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Opening comments by High Commissioner at Human Rights Day event in the Palais des Nations Geneva - 10 December 2012

Madame President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you all to this event to celebrate Human Rights Day and this year’s theme, which is dedicated to “Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Public Life.”

These are not just nice ideas. They are fundamental human rights principles, laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the two overarching international Covenants that are the Universal Declaration’s direct offspring, and in many other international treaties.

Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, some demanding civil and political rights, others demanding economic, social and cultural rights.

This groundswell is not simply a question of people demanding freedom to say what they think.

They have been asking for much more than that. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives. That means not only the democratic processes, but also the key economic decisions that can have such a huge impact on individuals, families, and even entire groups and nations.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights spells out the right to participation, in its “democracy article” – article 25 – as well as elsewhere.

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Every person shall have the right to vote and be elected, and to have access to public service, as well as to free expression, assembly and association.

These rights are supposed to apply, as the Universal Declaration puts it, to “all human beings.” No one should be excluded from any of them because they are female, belong to a minority, or worship a certain religion; or because they are gay, have a disability, have particular political beliefs, are migrants or belong to a certain racial or ethnic group. We should all have a voice that counts in our societies.

Unfortunately, many people don’t.

Women, for example, make up more than half the world’s population, but are still facing widespread discrimination, including with regard to their participation in public life.

Women have now, finally, won the right to vote almost everywhere, but they are still hugely under-represented in parliaments, in senior government posts and in corporate boardrooms.

In only two countries in the world – Rwanda and Andorra -- do women currently hold 50 percent or more of parliamentary seats in the lower or unique house. By contrast, in 19 states – almost one in ten – women hold less than 5 percent of the parliamentary seats in the lower house. The global average for women MPs stands at just over 20 percent in the lower house, and even less – an average 18 percent – in the upper house or Senate.

Women clearly still have a long way to go before they can be said to have been fully included in the law- and policy-making processes that govern every aspect of their lives. Ensuring women’s participation in public life requires wide- ranging measures, that extend beyond quotas, in order to eliminate discrimination in education, economic opportunities and sexual and reproductive health care.

We are doing a bit better at this ceremony today, however. You have before you a much-praised female President of the Human Rights Council. You have a female UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who used not to have a vote, and was discriminated against because of her colour as well as her gender.

And a little later you will hear directly from perhaps the most celebrated female politician and human rights defender in the world today, Daw Aun San Suu Kyi, who has overcome two decades of efforts to prevent her from participating her country’s political process, and who has kindly agreed to address us live by satellite link from Myanmar.

But women leaders are still relatively few and far between.

Many other groups are also struggling to have a greater participation in government and other forms of policy-making. Sometimes, even when a concerted effort has been made to ensure groups are not discriminated against in terms of legislation, the discrimination still persists in practice, creating intangible and self-perpetuating barriers to full participation.

Many millions of people cannot even dream of aiming high, they just dream of getting by – of surviving until tomorrow.

That may be because they have not been to school, have no health care, or insufficient food – because they lack the basic rights and services that would give them the opportunity to build a better future.

Today, I salute all those who have suffered so much seeking what is rightfully theirs -- and all those people in other countries who are also saying “we have a voice, we have our rights and we want to participate in the way our societies and economies are run.”

No matter who you are, or where you live, under international law, your voice counts. Governments should ensure that this is not a dream. It should be a reality.

ENDS

My voice, my right, my voice counts – Watch the Human Rights Day’s video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCnLOpUW7tY&feature=share&list=UU3L8u5qG07djPUwWo6VQVLA