Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
10 October 2018
Distinguished President of the Council,
I am delighted to be here with you, and I thank our hosts for organising this two-day retreat,. I take this opportunity to acknowledge and commend Slovenia’s consistently strong record on human rights protection, as well as the very able role played by Ambassador Suc in presiding over the Council.
I regret that I will not be able to participate in much of the programme, as this as an important opportunity for focused reflection.
It is an opportunity for the Council to double down on its central mission to promote and protect human rights. To build on its existing work and take it to the next level – implementation and impact – instead of recycling broadly similar discussions. To set specific, measurable targets. To deliver swift and effective responses to unfolding human rights crises. To achieve greater and more productive engagement with civil society, human rights defenders and grassroots activists. To generate focused leverage, and impact, in the UN’s prevention and development agendas.
This is an opening to engage in more dialogue, strive for better consensus and build closer partnerships with UN bodies in New York and around the world.
As the only inter-governmental body, which discusses human rights issues in a detailed and substantive manner, the Council’s mandate is powerful and unique. The breadth of themes and situations addressed, crossing all areas of human rights, both during sessions and inter-sessionally, is remarkable.
I am convinced that the Council’s discussions, resolutions, and recommendations – including by the UPR and Special Procedures mandates -- have been pertinent to the prevention and mitigation of violations and conflicts in many countries.
Its work on Côte d’Ivoire, to take one example, has triggered significant follow-up change. On the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Myanmar and Syria, it has enabled deep and detailed scrutiny of issues that might otherwise have escaped the world’s attention. Since 2006, 27 investigative and fact-finding bodies have been set up by the Council, and six are currently underway. Much of this work focuses on accountability – feeding also into prevention. In this respect, I want to highlight, in particular, the innovative and principled recent decision to mandate a mechanism to investigate and document violations in Myanmar, with a view to future prosecutions.
Special procedures mandate-holders have often been among the first voices to draw attention to important emerging issues, including thematic issues. It was a Special Rapporteur who raised the alarm about the unfolding food crisis in 2008, and more recently, mandate-holders have been among the first to analyse emerging risks related to new technologies, including privacy issues and the use of drones and autonomous weapons.
On several occasions, mandate holders have been able to visit countries and territories where access has been problematic: the recent visit to Libya by the Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and of course the visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by the Special Rapporteur on persons with disabilities, are two recent examples.
Over the past 12 years, the Council’s work has contributed to the progressive development of international law. Examples include its resolutions on enforced or involuntary disappearances; the rights of the child; indigenous peoples; human rights education; the right to peace; or, most recently, the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.
The Council’s work has also been a factor in sparking change, or higher visibility, on a range of important issues such as the rights of LGBTI people; human rights aspects of climate change; rights to clean water and decent sanitation; albinism; leprosy; the death penalty; violence against women; and sexual violence in conflict.
Much of this essential thematic work has taken place in the spectrum of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development. In this respect, I would like to commend Member States for their efforts to ensure that these rights are implemented at home, through national laws and policies.
A retreat like this one represents a vital opportunity to consider to what extent we can heighten that flexibility and promote a culture of constructive engagement between Member States, as well as with civil society. At the heart of the change we need to deliver is stronger implementation of human rights recommendations and norms. We need to ensure improvement in people’s lives and rights. This is key to prevent, mitigate and resolve human rights violations and abuses – and vital to the UN's work of sustaining inclusive development and peace.
I’m delighted that some of your discussions will focus on practical solutions to the gap between States’ willingness to implement recommendations and their ability to deliver on those commitments. The idea of an inclusive platform where States can discuss the technical or financial support they need, and offer assistance to each other, in a dialogue that drives these processes forward, is an area of great promise.
Implementation could also be strengthened in terms of follow-up to reports and recommendations by Special Procedures. We should ask ourselves, is there a need for better processes? Are the resources dedicated to this work sufficient? Across the Council’s work, should more achievable, measurable targets be set, with specific timeframes? And even where States do implement programmes or adopt laws, do we need better ways of checking that these have translated into direct impact on the ground?
Another question revolves around the Council’s workload. Inter-sessional meetings, seminars, briefings, panels and so on are increasingly being organised, in a more or less ad hoc manner. Has the time come to revise the three formal sessions, so that there are more activities throughout the year and the Council becomes a semi-permanent body? Would that make the Council more visible, understandable and easy to follow?
I very much look forward to your ideas about how we can achieve more consistent, coherent and powerful mainstreaming.
The Council’s work, including Special Procedures and UPR, generates a uniquely precise and insightful body of analysis. In addition to its ability to issue early warning alarms, the Council has also been the first body to act, in numerous instances, whether through Special Sessions, urgent debates, or the establishment of investigative mechanisms such as Commissions of Inquiry and other fact-finding missions, as well as the recent IIIM on Myanmar.
This vital work can, and should, inform the work of all the UN’s development and security bodies in New York, as well as UN country teams around the world.
The gap between New York and Geneva has in some cases extended beyond a physical distance to a remoteness in thinking. Despite the Council’s vast body of accumulated knowledge – and the essential role it should play in the prevention and early warning agendas, among others – we must heighten coordination and cooperation between Geneva and New York, including with the Security Council and the General Assembly.
Development is another crucial area of focus. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is grounded in human rights standards, and the Council has produced a substantial body of work highlighting how the links between human rights and development, in the context of the SDGs. These approaches are yet to be fully mainstreamed into the thinking of the UN bodies working to deliver the goals.
As part of the lead up to the General Assembly review, you may wish to consider an analysis of the Council’s work to date in areas relevant to the SDGs, with a view to strengthening its efficacy and impact. The Council could take steps to ensure that it addresses areas that are priorities for both the UN system and Member States – notably, sustaining peace, prevention and development. It may wish to increase its invitations to the principals of other UN bodies to speak to, and with, the Council, and deepen its follow-up engagement with UN agencies.
In today’s world, it is important that we build a broader public constituency for human rights. I am convinced that telling good stories – stories which highlight places where human rights are promoting positive change – will be key to that effort.
We can and must continue to raise our voices to warn of looming human rights crises. But we also need to celebrate success. People’s vitality, humanity, creativity, and sheer energy must be praised. Many Governments – including many Council Member States – are making important changes and implementing policies and programmes that promote greater dignity and equality. Highlighting these efforts can advance the view that upholding human rights is feasible and constructive –and I believe it can create a positive movement of emulation. I believe we need to find greater space to highlight and communicate these successes, and I am eager to hear your ideas.
The review scheduled to open in 2021 will be an opportunity to further strengthen the Council’s role and operations. If the Member States of the General Assembly decide that the Council should be elevated to a principal organ of the UN, a range of topics may need to be addressed, including, for example, areas of overlap with the Third Committee.
Today’s Council has already evolved from the one that held its first session in Geneva 12 years ago. Tomorrow’s Council will be different again. We can make many significant, far-reaching and positive changes as we adapt to our changing world.
Your challenge – here, at this retreat, and in the years ahead – is to shape the Council’s future, ensuring it continues to be robust, relevant and principled.