law prohibition of the use of force and of interference in the internal affairs of other States, considers the relationship between business and human rights, discusses the pros and cons of public-private partnerships, proposes an international tax authority, a financial transactions tax and the criminalization of tax havens, demands that investor-state-dispute settlement arbitrations be abolished as contrary to article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties as contra bonos mores, recommends reforming the Bretton Woods Institutions and ensuring that the World Bank and IMF work in tandem and not against human rights and development.

Two chapters of this multifaceted book stand out by their conciseness, lucidity and uncompromising  ethics – chapter 2, which formulates 25 Principles of International Order, and chapter 12, devoted to the author’s ground-breaking mission to Venezuela, the first by a UN rapporteur in 21 years.

The Zayas principles of international order (pp. 46-60) were described by the President of the UN General Assembly 2018-19, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, as a “modern Magna Carta”.  Indeed, if the international community agreed to implement them, going beyond the thrust of General Assembly Resolutions 2625 and 3314, peace with justice could be ensured in the 21st century.  Zayas also relies on the important work of Virginia Dandan, who as UN Independent Expert on International Solidarity drafted a pertinent declaration that still awaits adoption by the UN General Assembly.

Professor Carlos Correa, Executive Director of South Centre, praises the book for proposing a new functional paradigm of human rights, abandoning the artificial division of rights into those of the so-called first, second, and third generation.  What the world needs is recognition that there are enabling rights such as the right to peace, food, water, shelter, healthcare, education, that necessarily take priority over certain civil and political rights.  Ultimately the whole edifice of human rights protection is there to ensure that all of us have a level playing field in which we can develop our personalities and achieve our potential, free of racial, religious or linguistic discrimination, without having to endure artificial pressures of governmental or private-sector censorship and “political correctness”.  On page 447 Zayas defines the concept as follows:  “Universal human rights constitute a holistic system of interdependent entitlements and freedoms. Yet, ‘universal’ does not mean homologated or insensitive to cultural specificities… human dignity, the source of all human rights, necessarily dictates priorities – a hierarchy based on common sense and mutual respect …codification has not been concluded, since continuing standard-setting remains necessary to better protect the practical expression and exercise of human dignity.”

The chapter on the Zayas mission to Venezuela reveals that the illegal unilateral coercive measures imposed by the US on Venezuela constitute the principal cause of the suffering in that country. The second UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela, Professor Alena Douhan, confirmed in her report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2021, the findings and conclusions of the 2018 Zayas report, which resulted in the liberation of hundreds of political detainees, the strengthening of Venezuelan cooperation with UN agencies, including FAO, UNDP, UNHCR and WHO, and the opening of a Caracas Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The non-confrontational approach employed by Zayas succeeded in building confidence and enabled the liberation of a German journalist detained in El Helicoide, Billy Six, in March 2019 (p. 438)

Zayas believes in the principle “audiatur et altera pars”  (listen to all sides) – throughout this book and in all of his 14 reports Zayas proactively gets at the facts from all parties, and evaluates the arguments pro and con.  Some consider Zayas to be an emblematic, even Quixotic rapporteur, not afraid to dissent from the mainstream narrative and prepared to endure serious mobbing from governments and non-governmental organizations (p. 429)  and even from OHCHR (p. 188) because of his boldness in breaking taboos. This may also explain why he has been ignored by what he calls the “human rights industry” (p.447), which would just as well defend the status quo.

Bottom line: This book should appeal to many readers, not only to the “experts”.  It belongs in every law school and political science department. User-friendly in approach and content, it readily lends itself as a human rights textbook, illustrating the maxim “si vis pacem cole justitiam” — if you want peace, cultivate social justice.  As Professor Carlos Villán Duran, President of the Spanish Society for International Human Rights Law wrote: “This lucid, hands-on, independent, pragmatic study is a mode d’emploi for achieving a rules-based international order under the UN Charter.”  We can endorse this assessment.