Remarks of Secretary-General to the UN Human Rights Council on “The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights"
24 February 2020
The remarks of Secretary-General to the UN Human Rights Council on “The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights", on February 24, 2020
Distinguished President of the Human Rights Council,
Madame High Commissioner,
Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,
I would like to start by expressing my appreciation and admiration for the work being carried out by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and her Office.
Her personal history… her understanding of what it means for a society and an individual to suffer human rights violations… and her experience in advancing human rights as a world leader…
All of this gives her a unique and vital voice.
I have come to the Human Rights Council -- the fulcrum for international dialogue and cooperation to advance all human rights – to launch a Call to Action.
And I have come now – during this 75th anniversary year of the United Nations – because human rights are under assault.
I want to begin where human rights begin -- with a core understanding.
Human rights are about the dignity and worth of the human person.
They expand the horizons of hope, enlarge the boundaries of the possible, and unleash the best of ourselves and our world.
Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom. To ensure equality for women and girls. To advance sustainable development. To prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world.
As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, human rights are “humanity’s highest aspiration”.
Progress in one corner of the globe nourishes progress in another.
I have seen it.
And I have lived it.
I grew up under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal and did not experience democracy until I was twenty-four years old.
I saw the dictatorship oppress not only its own citizens, but also people under colonial rule in Africa.
But it was the human rights struggles and successes of others around the world that inspired us.
Over the decades, the efforts of many have ushered in massive human rights gains on all continents.
Colonial rule and apartheid were overcome. Dictatorships have fallen. Democracy has spread.
Landmark covenants spell out the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.
A robust treaty-based system is in place, along with special procedures and accountability mechanisms.
One billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a generation.
We have seen big advances in access to drinking water – and big declines in child mortality.
And all our societies have benefitted from human rights movements led by women, young people, minorities, indigenous peoples and others.
Yet, human rights today face growing challenges.
No country is immune.
We see civilians trapped in war-torn enclaves, starved and bombarded in clear violation of international law.
Human trafficking affecting every region in the world, preying on vulnerability and despair.
Women and girls enslaved, exploited and abused, denied the ability to make the most of their potential.
Civil society activists tossed in jail, and religious and ethnic minorities groups detained, under overly broad definitions of national security.
Journalists killed or harassed for seeking only to do their jobs.
Minorities, indigenous people, migrants, refugees, the LGBTI community vilified as the “other” and tormented by acts of hate.
We also see global hunger on the rise and and youth unemployment at alarming levels.
And a new set of challenges is arising from megatrends such as the climate crisis, demographic change, rapid urbanization and the march of technology.
People are being left behind. Fears are growing. Divisions are widening.
Some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to the breaking point.
A perverse political arithmetic has taken hold: divide people to multiply votes.
The rule of law is being eroded.
In so many places, people are rising up against political systems that fail to take them into account and economic systems that fail to deliver prosperity for all.
In the face of these tensions and tests, there is an answer: Human rights.
Human rights are the birthright of every person and in the interests of every country.
They ensure stability. They build solidarity. They promote inclusion and growth.
They must never be a vehicle for double standards or a means to pursue hidden agendas.
Our enduring challenge is to transform the ambitions of the Universal Declaration into real-world change on the ground.
That is why my Call to Action is to the UN family itself, to Member States, to parliamentarians, to the business community, to civil society and to people everywhere.
We have to fully mobilize the diverse capacities of the United Nations.
Let me also underscore a fundamental point: just as we must not discriminate between people, we cannot pick and choose among human rights.
It would be a mistake to diminish economic, social and cultural rights. But it would be equally misguided to think that those rights are sufficient to answer people’s yearning for freedom.
For our part, as a United Nations family, a culture of human rights must permeate all we do.
Indeed, when we push for a surge of diplomacy, we are reducing human suffering and promoting human rights.
When we press for climate action, we are advancing intergenerational justice and promoting human rights.
When we call out the rise of racism, white supremacy and other forms of extremism and issue the first-ever UN system-wide plan of action to combat hate speech, we are upholding human rights.
Human rights are part of the very identity of the United Nations.
That means we must deploy a diverse toolbox of actions depending on situation and context.
At times we will work hand-in-hand with Governments and other stakeholders, providing technical support to build national human rights institutions and guide the national application of international norms and standards.
At other times we will speak out, identifying both violations and violators.
At still other times we will work behind the scenes.
There is a place for each of these approaches, and often all three at once.
The ultimate test is not the headlines we generate or the catharsis of public critique.
Success must be measured by the yardstick of meaningful change in people’s lives.
Our Call to Action singles out seven areas where concerted effort can achieve a quantum leap in progress or avert the risk of backsliding.
Allow me to briefly outline each.
First, rights at the core of sustainable development.
Human rights permeate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The vast majority of the goals and targets correspond to legally binding human rights commitments made by every Member State.
When we help lift people out of abject poverty – when we ensure education for all, notably girls – when we guarantee universal health care -- when everyone has equal access to opportunity and choice, we are enabling people to claim their rights and upholding the core pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.
This promise obliges us to tackle all forms of inequality and eliminate all forms of discrimination.
Nobody’s prospects in life should be determined because of age, gender, how they look, where they live, how they worship or who they love.
We also must focus on the needs and experiences of young people, people living with disabilities, minorities, indigenous communities, refugees, migrants and other groups facing specific challenges.
A human rights-based approach, oriented around peaceful and just societies and respect for the rule of law, delivers development that is more lasting and inclusive.
Today I call on all countries to put human rights principles and mechanisms front and centre in implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – including by creating wide avenues for civil society participation.
Second, rights in time of crisis.
Human rights face few greater tests than when conflicts erupt, terrorists attack or disaster strikes.
International human rights, refugee and humanitarian law can restore a measure of humanity in even the darkest moments.
This Call to Action recognizes that respect for human rights is an essential crisis prevention mechanism.
But when prevention falls short and violence is rampant, people need protection.
To ensure the effectiveness and coherence of UN action, we will draw on extensive work in the field and develop a common agenda for protection that will apply to the United Nations family.
Even the necessary efforts to combat terrorism must not compromise human rights.
This agenda for protection will take full account of differences in age, gender and diversity among the people we serve.
It will further focus on the protection of minorities and the rights of indigenous peoples.
And it will build on important initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front– enhancing human rights analysis and expanding the presence of Human Rights Advisors within UN Country Teams.
Meanwhile, we will continue to engage with the Security Council and other UN bodies to raise awareness, prevent crises, protect people and ensure accountability, including through international criminal courts and other mechanisms for global justice. These are also vital instruments in the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes.
Third, gender equality and equal rights for women.
Human rights will never be realized without the human rights of women.
Yet in this year in which we mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform of Action, we see a pushback against women’s rights, alarming levels of femicide, attacks on women human rights defenders, and the persistence of laws and policies that perpetuate subjugation and exclusion.
Violence against women and girls is the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse.
We also continue to see chronic stagnation in women’s participation in political leadership roles, peace processes and economic inclusion.
The gaps may vary but the roots and reasons are the same: power.
For millennia, women have been systematically silenced, marginalized and ignored.
Policies and laws have been shaped largely through the experiences of only half of humanity.
We need a shift in our way of thinking, so that we consciously build socio-economic, governance and security systems that work for all.
As one noted expert wrote: “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine rather than women.”
That work starts within. On January 1st — for the first time in UN history — we achieved gender parity across our senior-most ranks of full-time Under- and Assistant-Secretaries-General – 90 women and 90 men.
We pledge to reach gender parity throughout the UN system at all levels by 2028, apply a gender perspective to everything the United Nations does, strengthen our push for gender equality across the board, and better track and set benchmarks on funding for gender equality.
Today, I call on every country to support policies and legislation that promote 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.
Fourth, public participation and civic space.
Civic space is shrinking around the world. And as that space shrinks, so, too, do human rights.
Repressive laws are spreading, with increased restrictions on the freedoms of expression, religion, participation, assembly and association.
Journalists, human rights defenders and environmental activists -- especially women -- are increasingly threatened at a time when they are critically needed to ensure accountability.
New technologies have helped civil society networks grow, but they have also given authorities unprecedented ability to control movements and curtail freedoms.
The United Nations simply could not do its work without the active engagement of civil society.
We are ramping up our 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.
And we will design a system-wide strategy to promote and protect civic space and step up efforts to empower civil society.
Fifth, the rights of future generations.
The climate crisis is the biggest threat to our survival as a species and is already threatening human rights around the world.
This global emergency highlights how the rights of succeeding generations must figure prominently in decision-making today.
It threatens the very survival of some Member States, especially small island developing countries.
Our children and grandchildren will enjoy far fewer of their fundamental rights if we do not act. And we can already hear them through the courageous voices of young people today.
Our Call to Action will 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.
We will create space for young people to not simply speak – but to participate and shape decisions that will affect their future.
Sixth, collective action.
This Call to Action situates human rights at the heart of the collective action we need to address today’s crises.
Multilateralism must be more inclusive, more networked, and place human rights at its core.
We will 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.
We will strengthen our efforts to build capacities and bolster state institutions and civil society organizations.
We will continue to engage in frank dialogue in the Security Council, in the General Assembly, and in the Human Rights Council, as well as bilaterally and at the regional level.
The Universal Periodic Review is a critical tool of engagement in our country-level work. We have many good practices and successful experiences -- even in the most difficult circumstances. We pledge today to step up our efforts.
I will soon issue new practical guidance to every UN country leader around the world to strengthen our platforms of cooperation to address human rights challenges utilizing the power and potential of the Universal Periodic Review.
In all we do, we pledge to increase our support to Member States in building their own human rights institutions and make fuller use of UN human rights tools as a basis for meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Seventh, and finally, new frontiers of human rights.
The digital age has opened new frontiers of human welfare, knowledge and exploration.
Yet new technologies are too often used to violate rights through surveillance, repression and online harassment and hate. They are 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 independent High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation has pointed the way to a world in which everyone benefits from profound advances and new frontiers.
To that end, we will advocate for the application of human rights online and for effective data protection, particularly for personal and health data.
Work with the private sector will be crucial.
We will also strive to strengthen vital global bodies such as the Internet Governance Forum.
And we must ensure that autonomous machines are never given lethal capacity outside human judgment or control.
I repeat my call for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am determined to put the full weight of my office and the United Nations family behind the Call to Action we launch today, fully supporting the vital work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights We will also strengthen the already close collaboration between my office and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that we cooperate effectively and live up to the commitments.
I ask all of you to join us in answering the call – for people and planet.
People across the world want to know we are on their side.
Whether robbed of their dignity by war, repression or poverty, or simply dreaming of a better future, they rely on their irreducible rights – and they look to us to help uphold them.
Human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social -- are both the goal and the path.
Let’s work together to realize humanity’s highest aspiration -- all human rights for all people.