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'Good Human Rights Stories' Initiative

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

13 February 2019

Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am delighted to be present at this event, which advances on what has been a welcome national and cross-regional initiative – one that seeks to shape a positive, evidence-based narrative on human rights. 

Last September, we emphasised that the international human rights framework is indispensable to building and promoting resilient, peaceful and inclusive societies – including the realisation of gender equality and sustainable development.

We shared stories of human rights achievements that were inspiring and motivational, particularly given the negativity we see in today’s environment. 

Those stories also made it very clear that upholding human rights can create a broad surge of benefits across society and across regions.

So I want to applaud and repeat, now, something which Frederica Mogherini said at our last encounter: “Working on human rights delivers. It is useful. It is not just testimony, it is something that produces change for good.” 

I am going to linger on this for a moment. Because I think we, in the human rights movement, could emphasise this results-based argument a little better than we do at the present time. 

Human rights are useful. Respect for human rights generates practical benefits in everyday life. From universal social protection, to freedom to criticise your government; the right to quality education; guarantees of due process in the courts and fair treatment by the police; the right to live free of the humiliation and obstructions of discrimination. 

And while I'm on this subject  and ask you to reflect on how we express ourselves – the legalistic vocabulary of international human rights law, which is simply incomprehensible to most people, including those that we want to reach. 

We overuse acronyms and terms like “mechanisms”. We deplore and condemn, we issue a huge number of negative statements, which may read like sermons – like lectures from way up on high. 

Don’t get me wrong. Human rights advocacy is essential. We need to speak clearly, and publicly about our concerns. Transparency is essential. We owe it to those we work for, the people.

I think positive examples are more effective than lectures.

Evidence is more convincing than abstract thought.  

And emphasising the human in human rights should be our baseline. 

We must make it very clear to people that the international human rights framework is working, and that it is working for them. 

We need to be clear that every violation of someone’s human rights damages our collective interests – damages the interests of us all. 

And by the same token, every step towards the achievement of credible and sustainable progress in upholding rights is creating benefits for everyone. 

Progress in building sound rule of law institutions is beneficial to the economy and to democracy. 

The advancement of civil rights and fundamental freedoms is good for national security – and good for the neighbouring country’s security too. 

Strong momentum to advance economic and social rights will prevent many forms of tension, and even conflict.

Greater social justice and social protection helps to erode discrimination and promote public participation by strong and independent civil society groups, which drives more progress in building better governance. 

Success in combatting inequalities produces societies that are more resilient. 

Measures to promote accountability for human rights violations in the past, may well act as deterrents for violations in the future. 

This is what we mean when we say rights are indivisible: there is an interlocking web of connections which mean progress in one area feeds into and builds on benefit in another area. 

I therefore greatly welcome the European Union's effort to encourage more support for human rights by helping us simplify our messages and tell more positive stories. 

And there are good stories.  Let me just give you a few examples from the work of my Office.  OHCHR was instrumental in increasing the capacity of civil society in advocating and lobbying the human rights of LGBTI people in Panama.  We also collaborated closely with the Tunisian government in the development and adoption of a law that bars racial discrimination.  

Also -- everyone loves football, but we know it can get ugly in the stands.  To stave off this possibility, FIFA worked with local authorities and OHCHR Moscow to develop tools to counter discrimination during the last World Cup.  The lessons learned will shape the actions to be taken in Qatar, host of the next World cup.  These three stories show that together we can effect change and that working together people all over the world build communities and societies that are healthy and resilient.

Last week I was on mission in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also a good human rights story, with many important rule of law reforms underway, to improve governance, deepen confidence and uphold the rights of Ethiopia’s people. 

I am eager to listen to today’s speakers tell us about the way human rights measures have helped to infuse their societies with positive change.

Thank you.