Varuh ДЌlovekovih pravic

Speech delivered by the Ombudsman Peter Svetina at the reception marking Human Rights Day

In the final month of the year, our sight and thoughts are somewhat more frequently directed back, to our accomplishments, decisions, and relationships. Yet, when we look forward to how we would like to act or be treated, there is probably no person amongst us who would not wish to act differently in a certain situation. Be a better person. The drafters of the universal declaration of human rights were pondering the same 74 years ago. It is a document setting out the rights and freedoms of all people. The foundation of this declaration, adopted on 10 December 1948 in Paris, is universality, with which the Organization of the United Nations strived to pave the path to freedom, justice, and peace.

It was an immensely important time for humanity, which is observed especially solemnly on the anniversary of the declaration’s adoption with Human Rights Day. Today, I am pleased to be in the company of all of you – the elected, the appointed, or in any other way called upon to provide for the freedoms and rights of Everyman with your work, decisions, and last but not least, by your own example in this small corner of the world. These are not ideals. The sensibility for actual problems of people here and now is our duty, the duty we have every single day.

The problems to which I frequently bring attention are too numerous: thousands lack access to general practitioners and family doctors, thousands of children with mental health disorders lack appropriate treatment due to the lack of child psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and other specialists, waiting periods are unreasonably long, and the health system has been completely bureaucratised and alienated from people. We face social difficulties; we are dealing with precarity and other serious problems of young people, such as the housing problem; vulnerable groups are still often marginalised; we still, for example, have not provided the infrastructure that would ease the paths of people with physical or sensory impairments. We spout words about deinstitutionalisation and care in the community for institutionalised children, the disabled, and the elderly, yet none of this is implemented in practice. Secure wards are overcrowded, people are being placed in bathrooms, in hallways; institutions competent, primarily courts and social work centres, still do not do enough for the protection of children’s rights. Environmental problems are not dealt with eagerly enough; judicial proceedings are too lengthy; institutions decide too slowly about people’s complaints and thus violate the principle of good governance, and I could go on.

The accumulated dissatisfaction, distress, and frustrations give rise to intolerance, hostility, and, unfortunately, physical assaults. The events of recent years have shaken us to our foundations. They have left a significant mark on the well-being and health of many. In addition to real problems that we were already facing, the world is now also dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of the war not far away in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, the climate crisis, and other geopolitical circumstances which affect our lives.

All of this has shaken our safety and strongly influenced our value system. I am probably not the only one who believes that we are seeing a big bang of radical social and economic transformation.

The fear of the unknown is greater than ever. Trust, democratic dialogue, connection and mutual respect, humanity and benevolence, which are the foundations of human rights, are increasingly put to the test.

In this wave of changes and complaints about how we do not like something, we unfortunately frequently miss the insight that it is we who in fact co-create this social and personal reality.

We are facing a kind of value tide: on the one hand, we are focused on ourselves and our needs, we are pervaded by individualism, even egotism, while on the other we harshly condemn all of this. Moreover, we redouble our efforts to prevent egotism from prevailing. Even though we might sometimes feel that there are no sensible or simple solutions, we always have a choice. When we – as a state, society, and individuals – have a clear vision that we want to benevolently put a person first, we also nurture social welfare. However, do we do that sincerely?

In this sense, upon this year’s Human Rights Day, I would like to strongly recommend that everyone consider humanitarianism. I’m not talking about resorting to charity, which is absolutely commendable if it is honest and does not mean to make up for a guilty conscience. It is my sincere wish that in our professional and private actions we would more often remember the essence of two beautiful Slovenian words ‘človek’ and ‘ljub’ which combined make up ‘človekoljub’ or in translation love towards humans. It is more than simple humanism. For I am convinced that if we work in favour of humans, the choices we make positively affect other people. If we care for our fellow man with compassion and attentiveness, we create the conditions for a high quality of life not only for them, but for the entire community. For all of us.

The venue in Cukrarna is an excellent illustration of potential, missed opportunities, the lack of vision, and unfortunately also of inhumanity and the lack of humanitarianism. When we hear the building mentioned, rare are those who instantly think of a once successful sugar refinery, known for its implementation of innovations such as the first steam engine in Slovenia. A military post was once located behind these walls, as well as a tobacco factory. Regretfully, most of us think of the sad decaying building in which many people lived their hardest moments, for in different periods of history Cukrarna served as a refuge for artists, for the socially deprived, homeless, and addicts. But even among those stories a few can be found who strived for a better society, a society of welfare for all, not only a few, and in times when they could only dream about something akin to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

Today, when the rudiments of human rights are well developed and established through hard fights and efforts through history, it is important that in our everyday decision-making we pursue the values of humanity, nobility, compassion, boldness, and selflessness.  

As the Human Rights Ombudsman, I harbour such expectations first and foremost towards the authorities and public servants of the time, the people whose work my colleagues and I monitor, bring attention to errors, and often jointly look to for solutions. Every year we discern from the questions and cases which people address to us that the principle of good administration is still among the most widely violated principles.

This is also why I often say that as a state we will have to take big steps towards the strengthening of the explanatory duty and accessibility of our public officials. For this is another area where we have strayed away from a person, who at this point not uncommonly gets lost among papers and legal decisions. Passivity, blurriness, pressures and influences on decision-making, the complicated normative framework that confuses people, frequent exclusive on-line accessibility that is outside the acquired skills of many, lack of information and often also of clear vision intensify unsatisfaction and uncertainty. Not only among service users but also among service providers who frequently have to operate in the face of dire human resources difficulties.

For the appropriate operation of the state apparatus in accordance with the constitution, the laws and regulations, as well as human rights and fundamental freedoms, we will have to additionally empower public servants so that they understand that they are first and foremost bound to protect the rights of people. That every one of us acts with personal responsibility is certainly the right direction for putting an end to inappropriate practices. It is only personal responsibility and the thought of people, the fate of whom we decide, that will bring about a society which is philanthropic, inclusive, and leaves no one behind.

If we want to preserve and strengthen the welfare state we have been building for decades, we will have to change our attitude to our fellow man, when a humanitarian is not only someone who is active in, for example, Humanitarček, Caritas, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Sonček, Sožitje, or The Friends of Youth Association… This can be any one of us who has a very positive and emotional attitude towards a fellow man, even if it may mean, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, a peaceful coexistence with a dose of alienation. Today, when it appears we lack state vision and positive change, it is our humanity that can be a positive invisible force for connecting society. I believe that here and now it is impossible to live without it. Hence, for the full exercise of human rights outside our selfish desires or needs, we have to honestly put a person on the pedestal once again. In doing so, may we be led by wisdom and determination, including of those who inspire us.