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Scenario and talking points for High Commissioner on Human Rights Event to Launch the Technical Guidance on the Application of a Human Rights Based Approach to the Implementation of Policies

Event to Launch the Technical Guidance on the Application of a Human Rights Based Approach to the Implementation of Policies and Programmes for the Reduction of Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity
14 September 2012, Room XII, Palais des Nations

I would like to welcome you and thank you for joining us today for this launch of the technical guidance on the application of a human rights based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes for the reduction of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity. I am particularly honoured to be accompanied today by several distinguished speakers, whom I shall introduce to you in a few minutes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Maternal mortality and morbidity continue to be a serious human rights concern -- it is estimated that 287,000 women died of maternal causes in 2010, and between 10 and 15 million more suffer debilitating complications annually. We owe these women our unstinting commitment to end this preventable tragedy.

This morning, the Deputy High Commissioner presented my reports to the Council on my behalf, including the technical guidance. Today, I would like us to discuss how this technical guidance helps to operationalize human rights and make them a reality for people on the ground.

There is increased understanding that this crisis has its roots in denials of human rights and historic discrimination against women, which manifests for instance, in violence against women, under-prioritization and under-funding of services and goods only women require, and lack of accountability mechanisms to respond to maternal deaths and grievous injuries. If we understand that human rights denials are significant contributing factors to the maternal health crisis, then we must ensure that human rights are at the center of our response.

Last year, the Council indicated its intention to move beyond a human rights analysis of the problem of maternal mortality and morbidity, and requested this guidance, to put human rights into practice. I welcomed this bold step by the Council because too often, human rights are seen only as standards contained in treaties and declarations. However, human rights have concrete contributions to make in guiding policy formulation and implementation, and constructively addressing major global challenges. A human rights based approach educates duty bearers about their obligations and how to meet them, and empowers people to claim their rights, which would otherwise remain far away.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

While aimed primarily at policy makers, the guidance has the potential to be used by a wide variety of stakeholders, working to improve women’s health and their enjoyment of rights.

The guidance begins with general principles including:

  1. Recognition that a human rights-based approach is about health and not isolated pathologies; it is premised upon women empowering themselves to claim their rights, and not merely avoiding maternal death or morbidity; it is further premised on an understanding that these are rights and not commodities or matters of charity;
  2. The need for attention to the social determinants of women’s health, including structural factors which perpetuate discrimination against women;
  3. Special attention is also required to groups of women suffering multiple forms of discrimination, and higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity as a result;
  4. Women are active agents who are entitled to participate in a comprehensive and meaningful manner in decisions that affect their sexual and reproductive health;
  5. Accountability is a thread that runs throughout the application of a human rights based approach, and must be built into strategies and plans to address maternal mortality;
  6. States are obliged to ensure that third parties do not interfere with the enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health rights.

The guidance emphasizes that adopting a national plan of action or strategy on health is a core obligation in the realization of the right to health, and provides details on not only what should be included in a nation action plan from a human rights perspective, but also process requirements such as the need to undertake a situational analysis and devising the plan in consultation with affected populations.

The technical guidance goes on to offer specific advice on assessing whether the maximum of available resources is being allocated to sexual and reproductive health and on ensuring transparent and participatory budgetary processes.

Addressing implementation, the guidance examines concrete examples of identified problems, illustrating the diagnostic exercise required to understand what is happening to whom and where; why it is happening; who or what institution is responsible for such factors, and for addressing the problem; and how action should be taken. Meaningful participation is particularly critical in this exercise of asking questions -- as affected populations and front line health workers often understand and see problems in implementation from a different perspective than policy makers in capital cities.

Accountability is the lynchpin of a human rights based approach, and it is relevant in all stages of planning outlined above. Effective monitoring is critical to ensuring accountability. More robust data collection for indicators which are key for the realization of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights is crucial – for example, more must be done to monitor access to emergency obstetric care, which is a core obligation under human rights law. The guidance explains several forms of review and oversight, pointing to the various levels of cross-sectoral accountability which are required. Without effective remedies, which can take many forms, accountability mechanisms will be hollow and insufficient.

The technical guidance concludes with advice on human rights requirements that pertain to international assistance and cooperation, counselling rights-based development policies, policy coherence, and predictable, harmonious and transparent economic assistance. 

This technical guidance has benefitted from invaluable inter-agency and multi-disciplinary consultations and discussions, along with expert advice from academics, civil society advocates, and practitioners. I wish to sincerely thank all of the individuals and organizations who contributed to the development of this document. I hope you will agree that the end product is something that can be used by a variety of different stakeholders. On this note, I want to give the floor to our speakers, who will offer remarks on their work and how the technical guidance will help to advance our joint goal of eliminating maternal mortality and morbidity.