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Multilateralism in action: cooperating with the OSCE to prevent crises and uphold human rights

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
Meeting of the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Vienna, 20 February 2020

Excellences President and Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly,
Chair of the Human Rights Committee,
Distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the members of the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. As the world's largest regional inter-governmental organization, the OSCE is a vital and consequential partner for my Office across a wide range of issues. And this Committee is involved at the core of that work – from conflict prevention, to the advancement of sustainable development, upholding gender equality, ensuring human rights-based climate action, and our shared emphasis on fundamental freedoms and economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.

The dynamics of cooperation between my Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have become increasingly effective over the past ten years. In 2014, our organizations signed a Joint Declaration to further strengthen and institutionalize those bonds. This has reinforced the OSCE's engagement with the UN human rights system, facilitating many valuable recommendations by the Universal Periodic Review, Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies.

I appreciate the regular thematic consultations between our respective country presences (including our Regional Offices for Europe and for Central Asia), and our institutions, sections and desks as well as our exchange of valuable information, such as ODIHR's election observation mission reports.

The legally binding UN human rights instruments, and the politically-binding OSCE human dimension1, are complementary and mutually reinforcing. I believe that the extensive expertise in impartial and objective human rights monitoring and reporting, which  my Office has developed can also be of great benefit to the OSCE – including in contested territories and in the context of protracted conflicts. Both our organisations know how vital it is to ensure accurate monitoring of the human rights impact of these situations, and to advance the protection of civilians and of detainees – irrespective of political issues or legal status.

Our cooperation in the field is particularly notable in Ukraine. Since the deployment in 2014 of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission and the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, we have regularly exchanged vital human rights information; jointly monitored public assemblies and trials; and cross-verified cases of human rights violations. We also regularly refer individual cases to each other for appropriate follow-up, and my staff cooperate closely with ODIHR and the High Commissioner on National Minorities to define common positions for joint advocacy.

I especially welcome the first-hand information on civilian casualties that SMM shares with us, and I believe our wide-ranging and consistent cooperation on this point has contributed to reducing the number of civilians killed and wounded. We are also grateful for the OSCE's continued pressure on relevant stakeholders to grant international organisations access to places of detention and detainees in territory not controlled by the Government.

My Office shares concerns, expressed by many international multilateral organizations and civil society about trends including in a number of OSCE participating States regarding legislative and political reforms that can and have undermined human rights standards, particularly on freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, the right to asylum, the right to privacy, and the impartiality and independence of the judiciary – which is the cornerstone of rule of law.

Across Central Asia, both our organisations have sizeable presences and engage in multi-track cooperation. We have cooperated in particular with the OSCE's human dimension colleagues; ODIHR; and the High Commissioner on National Minorities, ensuring human rights reporting, advocacy, legislative reviews, policy guidance and capacity building of both officials and civil society.

Next month, for example, we will be supporting ODIHR's Central Asia Human Rights Defenders and Digitalization workshop, which will look at ways to protect defenders in the digital space. We also work jointly on torture prevention; to ensure the rights of national and ethnic minorities; to assist legislators engaged in reform of criminal justice laws; and to build effective mechanisms and policies for prevention.

This work to prevent crises from developing and escalating is key to the mandates of both the OSCE and the UN. It is also an effective investment. The UN Secretary-General's 2018 report on Sustaining Peace noted that "The effective prevention of conflict alone saves up to $70 billion per year for the affected country and the international community combined." The OSCE human dimension recognises clearly that this challenge of prevention must be viewed as much broader than the specific objectives for resolving existing conflict and establishing a sustained peace.

We need to move the focus upstream, and build the resilience of States, so that grievances can be addressed and resolved before bitter divisions set in. I believe that by strengthening our cooperation in follow-up to the recommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms and OSCE human dimension instruments, we can have vital impact on this area. I also look forward to increased joint action on economic and environmental issues, in line with the OSCE's comprehensive approach to security— as well as joint work to advocate human rights-based approaches to digital technologies and to development.

This is core human rights work. Every measure that upholds and protects human rights constitutes a step forward in building societies that are more peaceful, because they are more fair. Today I want to emphasise three key points within the spectrum of human rights recommendations and norms: the rule of law; the free and full participation of civil society; and the need for development that is sustainable and inclusive.

The rule of law makes public institutions accountable for upholding human rights and the fair delivery of public services. And it empowers all individuals – including those who suffer entrenched discrimination -- to claim their rights. Law that is just, applied to all, and impartially administered in line with international human rights norms and obligations is a shield against the arbitrary rule of narrow interests. It is key to public confidence in institutions, and builds greater social cohesion and more flexible governance, able to withstand shocks. The independence, impartiality and integrity of judicial systems is the cornerstone of justice – and any attempt to jeopardize this integrity erodes the rule of law, human rights and prevention.

Protecting civic space and protecting the rule of law are two sides of the same coin. Those who wish to undermine the rule of law – in order to further their own interest in impunity – will first attack civil society and media freedoms, which are vital to ensuring the informed and active participation of the public. Both our organizations must be clear that public participation in debate and decision-making about policy may mean that criticism is voiced. But this vibrant debate is helpful in constructing policies that more fully reflect and respond to the reality of people's lives. It results in better health services, education, housing, and social protection; it leads to a more sustainably developed economy.

This resilience and flexibility in policy are vital to social stability. These factors build truly strong States. People should be free to hold opinions that are different from those of their government, and to mobilise others to claim their rights. These are neither crimes nor terrorism. They are basic human rights, and they build strength.

Human rights are not about imposing so-called "foreign" concepts on States. They are in every State's interest. And development is a case in point. A healthy and well-functioning economy is one that can deliver on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, and the right to development, for all. Every country needs to unlock the talents and capacity of all its people, and give each individual a stake in its success.

The 2030 Agenda is directly linked to OSCE's comprehensive approach to human development as a driver of security and prevention. It is fundamentally a human rights agenda – one that explicitly seeks to unlock the discrimination and structural marginalisation of millions of people who have been left behind, and ensure a fairer distribution of resources. We have just one decade – the Decade of Action – to deliver on the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

Now is the time to generate greater public engagement, and integrate ambitious and achievable policy solutions. We need a new momentum to deliver on the commitments made by States to uphold human rights – from the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, to the Global Compact for Migration that States signed in December 2018; and the ongoing talks to resolve the climate emergency, which increasingly affects the peoples of the OSCE. We need effective international cooperation in order to achieve our shared goals – chief among them, the peace, sustainable development and human rights that can support a healthy environment and a positive future for humanity.

In other words, in this period of growing global challenges, we need to be able to count on strong, collaborative, productive multilateral discussion -- and we need it to produce commitments that are fair, and effectively implemented.

We need comprehensive, cooperative efforts to resolve conflicts – and to prevent the outbreak of conflicts. We need to act globally to ensure that resources are more fairly distributed – in the interests of us all. We need more productive and impactful policy discussions in fora that are adaptable and based on the equality of all States, small and large.

In other words, we need to return to the fundamental framework that has largely kept States together since the global conflagration of the Second World War. Multilateralism saves lives, and it improves lives. I am convinced that action to

I am convinced that action to tackle this unfinished business can create a surge of popular support – a movement of hope, to replace the fear and dread so many people currently feel about their future.


Like the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act – which many view as the founding document of the OSCE – emphasises that it is "in the interest of peoples" that States "contribute to peace, security, justice and cooperation, as well as to rapprochement among themselves and with the other States of the world."

It recognises "the close link between peace and security in Europe and in the world as a whole, and the need for each (State) to make its contribution to the
strengthening of world peace and security and to the promotion of fundamental rights,
economic and social progress and well-being for all peoples."

I welcome the statement made by Prime Minister Rama of Albania last month, as his country assumed the OSCE Chairmanship. He highlighted the importance of upholding the fundamental commitments of the Helsinki Principles, and referred specifically to a broad spectrum of human rights issues and concerns, including combatting violence against women, trafficking and incitement to hatred and violence.

We do indeed face a great deal of turbulence in the world. Political polarisation, and the weakening of multilateral cooperation, is damaging the international system's ability to resolve conflicts and maintain peace. Many societies are burdened with inequalities and churning with discontent. This undercuts the world's capacity to manage rising challenges, from the climate emergency to the movement of people and the implications of digital technology.

Peace and justice are the foundation for human well-being. But as the Chairperson-in-Office so clearly indicated, they are not inevitable. We can choose to work for peace – or we can watch as grievances fester and build up until violence breaks out and escalates into conflict. Peace depends on us.

Members of this Assembly can play a vital role in addressing human rights challenges. Nationally and in the multilateral context, Parliaments are uniquely placed to spearhead positive changes through the legislative process. This includes the ratification of international human rights treaties; implementation of human rights recommendations that require legislative reform; establishment of independent national human rights institutions; adoption of national human rights strategies and more. I also want to emphasise your capacity to help build public confidence in institutions and to promote truth-telling; reconciliation; conflict resolution; and strong action to advance both the Sustainable Development Goals and the prevention of conflict.

I commend the close attention given by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly -- and specifically, this Committee – to human rights issues. It is deeply encouraging, and I look forward to deepening the bonds between our organisations, as well as the work we both do to support and uphold human rights.

Thank you.