Header image for news printout

The Future of the OHCHR and the UN Human Rights System

Glion, 13 May 2014

Colleagues and Friends,

I am delighted to join you, together with OHCHR colleagues, in these discussions. I thank the Governments of Norway and Switzerland for sponsoring this opportunity to reflect on the international human rights system.

Achievements of the international human rights system

Since the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights twenty years ago, a strong framework of international human rights law has been consolidated, and a flexible and interlocking structure assists states to comply with their human rights obligations. The creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006 has brought that structure strength and efficacy. In particular, the Council’s Universal Periodic Review has been admirably universal, impartial and non-selective, and it has had remarkable success in encouraging many States to recognize and resolve gaps in human rights protection, with new emphasis on dialogue with civil society.

Also operating impartially and independently, the Special Procedures system has expanded its scrutiny to cover the full range of human rights worldwide, with all States on an equal footing. In addition, the Council has become increasingly reactive to human rights emergencies, convening special sessions and urgent debates and creating country mandates, fact-finding missions and Commissions of Inquiry, with OHCHR's assistance. The Council and its mechanisms are complemented by the treaty bodies, which have also grown in number and scope. Following the recent General Assembly resolution, a stronger, more cost-effective, streamlined and less onerous Treaty Body system will become operational in 2015.

OHCHR, meanwhile, has developed into a operational and field-based organisation, with 58 human rights presences globally, and increased engagement in the context of crises. Our field presences have enhanced our direct assistance to member States in crucial areas such as constitutional development, legislative reforms, and stronger institutions, including justice systems. They have also influenced the political culture and decision-making of States and regional organisations, by introducing human rights into dialogue on a vast range of topics. Complementing the work of treaty bodies, special procedures and UPR reviews, OHCHR plays a key role in detecting protection and capacity gaps, and assists States to address these gaps, thus fulfilling the real meaning of our double mandate: to promote and to protect.

To highlight just one topic, we have made great strides on addressing discrimination — extending our work to fight discrimination on the basis of race, religion and ethnicity to the grounds of gender, migration status, sexual orientation, disability, age and caste. On the related subject of incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, the Rabat Plan of Action provides States and relevant stakeholders with numerous implementable recommendations emanating from experiences around the world.

OHCHR's new four-year planning system will continue to boost the Office’s results-based culture with detailed benchmarks and indicators. For 2014-2017, it outlines six thematic priorities: strengthening human rights mechanisms; promoting equality; ensuring accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and economics; widening the democratic space; and resolving conflict, violence and insecurity. All of them span the range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development, in line with the Vienna consensus.

Human rights principles now also have a heightened role in the broader United Nations. The Secretary-General’s Rights Up Front plan of action places human rights at the core of all UN operations, including peacekeeping and development, and the Security Council has also re-emphasized the vital role of human rights. This presents us with a challenging agenda. The work of every country team — and indeed, every UN officer — must integrate the paramount importance of human rights, with prioritised recommendations in every Common Country Assessment and throughout the UN Development Assistance Framework. Emphasis on human rights must also inform the entire agenda of every UN Peace Mission, as well as every humanitarian response, including in emergencies. The positive experience of rapid response by OHCHR in Ukraine, with the support of the Secretary General's office, DPA and the UN country team, may inspire other urgent monitoring missions led by OHCHR under its mandate. And OHCHR is also likely to become the central focal point for all human rights information within the UN. In order to help meet these objectives, we will need appropriate resources.
But before I turn to the considerable challenges that we will face in the future, a word about the progress we have achieved in terms of awareness. This, I believe, is in part due to OHCHR’s advocacy. The Office's stature as an authoritative voice on human rights is attributable to our insistence on probity and independence, free of political influence.

Today one cannot read a newspaper, a blog, or switch on a channel without hearing about human rights. Together with the heightened visibility and activism of civil society organisations, this is one of the most remarkable developments of the last 20 years. Despite some pushbacks, individuals and groups feel empowered to demand greater equality, participation, accountability and freedom. Respect for human rights bestows legitimacy on leaders. Those who ignore this imperative are beginning to realize that sooner or later they may be called to account.

Operational Challenges

Nonetheless, many of the achievements that I have just outlined are at risk of being undermined in coming years, unless we safeguard against political pressure and financial constraints. This echoes recent backlash on women's rights in the Commission on the Status of Women and in the context of the International Conference on Population and Development review. And it will entail continuing efforts to maintain our clarity, impartiality and forcefulness.

Regarding field operations, our record is good, but we must strive constantly to become more effective in helping to strengthen national capacity. The recommendations of human rights mechanisms can only be implemented by States, which are not always able, or willing. There should be clear, relevant and actionable benchmarks and timelines for implementation of all recommendations from all human rights mechanisms, with strong national ownership of these processes and the support of the entire UN country team, regional organisations and bilateral donors. In its third cycle, the UPR will need to establish that it can remain relevant and powerful, and that it can generate real change on the ground.

We also face a challenge of capacity. OHCHR has grown and has gained in influence and stature. It has become increasingly active and operational, and it is expected to do more and more: support more mandates from the Human Rights Council and the Security Council; conduct more technical cooperation; accelerate its rapid response; conduct investigations; support inquiries; report regularly and publicly on human rights in crises; engage in humanitarian action; and meet more demands within the UN system, particularly in relation to Rights Up Front. Yet we remain a small UN department, and our resources are very limited. It seems that even among those who support us, this widening gap between expectations — which we aspire to meet — and capacity is not always understood, and as we seek to amplify our independent voice and create more effective impact, this needs to be addressed.

Substantive Challenges

Nobody can expect us to foresee in detail the human rights challenges that will face us in the year 2035. What we can predict is that many will be chronic — requiring persistence, clarity and authoritative action ­— while others will flare up suddenly, requiring flexibility and fast-moving reaction. I believe that institutionally, the international human rights system — and specifically, this Office — are, broadly speaking, well-equipped, with a resilient and dynamic institutional structure and mandates that are grounded in strong human rights norms and laws. From a resource point of view, the situation is less clear.

In the past twenty years, despite early warning, there have been many tragic failures by the international community to safeguard human rights and prevent suffering. Conflicts, often involving multiple armed groupsthat deliberately target civilians, are and will continue to be a persistent and major human rights concern, and we must continue working to fight impunity, including of non-state actors, and strengthen the rule of law at national and international levels.

Given the broad spectrum of social and economic failures that are manifest in acute income inequalities within and among countries, there is also a fundamental need for more consistent application of human rights in the economic sphere. Our challenge will be to ensure that governments are accountable and respond without discrimination to the needs of people, so that the poor and marginalized can also participate in decision-making. Corporations must also ground their activities in human rights standards.

In addition, we are observing renewed assaults on the democratic space in which civil society activists operate. OHCHR’s advocacy and technical advice have contributed to legislation and policies to protect public freedoms, particularly for human rights defenders, journalists, whistle-blowers and individuals seeking to exercise their right to peaceful protest. In the face of pushbacks, we will need to intensify this effort to broaden the democratic space, and to strengthen our strategic partnerships with regional institutions to help them become more effective in the human rights field. This may involve enormous challenges of capacity.

This is also the case for climate change, which will unquestionably generate human rights challenges on a significant scale, including its impact on migration and the prospect of entire peoples becoming stateless. Yet resource limitations recently compelled us to eliminate two posts, one of them the sole staffer who worked on the human rights impact of climate changes. This, together with dropping posts relating to migration and HIV-Aids, are examples of resource limitations biting into key programmes.

We will also face challenges related to technological innovation. Advances in biotechnology and assisted human reproduction generate profound ethical dilemmas. Data surveillance by Statesand corporations impact the right to privacy. Regarding cyber-warfare, we must continue to insist that international humanitarian law and human rights norms should apply to all acts of war, including those that are computer-based or operated by remote-control, such as armed drones.

Many of the issues that I have listed point us to the responsibility of States to support human rights norms. And in that regard, the record is not a perfect one. Even well-established democracies have their forgotten rights-holders. The treatment of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, or older persons with cognitive problems, often ignores their right to participate in decisions. Certain communities, such as people of African descent, the Roma, and migrants – including those in irregular situation – may encounter persistent stigma. In many countries, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, or people of certain castes, are seen as having less rights than others to live a life of dignity. Women and children suffer violence and inequalities; and we have yet to confront the commodification of women, long tolerated as the so-called "oldest profession in the world". These too are challenges that may deepen.

Every county has an interest in defending a common set of values and a norm-based, principled structure, without selectivity. Homophobia is no less an evil than Islamophobia, and migrants have the same human rights as do citizens. Still, we constantly see pushback from the compact embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the years to come, you can count on OHCHR to take action to promote and protect all human rights of all, in the face of the uncountable challenges that lie ahead. I trust also that the Office will be able to continue in the characteristic spirit of independence, impartiality and non-selectivity that now marks every level of our work.

Thank you.