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Opening speech to the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council

Mr. President
Distinguished Delegates,

It is an honour for me to address the High-Level Segment of the Human Rights Council for the first time.  

When I last addressed this Council, I spoke at length of the cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists.  Alas, the horrors they perpetrate continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily.   And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests.   How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them.  For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed.  Therefore, and without diminishing our continuing rejection of terrorism, I will focus in this statement on the broad conduct of Member States regarding their obligations to uphold human rights.

It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the United Nations was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.  

In this room today are the distinguished representatives of many States that have each made specific and precious contributions to humanity. All, by ratifying the UN Charter, have made a clear commitment to, I quote, “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.  

States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views.  A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.

In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by you as this Council's independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies.  I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.

Mr. President,

The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.

They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.

Mr. President,

The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace. 

Our discussions during this session will only be of some worth if every State represented here will take the recommendations of the Council, its Universal Periodic Review, and its expert mechanisms out of this room, and give them real impact where it matters – in your countries.

As a former diplomat myself, I am well aware of the preoccupation with protocol which makes the representatives of States jostle for places on Councils, or for prominent speaking slots in key summits, with the view that these are important markers of the world's respect for their nation. But this agitation alone is simply meaningless, because everybody knows when people are silenced, when they fear arbitrary arrest or worse.  

Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed.  Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary.  Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighbourhoods.

Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. And Excellencies, they are what truly make up a State's reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honours the dignity of its people.

The only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the solemn ballet of grand diplomacy. It is the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.

Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today:  I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before.  I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me. And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises. 

I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalisation, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth.  They are not new.

I believe our work together in this Human Rights Council is vital. And I urge you, and the States you represent, to align your actions with the recommendations of the Council and its mechanisms – to truly take this work out of this august Chamber, and bring it to the streets and households of your countries.

Mr President,

I am highly conscious of the increasing demands and responsibilities placed on my Office, and the need to ensure that we can more effectively serve the peoples of the world – most particularly, the victims of human rights violations. 

On Thursday, I will introduce a significant reorganization of my Office, based on the outcomes of an extensive functional review. There will be some reshuffling at Headquarters, but the essential movement will be to boost our presence in regional and field offices, in order to assist you, the Member States, more directly, and to make our work on your behalf as effective as possible.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all OHCHR staff members, particularly those who work in situations of grave and daily danger. These women and men often risk death to both uphold our principles and to provide us with vital information. I am dismayed to learn that because of lack of will by Member States, the United Nations is not in a position to make adequate provision for support to staff who are injured in high-risk missions, or to the families of staff-members who have been killed in such circumstances.  Frankly, this is appalling and I appeal to all of you to change it.  

Mr President,

At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face.  We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.

What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity?  You must not make it so.  This is principally your burden, and ours.  Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally.  Let us make it so.

Thank you