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Why Are Human Rights So Easy to Violate and Hard to Protect in Times of Conflict?

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The escalating conflict in the Middle East and North Africa is provoking shock and condemnation across the plant. But despite -- or maybe because of -- media coverage of crisis after crisis and of the relentless work of humanitarian partners in the field, I am concerned at the risk of growing general fatigue around these conflicts and in particular, around the human rights abuses that are taking place -- and a consequent "timidity" in our collective response to them.

The 27th Session of the Human Rights Council opened this week in Geneva with an outstanding speech from the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. Setting out his main areas of concern, he emphatically highlighted the violence in Syria and Iraq, which he described as "increasingly conjoined conflicts." He also pointed to other situations high on the human rights agenda, including the crisis in Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, conflicts in Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I join him in his distress at the fact systematic and gross violations of human rights are an increasingly common denominator across conflicts today. We see people decapitated, driven from their homes, and deprived of economic and social rights. Other people are "disappeared", tortured or unlawfully detained. Violence against children, certain religious or ethnic groups, sexual violence against women, brutal executions, journalists detained, privacy violated, disregard for humanitarian law, and the list goes on.

So what do we do? How do we bring the rule of law back into these increasingly violent equations? We must work together to build balanced societies with more respect for the rule of law. If we manage to do so, conflict would erupt less frequently and human rights would not be so easily violated.

As the new High Commissioner said in his inaugural speech: "We must [...] persevere together until we bend the course of humanity's future into a destination more hopeful and enlightened, in which human decency is the only currency of human interaction, and is valued above and beyond material wealth or cleverness alone."

Doing so starts at home, in every classroom and by every news outlet. Reminding ourselves of the imperative of behaving in accordance with agreed-upon laws and norms is, in my mind, nothing less than an urgent matter of survival.

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