UNAIDS Viet Nam Lecture at “Realizing the Rights to Health and Development for All”, 2 July 2009

It is my great pleasure to address you here today. I would like first and foremost to thank the Vietnamese Human Rights Institute and the University of New South Wales for putting together the events of this past week. I would also like to thank the participants for their active attendance in the sessions, particularly those representatives of civil society, whose presence is so welcomed by all. This national event is an excellent precursor to the International Conference to be held in Ha Noi in October.

I have been invited to speak about the United Nations, the One UN in Viet Nam and the UN’s mandate for human rights mainstreaming. My presentation will be divided into 3 parts, after which I will welcome your questions.

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1. Human rights are at the heart of the UN’s mandate
2. What does that mean in practice?
3. Delivering as One or the One UN Initiative

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I. Human rights are at the heart of the United Nations’ mandate 
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, “It is my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.”

Geography is not destiny. A child in Kon Tum can easily die from diarrhoea for lack of the oral rehydration salts that a child in Ha Noi can pick up in any street corner pharmacy. That is tragedy, not fate.

Gender is not destiny. To prioritise the health of other family members, to leave sexual decision-making to her partner or to delay seeking help is not the proper sacrifice of a good woman. It is inequality.

Poverty is not destiny. A woman who lives by subsistence farming in the northern mountainous regions is four times more likely to die in child birth than a woman in the lowlands. Does every life carry a price tag? This is injustice, not karma.

Ho Chi Minh said, “Love other human beings as you would love yourself.”

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Vietnamese cultural and political support for the right to health, and for human rights in general, has been consistently expressed since the founding of the Socialist Republic in 1945.

Article 50 of the Constitution of Viet Nam says, “In the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, human rights in all respects, political, civic, economic, cultural and social are respected, find their expression in the rights of citizens and are provided for by the Constitution and the law.”

Since 1945, the people of Viet Nam have been encouraged to claim their rights and the Government and other duty-bearers have striven to respect, protect and fulfil them. The articulation of rights and obligations is continually deepening. I will explore this topic in greater depth later on in my presentation.

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a pillar of international law that Viet Nam has ratified, social rights include the ‘right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ (Article 12) Of course health, as any schoolchild will tell you, is not merely the absence of infirmity or disease, but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being as defined by the WHO constitution. 

What this means is that every person, regardless of citizenship, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, political stance or HIV status has the right to live her or his life in as profound a state of well-being as is reasonably attainable. Access to clean water and sanitation, access to quality medical care and essential medicines, and protection from environmental degradation, pandemic illnesses and unsafe working conditions are essential to fulfil the right to health. These are services that must exist equally, accessible for all without discrimination. To provide them only for people in the city, or only for people who do not have HIV, or a disability, or a social stigma attached to them, is a human rights violation. 

In effect, the attainment of development outcomes cannot be separated from the defence of human rights. I will return to this idea throughout my presentation.

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The United Nations brings together the resources of 192 states for the purpose of promoting peace, justice, freedom and human rights. Since the UN’s founding in 1945, promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction has been one of its primary purposes. 

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There are two mission statements that inform the work of all UN bodies: the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

First, the Charter of the United Nations states that, ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determine to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.’  

According to the Charter, human rights are essential. 

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Second, as you have heard earlier this week, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, laid the groundwork for more specific conventions and treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  

Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the Declaration’s drafting committee said, ‘We could not have peace, or an atmosphere in which peace could grow, unless we recognized the rights of individual human beings… their importance, their dignity… and agreed that was the basic thing that had to be accepted throughout the world.’

Thus, the Declaration recognizes human rights as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace, and sets out the basic rights and freedoms to which all people are entitled – among them the right to life, liberty and nationality; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to work and to be educated; the right to food and housing; and the right to take part in government and public service. 

Since its formation 60 years ago, the UN has never ceased advocating for human rights. 

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In 1993 the Vienna Declaration and its Programme of Action on Human Rights were adopted. These request every nation to ‘promote universal respect for, and observance and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms.’ 

In the 1990s, recognizing they needed to better integrate the international human rights framework into their work, UN agencies developed ‘human rights-based approaches.’ 

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Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pushed human rights-based approaches forward in 1997 when he launched the UN Programme for Reform. As part of this reform, UN agencies are called to renew their efforts to mainstream human rights into all their activities and programmes. 

In line with that reform, the UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 has been the most recent authoritative document to highlight the primacy of human rights in the development system. In the Declaration, member States, including Viet Nam, pledged ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for the equal rights of all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion and international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character.’

In 2003, UN agencies agreed on a Statement of Common Understanding about a common human rights-based approach. The Statement is based on the different approaches developed and implemented by individual agencies, and represents a consolidation of the key elements of these approaches. I will come back to these elements later in my presentation.

Last, the plan of action for strengthening human rights-related United Nations action at country level was adopted in 2004. It gives UN agencies concrete guidance on mainstreaming human rights into their work. 

Slide 10
According to the plan:

– Human rights must be essential to UN country team work
– Country assistance frameworks must be based on human rights
– UN country teams must take action on the recommendations of human rights treaty monitoring bodies

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To recap for a moment then, the chronology is:
·    1945: UN Charter
·    1948: Universal Declaration (and subsequent human rights conventions)
·    1993: Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action
·    1997: UN Programme for Reform
·    2000: UN Millennium Declaration
·    2003: Statement of Common Understanding
·    2004: Plan of Action

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II. What does this mean in practice?

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Viet Nam has a strong human rights record. It has been very supportive of the Human Rights Council and has welcomed – or plans to welcome – visits by a number of Special Rapporteurs. Viet Nam has signed 6 of the 8 core, legally-binding human rights treaties. It was the second country in the world, and the first in Asia, to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition to actively participating in the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Viet Nam is now working with other countries in the region to establish a human rights body of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Just recently, and with support from the UN, Viet Nam hosted the first meeting of the ASEAN working group to establish a commission on the rights of women and children.

This year Viet Nam strengthened its international reputation by undergoing its first Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council. Reports were submitted by the Government, UN and civil society. In that review, Viet Nam was praised by other nations for being a world leader in the effort to protect the rights of people living with disabilities and integrate them into society, and for leading in the region in progressive, rights-based HIV legislation – although the Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control still needs to be fully implemented. Viet Nam has decided to take many of the review board’s recommendations forward. 

The Doi Moi reforms have helped Viet Nam lay a solid socio-economic foundation for the implementation of human rights. Viet Nam was one of the first countries in the world to reach Millennium Development Goal number one for poverty reduction. This country has reached a turning point in its economic growth. Nevertheless, Viet Nam acknowledges that opening up the country and developing a market economy have had some negative consequences. There is a widening gap between rich and poor, urban and rural. Although the Government pays special attention to vulnerable groups, such as women, children, ethnic minorities, people living with HIV and people with disabilities, they continue to be marginalised. 

Viet Nam must now look for a balance. I would like to suggest a focus on human-rights based approaches could establish that balance. 

Even greater growth could be seen by further prioritising economic equality, community participation, empowerment and the non-discrimination of vulnerable groups – all principles of a human rights-based approach. Once again, development outcomes and respect for human rights go hand-in-hand. We know that Viet Nam has the capacity to do this. Already, under the 2006-2010 National Target Programme on Employment, more than 12 million new jobs have been created. This year Viet Nam also introduced an unemployment insurance scheme – a remarkable achievement for a country at Viet Nam’s level of development. 

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The role of the 16 UN agencies in Viet Nam is to support the Government in the progressive realisation of human rights. Thanks to our multilateral, neutral character, historical leadership and international experience in the area of human rights, we are uniquely placed to provide specialized support in this area. 

One of the most important ways we give support is through providing input to the research and development of national policies, strategies and legislation based on local and international experience targeting the most vulnerable groups of the population. We work with the Government to identify critical human rights issues and prioritise areas for cooperation accordingly. 

Our guiding theme is to support Vietnam in the implementation of ratified human rights treaties and conventions.

Our partnership is valued by the Government. According to a UN stakeholder survey conducted in 2008 in Viet Nam, the UN’s comparative advantage is in human rights, specifically rights in relation to gender equality, HIV and reproductive health.  

As in every other country, the UN follows human rights-based approaches in Viet Nam. The key elements of human rights-based approaches are:

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1.    All programmes of development co-operation, policies and technical assistance should further the realisation of human rights, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. 
2.    All programmes and projects include human rights standards and principles such as participation, inclusion and non-discrimination. 
3.    Development cooperation should contribute to the development of the capacities of ‘duty-bearers’ – these are individuals and institutions who are supposed to make sure rights are protected, defended and fulfilled – to meet their obligations and of ‘rights-holders’ – these are individuals who have a right – to claim their rights. This includes creating an enabling environment where rights can be claimed and fulfilled. It also includes holding duty-bearers accountable for doing what the rights-holders have the right to expect.

This approach needs to guide our way of thinking when we assess situations, implement programmes, and evaluate and monitor progress. 

Please notice that a human rights-based approach assumes that development can not happen without respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights.

Ultimately, a human rights-based approach can address the very core of development problems because it looks at the root causes of inequalities, discriminatory practices and often unjust distribution of power.

Slide 16
The development of key UN documents such as the Common Country Assessment – an analysis of the development situation of a country, (CCA) and the UN Development Assistant Framework (UNDAF) in 2004 and the One Plan in 2007 – the UN documents that guide the work of the different UN agencies and 2008 –  provided a valuable opportunity for the UN and Government to promote a rights-based approach to development in its work with Viet Nam. 

The Government has been increasingly willing to discuss development challenges from a human rights perspective, which has enabled UN Agencies to use a programmatic approach to advocate for human rights-based approaches.

I will give you a few examples from the perspective of rights-holders and duty-bearers:

The UN is now implementing a project to improve the health of migrant women by supporting them to learn about and advocate for their rights. The project supports local non-governmental organisations to develop self-help groups for migrant women affected by violence. 

The UN supports women and children to defend their rights against traffickers on the border of Viet Nam and China, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the Women’s Union and civil society organisations, It also supports community-based women’s clubs that provide counselling and social support, raise awareness and advocate for women’s rights. 

The UN has worked with key ministries to craft progressive, rights-based legislation such as the Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, the Gender Equality Law and The Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control, and now works with Government to build their capacity to fulfil their obligations under these laws. For instance, the UN works with the Ministry of Public Security to establish health services in closed settings, supports the National Committee on Drugs, AIDS and Prostitution, and trains Ministry of Health staff on the provision of adequate treatment, counselling and shelter to domestic violence survivors. 

The UN is now working with the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders to develop the Law on Medical Examination and Treatment, which will set forth all rights and obligations of both patients and health professionals, a key to the realization of the right to health for all in Viet Nam

Finally, the UN works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in improving the process and quality of national human rights treaty reporting.

Slide 17
III. Delivering as One or the One UN Initiative
Hopefully, all of you here today have heard of the One UN Initiative. Hopefully, you have not only heard of it, but would like to hear a little more about it!

Viet Nam was the first of only eight countries around the world to pilot the One UN Initiative.

Slide 18
The objective of the One UN Initiative is to join all UN agencies at country level into a coherent and coordinated group of organisations ‘Delivering as One,’ with one single set of procedures, one budget and one work plan. 

In Viet Nam, the One UN covers 5 Ones: One Plan, One Budget, One Leader, One Set of Business Practices and One House, thus going beyond what other pilot countries do.

This greater coordination makes it easier for the country’s Government and other partners to work with the UN. It also helps build on one another’s strengths and avoid programme duplication and overlap. 

Slide 19
In order to ‘deliver as one,’ UN agencies have formed Joint Teams, Joint Programmes and Programme Coordination Groups. I will give you a few examples:

1.    The Joint Programme on Gender Equality provides a coordinated approach between Government, 12 UN agencies and national partners to implement two new pieces of legislation, the Gender Equality Law and the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control.  
2.    The Joint Team on HIV provides a coordinated approach to responding to HIV in Viet Nam. The team had a major role in supporting the drafting of the rights-based Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control and Party Directive 54 and now work to support the Government and partners to implement and harmonise them with related legislation.
3.    The Health and Reductive Rights Programme Coordination Group is supporting the review of the National Reproductive Health Strategy 2001-2010 and the development of a new National Reproductive Health and Population Strategy 2010-2020, to ensure they promote the sexual and reproductive rights that Viet Nam committed to in various conventions. The group is also advocating for the Government to ensure women’s reproductive right to decide the number and spacing of their children is protected.
4.    The Programme Coordination Group on Communicable Diseases is working with the Government to ensure a coordinated and effective response to newly emerging diseases such as the recent H1N1 to protect people’s health in Viet Nam.

The UN in Viet Nam hosts regular trainings on human rights-based approaches for its staff, invests in rights-based programming audits and conducts periodic assessments to measure human rights knowledge across all staff.

Slide 20

The UN also works with external partners to advance human rights-based approaches and ensure that economic, legal and social development takes place in a context of empowering rights-holders to claim their rights and duty-bearers to protect these rights. Several strong coordination mechanisms now exist between the UN, Government, donors and civil society, including NGOs. I will give you a few examples:

§    The Consultative Group. This is an annual forum for discussions between the Government of Viet Nam and its development partners on economic policy issues, strategies for reducing poverty and ODA effectiveness, including the promotion of gender equality and human rights.
§    The Country Coordination Mechanism of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As of this year, there is greater empowerment and meaningful inclusion of people living with HIV and civil society in the Global Fund process.
§    The Statement of Intent from the Ministry of Health and Development Partners. This draws on the principles and actions of the Hanoi Core Statement and Accra Agenda for Action, showing how these will be operationalized in the health sector. The overall aim is to optimise the impact of development assistance on the health of the Vietnamese people. To this end, the Statement of Intent lists a number of commitments, translated into 8 milestones, aimed at better harmonizing financial resources and technical efforts, improving alignment behind government plans and strategies, and making greater use of country systems. All partners are now working together towards the realization of these commitments through the Health Partnership Group.

UN support has contributed to a number of significant successes, notably: 

1.    Submission of a civil society shadow report to the review committee for the Convention against all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2006. This was the first shadow report ever submitted by Vietnamese civil society, showing that the Government, civil society and UN can work together to support and implement Human rights conventions.  
2.    Development of the rights-based Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, one of the most progressive HIV laws in the region (2006)
3.    Launch of the UN Global Compact in Viet Nam (2007)
4.    Formation of the National Network of People Living with HIV (2009)
5.    Significant civil society contribution to the Government’s report on Viet Nam’s progress on the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV (UNGASS) (2008)
6.    Development of Guidelines for the Financing of Local Costs in Development Co-operation with Vietnam (Cost Norms) between the UN, the European Union and the Government of Viet Nam. (These follow on the international community’s commitment to making aid more effective, as stated in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Ha Noi Core Statement. As a result of these norms, partners will be able to target their funds and spend with greater impact.) (2008, 2009)
7.    Viet Nam’s first Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council in 2009. Reports were submitted by the Government, UN and civil society and Viet Nam has decided to take many of the recommendations forward.
8.    Implementation of the Accra Agenda for Action at the country level in Viet Nam by the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

V. Conclusion
In summary, the United Nations has a clear mandate to promote human rights throughout the world. Within countries, we fulfil our mandate by promoting the principles of equality, non-discrimination, empowerment, accountability and participation. We feel strongly that respect for human rights is essential to a nation’s political, economic and social development. 

UN agencies  have learned over time that to be an effective ally of Government we must streamline our support and ‘deliver as one.’ Recent reforms piloted by the UN in Viet Nam have had a significant impact on Viet Nam’s development and we are confident that, as we change the UN to meet the demands of the people, our partnership and the resulting impact will steadily increase.

As the Vietnamese proverb says, work hard to mould a chunk of iron, because then one day you will have a shining piece of steel.

Thank you very much for your kind attention and please accept my best wishes for a thoughtful and productive workshop. I welcome your questions.


Green One UN House, 304 Kim Ma, Ba Dinh, Ha Noi, Viet Nam