Speech by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, upon being elected as President of the UN Human Rights Council for the year 2020


6 December 2019

Tri-lingual version (English, French, Spanish)

Monsieur le Président,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me start by expressing my sincere gratitude to all the members of the Human Rights Council for entrusting me with the task of serving you as the next President. Let me also thank the countries of the Western Europe and Others Group for having endorsed my candidacy.

It is – for myself as well as for my country Austria – a great honour to assume the presidency of this body which is so important for so many people.

It is, moreover, a very special privilege for me to preside over the Council during the year of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women. I will do my best to keep an eye on women’s rights and genuine gender equality.

I will take up this job with all the respect required and do my best to be everybody’s president, equally open and available to all of you – members, observers, civil society, regional and other groups - impartial and neutral and with the only objective in mind to facilitate the Council’s work in promoting and protecting human rights as the international community reaffirmed them at the World Conference on Human Rights held in my hometown Vienna in 1993: universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent, mutually reinforcing and a legitimate concern of the international community.

My country Austria learnt the importance of human rights the hard way – in the course of two world wars and a civil war in between. This experience taught us that a society which upholds human rights is actually more resilient, more sustainable and more secure.

Dear colleagues,

I am aware of the great responsibility that I will be assuming from the current President, Ambassador Coly SECK, to serve the Council, as best I can, and to serve all of you - members, observers and other stakeholders.

Let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude and my highest appreciation to the outgoing President. I am sure I can say on behalf of all of you that you have done an extraordinary job, Mr President, in ensuring the credibility and effectiveness of the Council.

You have steered the activities of the Council with a unique combination of an imperturbable commitment to the cause of human rights and outstanding diplomatic ability to ensure that everyone is on board this common vehicle which is the Council.

You have often managed to make it appear natural what was, in fact, the result of a very diligent and judicious effort. Nothing was easy.

I believe I also speak on behalf of all of us when I thank not only the President himself and the outgoing Bureau, but also his team and that of the Secretariat and Conference Services who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes. We did not see you much in front of the stage, but we cannot imagine what would have happened without you.

I would like, moreover, to thank the Director-General, H.E. Tatiana Valovaya and her team for the support they have lent to the Council this year and ask her – during my tenure - to please do the same in 2020.

Fully aware that next year will not be easy, I look forward to working with you on all the topics that will require our joint attention.

Let me also thank High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, for being what she is: a courageous defendant of human rights where – as she herself puts it – it “matters the most: on the ground”. We will certainly need her guidance next year.

Mister President, dear Colleagues,

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the League of Nations, the first international organization designed to preside over a rules-based international order. It was meant to put an end to all wars. We can only hope that its failure has taught the international community what not to do.

Today the multilateral system is facing what some call a mid-life-crisis - with the real danger that human rights might get lost in the quicksand of other issues.

We all know the debates about whether we are going through a crisis or merely a transitional period. Be that as it may. As Secretary General Guterres keeps saying: “effective multilateralism remains the world’s best hope”. 

There is no meaningful alternative to striving for common solutions to common problems by dialogue - however long it may take - just to make sure solutions are not being sought elsewhere.

Multilateralism can be hard work, there are no easy wins, and compromises can be hard to sell back home as what they are: the best solution available at a particular moment in time.

But this is what the Human Rights Council is all about – finding common ground to make the system work for the challenges of our time.

2020 will also mark 75 years since the creation of the United Nations. Back then the international community came together in the common understanding that protecting the inherent dignity of every human by a set of common norms was a key to a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Later on the then Secretary General Kofi Annan put it this way: “We will not enjoy security without development; we will not enjoy development without security; and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.”

What we need to be guided by is the impact the Council has on the ground - for the people who suffer, whose rights are infringed, whose freedoms are not respected or whose needs are not met – and for those who defend them - sometimes at the risk of their own lives.

There is a temptation in multilateral discussions to hide behind rituals or jargon. The Council is fortunate in that its very practical tools help to avoid this – in particular the UPR and the Special Procedures.

Nonetheless, most of us would agree that there is room for improvement, in particular against the background of increasing challenges and decreasing financial means.

That is why the working methods of the Council will in all likelihood remain on the agenda as a regular feature. We would be well advised to put this house in order ourselves here in Geneva rather than getting instructions from New York. This would also strengthen our role in the institutional dialogue we need to conduct with New York.

As the Director for Conference Services Mme Momal-Vanian explained earlier on, the UN is currently confronted with the worst liquidity crisis in recent years. This ongoing financial uncertainty – mainly caused by unpaid contributions to the regular budget – will oblige the Council to continue its efforts of making its Programme of Work fit within official UN working hours. 

I therefore welcome, that the efficiency measures suggested by President Seck for next year did find consensus among the Members of the Council. However, we need to continue our discussion on efficiency next year – first of all by implementing what we decided on today and what was decided last year, but also by further reflections. Most importantly, we should be more vigilant than in the past about the outcomes the Council mandates. We all witnessed an exponential growth over the last years but less might actually be more.

Esteemed colleagues,

During the last few weeks I had the pleasure of talking to many of you bilaterally and I intend to go on doing so in the weeks to come. During the coming year I want to contribute to building more trust among delegations – e.g. by creating space for informal encounters like  a retreat, which – hopefully – will be held in the first half of the year.

In addition, my door will be open to all of you at all times and I will be at your disposal to listen to any concern, advice, question or comment you may have. Together I think we might have enough energy, creativity and mutual understanding in this room to avoid situations where proposals and ideas are being rejected just because of where they come from.

Trust is also an important question between delegations and other stakeholders which have their place in this Council, like NHRIs and NGOs. Civil society plays a crucial role in bringing situations of concern to our attention and connecting us to those whose rights are violated or to those who stand up and fight for their rights.

This Council must remain a safe and inclusive platform for a constructive dialogue by all stakeholders. Whoever cooperates with the Council and its mechanisms must be able to trust that there will be no intimidation, no attack and no reprisal and those who are tempted to exercise intimidation, attacks or reprisals should know that full use will be made of the procedures in place for such cases.

In today’s world, communication is crucial. In almost 14 years of existence, the Human Rights Council has written many success stories – yet not many of them got noticed by a wider audience.

Personally I think we could do a better job in explaining to the general public what the Council is good for, how it helps real people out there in the real world. We should tell positive stories which would not have happened without the Council. I take this opportunity to appeal to all of you: help us find and disseminate these stories.    

Mister President, Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let us not forget for one moment that this Council is the best hope for many people, in particular the victims of human rights violations and abuses, the oppressed, the poor, those suffering from conflict, crisis and terror.

What we do in this Council is never like a sprint – more like a long-distance run and – as the High Commissioner says – it is rarely about perfection, it is about progress.

Together with the Vice-Presidents, we will do all we can to make sure that the Council continues to fulfil its mandate, strengthens its impact on the ground, while getting ready to face all the new human rights issues such as climate change, new and emerging technologies or global migration.

I invite you all to join us in this effort. We will need your support and assistance, your ideas and advice. I look forward to working with you all.

I thank you for your attention.