Theo van Boven

Awarded 1985

The Netherlands

For speaking out on human rights abuse without fear or favour in the international community.

Theo van Boven is a Dutch human rights advocate who dedicated his life to protecting human rights. As a lecturer first and working for international organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, he covered prestigious positions. He supports the idea that concern for human rights should not be a marginal activity within the UN system, but consistent work against gross violations should rather become the core element of development strategies on all levels.

He contributed to creating fact-finding mechanisms to bring pressure on defaulting authorities and provide relief to victims. He was also concerned to identify the root causes of human rights violations in connection with the development process, patterns of economic and political domination, the militarization of societies and racial discrimination. In addition, he worked hard to strengthen the links of his office with non-governmental organizations.

Precious as the notions of peace and justice may be and will be the keyword now is the very basic notion of survival.

Theo van Boven, 1985 Laureate

Theo van Boven was for ten years, until 1977, a lecturer in human rights at the University of Amsterdam. From 1970 to 1975, he was the Netherlands' representative on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. From 1977 to 1982, he was Director of the UN Division of Human Rights (today, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR). Since that time, he has been a Professor of Law at Maastricht University. In addition, Van Boven has served on numerous Councils and Committees dealing with human rights, including the Council of the International Institute of Human Rights (France) and the European Human Rights Foundation (UK), of which he was the Chairman.

In later years, Theo van Boven continued to work for human rights in various fora. He served as an expert member of the UN Subcommission on Human Rights and as a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Reparation to Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights. He was a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, one of the treaty bodies of the UN. He was the first registrar of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Later, he was the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Van Boven has been associated with the work of several non-governmental human rights organizations. For instance, he was a commissioner on the Executive Committee and a vice-president of the International Commission of Jurists (Geneva). He served as the moderator of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches and the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, a Tokyo-based human rights organization. He was also a co-director of the Maastricht Center for Human Rights.

As director of the UN Division of Human Rights, Van Boven argued consistently that concern for human rights should not be a marginal activity within the UN system but should become the core element of development strategies on all levels. He sought to break through the selective approach of the UN in human rights matters and deal more consistently with the gross violations of human rights in a large number of countries on all continents, including enforced disappearances, torture, summary and arbitrary execution and discrimination against indigenous peoples.

Van Boven's uncompromising approach to these matters led to major policy differences with the UN Secretary-General, which led to his UN contract being terminated in 1982.

In 2009, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buenos Aires.

Culture and Education