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United Nations Secretary-General Antõnio Guterres launches his call to action for Human Rights

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The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-third regular session, hearing from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the President of the United Nations General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland Ignazio Cassis.

Opening the session, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that the Council’s work was followed by more people around the world than people were aware of, in particular by those whose hopes depended on it. During the next four weeks, delegations had to consider and discuss the impact that the Council had on the ground for the people who suffered conflict and infringement of rights and for those who defended them.

Mr. Guterres launched his Call for Action for Human Rights, saying that he chose to do so now during the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the United Nations because human rights were under assault. He outlined seven key areas for action : human rights at the core of sustainable development, the importance of human ights in times of crisis, gender equality and equal rights for women, public participation and civic space, the rights of future generations, collective action, and new frontiers of human rights.

Ms. Bachelet said that although threats to human rights, development and peace were on the rise, so were the practicable solutions to these issues. Those included multilateral agreements, while others stemmed from international human rights law and the work of the Human Rights Council. Today’s turbulent political landscape required usable policy tools with a proven track record of success, such as measures that increased access to education, health-care and universal social protection. She noted that broader participation by people and transparent institutions could advance social harmony and economic sustainability.

The President of the United Nations General Assembly reminded that many lives depended on how well the United Nations was able to coordinate its three main pillars : human rights, peace and security and development. He stressed that Member States had to pay due attention to the rights of the child. He also underlined the importance of gender equality, calling for its streamlining in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The human rights of those in protracted refugee situations was also underlined.

The Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland stressed that human rights together with two other United Nations pillars, peace and security and development, were the foundation of the rule of law. Turning to climate change, he said that the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement provided essential platforms towards resolving that issue. Switzerland was committed to carbon neutrality until 2050. It was willing to share its expertise and would be presenting a resolution on human rights and the environment in this Council’s session.

The Council will next hear statements by high-level dignitaries as part of its high-level segment.

Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, said it was a privilege to open the first and main session of the Council. The Council was followed by more people around the world than people were aware of, in particular by those whose hopes depended on it. During the next four weeks, delegations had to consider and discuss the impact that the Council had on the ground for the people who suffered conflict and infringement of rights and for those who defended them. A record number of 100 dignitaries were present at the high-level segment, underscoring the importance they attached to human rights. She welcomed 10 delegates from least developed countries and small island development countries to the session, whose participation was enabled by the support of the Voluntary Technical Assistance Fund. The President proceeded to present the housekeeping rules, noting that the United Nations campaign towards gender equality had resulted in a code of conduct, which was meant to prevent sexual harassment at United Nations’ events.

Statement by the President of the United Nations General Assembly

TIJJANI MUHAMMAD-BANDE, President of the United Nations General Assembly, was grateful to all that were able to join and lend voice to human rights violations around the world. The work of the United Nations was crucial in ensuring human rights protection. The institutional relationship between the Council and the General Assembly, especially the Third Committee, ensured that Member States were engaged in human rights issues as enshrined in the Universal Declaration. There were many people in the world whose lives depended on how well the United Nations was able to coordinate its three mail pillars- human rights, peace and security and development. It was important for Member States to pay due attention to the rights of the child. The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child signalized the improvement of the rights of children globally. Despite this, there was still a huge gap in creating a conducive environment to children’s rights protection and strong and sustainable action was needed on educational, humanitarian and climate induced vulnerabilities that threatened the rights of children. Gender equality had to be upheld, there had to be a duty to eliminate all forms of gender violence, and perpetrators of gender violence had to be held to account. In implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, gender had to be mainstreamed. The human rights of those in protracted refugee situations had to be addressed and the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had to be supported.

Statement by the Secretary-General of the United Nations

ANTONIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General, expressed appreciation for the work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and said he chose to launch his Call for Action for Human Rights during the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the United Nations because human rights were under assault. Human rights expanded the horizons of hope, enlarged the boundaries of the possible, and unleashed the best of all. Human rights were the ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom, the Secretary-General stressed, to ensure equality for women and girls, to advance sustainable development, and to prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed, human rights were humanity’s highest aspiration. Progress in one corner of the globe nourished progress in another.

The Secretary-General reminded that over the decades, the efforts of many had ushered in massive human rights gains on all continents. Colonial rule and apartheid had been overcome, dictatorships had fallen, and democracy had spread. One billion people had been lifted out of poverty in a generation, and the world had seen big advances in access to drinking water and big declines in child mortality. All societies had benefitted from human rights movements led by women, young people, minorities, indigenous peoples and others. Yet, human rights today faced growing challenges. No country was immune.

A new set of challenges was arising from megatrends such as the climate crisis, demographic change, rapid urbanization and the march of technology. Civilians were trapped in war-torn enclaves, starved and bombarded in clear violation of international law. Human trafficking affected every region in the world, preying on vulnerability and despair. Women and girls were enslaved, exploited and abused, denied the opportunity to make the most of their potential. Civil society activists were tossed in jail, and religious and ethnic minorities groups were persecuted, under overly broad definitions of national security. Journalists were killed or harassed for seeking only to do their jobs, and minorities, indigenous people, migrants, refugees, and the LGBTI community were vilified as the “other” and tormented by acts of hate.

The world also saw global hunger on the rise and youth unemployment at alarming levels. People were being left behind, fears were growing, and divisions widening. A perverse political arithmetic had taken hold : divide people to multiply votes. In so many places, people were rising up against political systems that failed to take them into account and economic systems that failed to deliver prosperity for all. In the face of those tensions and tests, there was an answer : human rights.

Human rights were the birthright of every person and in the interests of every country, the Secretary-General underlined. They ensured stability, built solidarity and promoted inclusion and growth. They must never be a vehicle for double standards or a means to pursue hidden agendas. The international community must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and national sovereignty went hand in hand. The promotion of human rights strengthened States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty. That was why the Secretary-General’s Call to Action was to the United Nations family itself, to Member States, to parliamentarians, to the business community, to civil society and to people everywhere.

The Call to Action singled out seven areas where concerted effort could achieve a quantum leap in progress or avert the risk of backsliding, the Secretary-General explained. Outlining those areas, the Secretary-General started with stressing that rights were at the core of sustainable development. Human rights permeated the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The vast majority of the goals and targets corresponded to legally binding human rights commitments made by every Member State. When the United Nations helped lift people out of abject poverty and when everyone had equal access to opportunity and choice, it was enabling people to claim their rights, upholding the core pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind. That promise obliged the United Nations to tackle all forms of inequality and eliminate all forms of discrimination. A human rights-based approach, oriented around peaceful and just societies and respect for the rule of law, delivered development that was more lasting and inclusive. The Secretary-General, thus, called on all countries to put human rights principles and mechanisms front and centre in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, including by creating wide avenues for civil society participation.

The Secretary-General then emphasized the importance of rights in times of crisis, noting that human rights faced few greater tests than when conflicts erupted, terrorist attacked or disaster struck. International human rights, and refugee and humanitarian law could restore a measure of humanity in even the darkest moments. The Secretary-General underscored that even necessary efforts to combat terrorism must not compromise human rights. Otherwise, counter-terror actions would be counter-productive. The Call to Action therefore recognized that respect for human rights was an essential crisis prevention mechanism. To ensure the effectiveness and coherence of United Nations’ action, the United Nations would draw on extensive work in the field and develop a common agenda for protection that would apply to the United Nations family, the Secretary-General said. That agenda for protection would take full account of differences in age, gender and diversity among the people the United Nations served. It would further focus on the protection of minorities and the rights of indigenous peoples, and would build on important initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front, enhancing human rights analysis and expanding the presence of Human Rights Advisors within United Nations Country Teams.

Turning to gender equality and equal rights for women, the Secretary-General stressed that human rights would never be realized without the human rights of women. Yet, in the year in which the world marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform of Action, the world saw a pushback against women’s rights, alarming levels of femicide, attacks on women human rights defenders, and the persistence of laws and policies that perpetuated subjugation and exclusion. Violence against women and girls was the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse. The Secretary-General pledged to reach gender parity throughout the United Nations system at all levels by 2028, to apply a gender perspective to everything the United Nations did, to strengthen the push for gender equality across the board, and better track and set benchmarks on funding for gender equality. He called on every country to support policies and legislation that promoted gender equality, repeal discriminatory laws, end violence against women and girls, ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights, and strive for women’s equal representation and participation in all spheres.

Speaking of public participation and civic space, the Secretary-General reminded that civic space was shrinking around the world. Repressive laws were spreading, with increased restrictions on the freedoms of expression, religion, participation, assembly and association. New technologies had helped civil society networks grow, but they had also given authorities unprecedented ability to control movements and curtail freedoms. The United Nations was ramping up its efforts for more systematic inclusion of civil society voices in United Nations bodies and agencies, with special attention to women’s rights organizations and young people. It would design a system-wide strategy to promote and protect civic space and step up efforts to empower civil society.

As for the rights of future generations, the Secretary-General underlined that the climate crisis was the biggest threat to their survival as a species and was already threatening human rights around the world. That global emergency highlighted how the rights of succeeding generations must figure prominently in decision-making today. It threatened the very survival of some Member States, especially small island developing countries. The Call to Action would build on the September climate summit — including the youth climate summit — to push for climate action and the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The United Nations would create space for young people to not simply speak but to participate and shape decisions that would affect their future.

Turning to collective action, the Secretary-General explained that the Call to Action situated human rights at the heart of the collective action to address today’s crises. Multilateralism must be more inclusive, more networked, and place human rights at its core. The United Nations would seize every opportunity to engage with different stakeholders, particularly Member States, on human rights and humanitarian concerns, including enhanced support to vital human rights institutions. The Universal Periodic Review was a critical tool of engagement in country-level work. The Secretary-General announced that he would soon issue new practical guidance to every United Nations country leader around the world to strengthen the platforms of cooperation to address human rights challenges utilizing the power and potential of the Universal Periodic Review.

Finally, speaking of new frontiers of human rights, the Secretary-General noted that the digital age had opened new frontiers of human welfare, knowledge and exploration. Yet, new technologies were too often used to violate rights and privacy through surveillance, repression and online harassment and hate. They were also used by terrorists and human traffickers. Advances such as facial recognition software, robotics, digital identification and biotechnology, must not be used to erode human rights, deepen inequality or exacerbate existing discrimination. The United Nations would thus advocate for the application of human rights online and for effective data protection, particularly for personal and health data. It must ensure that autonomous machines were never given lethal capacity outside human judgment or control the Secretary-General concluded. He repeated his call for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, thanked the Secretary General for launching his Call to Action. She said current world events required the attention of this high-level session of the Council, both in the short and long term. Although threats to human rights, development and peace were on the rise, so were the practicable solutions to these issues. These were both multilateral agreements, and those stemming from international human rights law and the work of the Human Rights Council.

The High Commissioner said inventive and resourceful young people must also be seen as part of the solution to the crises faced. Today’s turbulent political landscape required usable policy tools with a proven track record of success. These tools included measures that increased access to education, health-care and universal social protection. Broader participation by people and transparent institutions could advance social harmony and economic sustainability. She recalled that laws and policies that upheld equality had long-lasting positive impacts on political and social structures.

Ms. Bachelet reiterated the commitment of her Office to working with States, United Nations and regional partners, and civil society to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Human Rights Council was increasing its technical cooperation to help Governments provide greater access to fundamental services, and strengthening its practical assistance at the same time. The Committee would continue to work towards greater accountability for business and development financing institutions.

The High Commissioner recalled the horrific firestorms seen across Australia in recent months, and called on Member States not to deliver to the next generation an uncontrollable firestorm of escalating human rights crises. Instead, she called on Member States to harness workable solutions, and the power of cooperative action to ensure a cooperative and sustainable world.

Statement by the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland

IGNAZIO CASSIS, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, asked the delegates to imagine that they were in 1945 and the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust had just ended. States were seeking a path to ensure that such atrocities never occurred again and the United Nations was the answer that was found in upholding the fundamental human right of each human being to dignity, and the equal rights of men and women and small and large nations. Today many around the world took those principles for granted.

The United Nations Charter should not be taken for granted. Human rights together with two other United Nations pillars, peace and security and development, were the foundation of the rule of law in which all believed. Speaking about the Reform of the United Nations, Mr. Cassis emphasized that in a world of evolution, institutions had to evolve as well and the reforms launched by the Secretary-General were necessary to face the challenges of the epoch. Transnational dialogues had to be adjusted to millennial generations. Mr. Cassis said he was honoured to be able to welcome delegates today in International Geneva, pioneer centre of governance, where solutions to problems of today and tomorrow were found.

Mr. Cassis then proceeded to address two challenges – digitalization and climate change. Digital technology represented an enormous potential that could reinforce human rights, but the anonymity of cyber space allowed for new threats. Geneva was exploring its potential as a hub for digital governance, through examples such as the Geneva International Platform or the Geneva Science Diplomacy Anticipator. Turning to climate change, he said that the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement provided essential platforms towards resolving this. Switzerland was committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. It was willing to share its expertise and would be presenting a resolution on human rights and environment in this Council’s session. The past seventy-five years had shown that major human rights challenges could only be faced together. Mr. Cassis concluded with the words of Elias Canetti that it was most difficult to rediscover again and again what they already knew.