The Humanist Society of South Australia presents this report on the United Nations by  the representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the United Nations, Geneva.

At the end of this report you will find brief details of the IHEU.
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Final Annual Report of the IHEU Representative at the United Nations, Geneva

to 30th May 1997.

This final report covers an entire period since the Board Meeting of January 1996.  It will serve to sum up the UN's many-sided substantive activities, as effectively manifested at Geneva during that period, and the role the IHEU has been able to play there to advance humane development.


Important international work is still going on, at Geneva and elsewhere, but too often it remains ineffectual, simply because the end of the so-called "Cold War" around 1990 has ushered in a new global climate - economic and political - which rests on the principle that "anything goes". The consequences are proving both enormous and devastating.

Today the poor are getting poorer, the rich much richer, while overall protection of human rights is in marked decline. For our purpose one result has been a slow-down of major UN programmes and activities through the pressures of a political "cost cutting" dogma emerging from one country. Although all fourteen of the other Security Council members had voted to re-elect a very active UN Secretary-General, a single country - which for long has deliberately withheld around 1.5 billion US dollars of contractual funds as a blackmailing ploy - has successfully vetoed his re-appointment.

Today's baleful post-cold-war climate arises, not just from these acts, but from the subsequent absence of a promised counter-offensive from Europe and elsewhere. One outcome of a new situation arising since 1990 has been some threat to Geneva's global role through severe financial cuts and a consequent lessening, too, of normal access to means of information.


We can sum up the elements of an end-of-century global crisis as follows:

  • Absence of overall global overseeing;
  • Rapid population growth and urbanism in the developing world;
  • Systemic economic-financial defects producing massive debt and extreme poverty;
  • Natural environmental and resource degradation;
  • Rising health hazards - personal and public;
  • Large-scale arms exports - from rich to poor worlds;
  • Authoritarian religious tyranny;
  • Massive human rights dereliction, and maltreatment of women;
  • Rising crime, terrorism, and the drug trade;
  • Intensifying effects of natural disasters.

Seven of these items are being tackled intensively by the UN - largely at Geneva but also at Nairobi, Vienna and elsewhere. The three that are now excluded from all public discourse - and notably the first and third - are coming to assume a crucial importance as this century ends. Eighteenth-century minority dogmas, now "sold" to the rest of the population for permanent minority gain, are expanding the massive and very poor sector, world-wide, to enrich only a top quarter of the world's people. Since, globally and nationally, this same political-economy structure prevails, the world's development continues to stagnate, not from lack of knowledge or technical power, but simply through a compulsive adherence to long-outdated creeds. Humanists may reflect that precociously evolving humans are now becoming their own worst enemies!

At Geneva, most of the problem areas listed above are being tackled, often with some success. Of all the armaments issues decided there, a general ban on chemical weapons already adopted is now entering into force, already with 81 adherents. A nuclear test-ban treaty, too, is moving towards adoption. Big efforts have equally been made of late to outlaw anti-personnel mines, but so far without real success.

On the world health front, while three virulent tropical diseases have recently been brought under control, tuberculosis is spreading once again in the rich and poor worlds alike. Coordinated at Geneva, action to combat ever-recurrent natural disasters is proving possibly more effectual than that concerned with unforeseeable civil conflicts - as in Central Africa, Sudan, Algeria and East Asia - or avoidable ones like ex-Yugoslavia or the former USSR.

Conversion of the former League of Nations headquarters to a massive environmental centre is now almost complete. Intensive work to cope with serious environmental threats, including major climate change, desertification, forest destruction, declining supplies of fresh water and fish stocks, air and water pollution and soil loss, all proceed despite some reining-in of resources. Population growth-control policies too are making some progress, but far too slowly. Action on human rights agreements and situations will be outlined separately below.


Although it takes under one percent of the UN budget, work at Geneva on human rights, because it creates monitored legal controls, is among the most effective of all UN programmes. Apart from overseeing binding international Covenants and Conventions on matters ranging from Economic, Social, Cultural, Civil and Political Rights to the Rights of Women, of the Child, and against Racial Discrimination and Torture, there are specific investigation procedures, currently concerning the rights situation in twelve sovereign states or territories, each with a specific rapporteur.

Fourteen specific study themes are under investigation on the following questions:

  • Contemporary forms of racism or Xenophobia;
  • Arbitrary executions;
  • Freedom of opinion and expression;
  • Internally displaced persons;
  • Mercenaries;
  • Religious intolerance;
  • Sale of children and child prostitution;
  • Missing persons in the former Yogoslavia;
  • Torture and degrading treatment or punishment;
  • Toxic Wastes;
  • Violence against women - causes and consequences;
  • Arbitrary detention;
  • Involuntary disappearances.

There are also six technical cooperation programmes covering countries ranging from Haiti  to Somalia and Cambodia.  Regular reviews of progress are carried out on conscientious objection to military service - reviewed again in March 1997.  Several  major Declarations on Human Rights include, in addition to the basic Universal Declaration of 1948, others on Elimination of Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief and an influential but still debated Declaration on the Right to Development. Many other questions under review include those on human rights and bioethics, extreme poverty, terrorism, HIV AIDS, contemporary forms of slavery and harmful traditional practices affecting the health of 80 million women and children in many parts of the world. Following a wide-ranging report on the right to a secure environment, this question too is currently being considered by the Sub-commission of independent experts on Prevention of Discrimination and protection of Minorities.


Until January 1997, written and oral interventions have been made regularly, notably during each major session of the Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission of experts. A written statement was submitted in 1996, at the Commission's fifty-second session, on the question of environmental rights and another on economic, social and cultural rights.  Oral interventions were also made on these subjects. Later in the same year, at the annual session of the Human Rights Sub-Commission of experts, there were further contributions, both oral and written, on behalf of the IHEU. (Texts of a few of these were available at the London Board meeting.)

What then, is the impact, if any, of humanist contributions at major international fora of this sort?  Experience has amply shown both that there is a very strong demand at meetings for copies of the IHEU's oral statements and that they receive attention world-wide.

Twenty-two years of participation in UN work in Geneva have covered a wide range of issues of major humanist concern.  For example, in September 1978 I spoke to a UN Seminar in support of creating a central human rights coordinating unit in every country, a subject on which the meeting did in fact adopt a strong recommendation.  At another gathering around that time your representative was able to inform the international world of the key role played played by a pioneer World Declaration of Human Rights spread world-wide from London by the writer H.G. Wells in 1932 - the true precursor of that basic Universal Declaration of 1948 that now underpins the whole international effort.

Your representative was able to state a humanist stance in the long debates that led to an important and hard-won UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981).  Actions seen to be incompatible with this Declaration are currently being examined at the highest level.  The IHEU also took part in the drafting of a major international instrument of humanist concern - a Declaration on the Right to Development, which now figures at the cutting edge of the world's development process.  Written and oral interventions have been made on behalf of two individual humanist activists - Taslima Nasrin and Xiao Yuehui.

It would certainly be grossly incomplete to omit mention of a broad IHEU initiative that has led directly to adoption by the United Nations of the right to conscientious objection to military service.  Progress in achieving this right world-wide is now reviewed periodically, the latest occasion being the Commission's 1997 session.

Finally, it might be appropriate to refer here to a further development of possible humanist concern. In 1987 there was an initiative by peace research institutes to prepare a World Encyclopedia of Peace in four volumes.  Mr. Perez de Cuellar, a former UN Secretary-General, took part in this and I was asked to contribute four long articles on "The Spirit of Geneva",   "The International Bill of Human Rights",  Human Rights and Peace", and "The League of Nations".

A decade later, a second edition of the Encyclopaedia is now being prepared, with Mr. Perez de Cuellar as the honorary Editor-in-chief.  Your representative has been asked to prepare a further piece on"Peace With Freedom", and to bring the earlier articles up to dare. This project is mentioned here because it may offer a wide reference source for humanists interested in the perennial search for world peace.  The new article on "Peace With Freedom" also sums up some new and radical proposals I have made for UN reform - ideas dealt with in more detail in a new book - From Cold War to Chaos? - now with a publisher.

It is for two reasons - having passed the age of 87 and also because I seek to re-orient some of my activities - that this statement must serve as my final report to the IHEU on international activities at the UN Geneva.

South Australian Humanists adds our thanks and congratulations to James Dilloway to the many that he would have received on his retirement last month.

NOTE   A report was heard on radio during June that the U.S. Senate had passed a Bill to pay the United Nations some, but not all the arrears it had withheld for so long.  Apparently there were some unspecified conditions attached and an American spokesman declared that this was the best offer the UN would get - they could take it or leave it. 


For many years the IHEU had its headquarters in Utrecht, Holland, but this year  (1997) it has moved to London where it shares the same building with the British Humanist Association.
The IHEU has 90 member organisations in 30 different countries as well as individual members.
The IHEU runs specialist secretariats in Germany, Bombay, the Netherlands, USA, to support Humanism world-wide. The IHEU has NGO consultative status with   - UNESCO in Paris, UNICEF in New York, Council of Europe in Strasbourg and the U.N. in New York, Geneva and Vienna.

The annual individual membership is now 30 pounds sterling which includes the quarterly International Humanist News  Life membership is 400 pounds sterling. Humanist Society members are automatically affiliated. 

The IHEU may be contacted by writing to the new Secretary and Executive Director -

47 Theobald's Road, London WC1X 8SP U.K.   Phone +44 171 831 4817

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