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'Challenges to the protection of human rights today'

Speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
at the Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law

11 April 2019

Professor Grossman,
Dear students,

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.

I will try to be brief, as I have been asked to speak, but I also want to hear your thoughts on how we can protect human rights today, so

We live in a paradox. Digital tools, the global economy and even demographics are bringing people closer together. But policy-makers, the international community and multilateral institutions are more fragmented. Many leaders of States seem to be less committed to working together for the common good. They're turning away from shared principles and solutions to shared problems, and this situation is leading to increasing suffering and chaos.

Justice brings peace. It doesn't eliminate disagreement, but when people have confidence in an impartial and independent structure of law and norms, they know they will be able to resolve their disputes peacefully. This is true within countries, as all the lawyers in the room are well aware; and it is true of disputes between countries as well, as long as the international rule of law retains the confidence of relevant actors,

Shared solutions work. Whether we're talking about shared laws, or an agreement on joint action to target a common problem based on shared principles, policies that are grounded in dialogue, built on inclusion, and guided by human rights goals make for more effective and better outcomes.

They have worked in the past, to encourage peace and development, and they can work in the future – which is your future, a future you will share with billions of other people across the world.

I have seen this myself. When I returned to my country, Chile, after years of exile from oppression; when I worked as a paediatrician in Santiago, with children whose parents had been tortured or disappeared; when I became Minister of Health; when I was named Minister of Defence; as a Head of State and Head of Government. Time and again, in all these circumstances I saw that that human rights-based policies deliver better outcomes for people all the way across the social and economic spectrum, and not only that – beyond the borders of the State. They encourage reconciliation. They prevent grievances, conflicts, inequalities, and suffering and discrimination of all kinds.

Policies that build social justice and social protection also promote stronger economies. They drive better frameworks for education, health-care, and other basic services – and they feed into political systems, which actively embrace a range of noisy contributing voices.

Human-rights based policies build confidence and social harmony. They deepen trust. They build hope.

It can be done. I have seen it done. I have seen a country bitterly divided and diminished grow more inclusive, more broadly developed, and more just. In your lifetimes, and in the lifetimes of your parents, this has happened again and again, in various parts of the world, as policies grounded in human rights shape greater justice, equality and dignity.

And it can be done again. Today I will be speaking on some of the very strong challenges that we increasingly face, in today's world. But as I do so, I'm also going to ask you to hold on this thought: no matter how complex and how painful these challenges may seem, they can be addressed.

So that's enough about solutions, for the moment. Let's talk a little bit about the problems that we face.

I want to begin with climate change, which is a comprehensive and devastating threat to human rights – and indeed, human life.

Climate change is driving displacement, by destroying people's ability to earn a decent livelihood in the places they were born. From increased poverty and food insecurity, to growing water stress and accelerated environmental damage, it is a clear and increasingly present threat to human dignity, and to the gains that have been made in building up inclusive and sustainable development. Climate change also heightens tensions and inequalities within societies, driving conflict ­– including violent conflict. 

Which brings me to another challenge: war. The devastation of today's conflicts, and their huge economic and humanitarian cost, create broad and enduring harm, which will be carried by children into the next generation. There is no victory, no winner, in a conflict that destroys lives, land, infrastructure, economies, and hope.

We are seeing fewer wars between States, but more, and more enduring, intra-State conflicts – with the involvement of foreign countries.

We desperately need greater efforts to rationalise and control the proliferation of arms, and the conduct and risk of conflict. In February, the UN Secretary General told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, "I will be blunt. Key components of the international arms control architecture are collapsing... New weapons technologies are intensifying risks in ways we do not yet understand and cannot even imagine."

But instead, countries are eroding the agreements which do exist. It has been 70 years since the Geneva Conventions laid out the minimal, basic decencies to be respected by all parties in conflict, to preserve the lives and dignity of civilians, hors de combat soldiers and prisoners of war. But the actors of today's conflicts increasingly fail to respect even these minimal commitments.

Sieges are employed to deliberately starve civilians, and other obstacles to humanitarian assistance deprive them of basic services and care. Medical locations are bombed, repeatedly, in what seem deliberate patterns. Attacks on women, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, seem to be employed in some cases as policy, to try to break down family and community bonds and demoralise the adversary. Children are tortured and killed in front of their parents, to create widespread fear; they are abducted and used as soldiers, or as sexual slaves; they are deprived of education.
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And although measures to identify these violations and hold those responsible to account are being taken – including by my Office – they are not unanimously supported by the world's States. Governments need to do a much better job to support accountability for violations of international humanitarian law.

Conflicts impoverish nations and drive displacement. According to UNHCR 44,400 (forty-four thousand four hundred) people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict or persecution. Most are internally displaced; others will try, desperately, to find safety across international borders. Other displaced people are fleeing deprivation – they have simply lost hope that they will be able to benefit from the basic requirements for human dignity in their homeland.

These migrants are women, men and children exactly like you and me. Who knows, if we were in their situations, we would perhaps make the same decisions and embark on similar journeys. They are our equals,  but increasingly, instead of measures to assist and protect them, they are greeted by barriers; pushed back into danger; and humiliated, threatened, detained, and exposed to unnecessary risk. 

A great deal more could be said about these three challenges, all of them connected – climate change fuelling migration and conflict; conflict, too, fuelling migration – but there are a number of other, very significant challenges to human rights that are also increasing in scope and intensity today.

Food insecurity. After many years in which undernourishment and food insecurity has declined, the painful, and almost entirely preventable, number of people counted as "undernourished" rose from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016 – mainly due to conflicts, as well as drought and other climate-linked disasters. 815 million is 11% of humanity: in other words, one out of every nine women, men and children around the world is still going without sufficient food.

Economic inequalities are also growing. More wealth is being produced than ever before in human history; globally, labour productivity grew by over 2% in 2017. But this wealth is not being equitably shared. As the ILO has pointed out, the labour share of GDP has been falling for 25 years, and this trend has continued.

I'm sure everyone in this room has heard of the analysis by Oxfam which asserted that 82% of all the wealth generated in 2016 went to the richest 1% of the global population, while the poorest half of humanity saw no change in their income – leaving them even further behind.

Last week a major new UN-led report – which involved more than 60 international organizations – found that most of the world’s people now live in countries with increasing income inequalities. The 2019 Financing for Sustainable Development report said low wage growth, rising inequalities, and insufficient action to drive compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals threaten to undermine the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a breakthrough effort which promises tremendous benefit for all humanity.

In a wide number of countries, laws and policies that restrict and, in many cases, criminalize civic activity are increasingly being adopted. These measures include restrictions on freedom of expression and participation in peaceful demonstrations; restrictions on free and independent media sources; restrictions on the ability to register human rights NGOs and to receive foreign funding; and vaguely worded anti-terrorism legislation which can be misused to target almost any form of criticism.

The killing of at least one human rights defender every day, including journalists and trade unionists, has become a new and shocking fact since 2015. Often, these human rights defenders are environmental activists who resist corporate or development projects. Frequently they receive little or no protection from the State. And their killings may never be effectively investigated.

The shutting down of the civil society space has repercussions across a very wide spectrum of government policies – and human rights. Participation by the people in decision making is a vital force to drive accountability, and keep every kind of policy grounded in the real needs of society. When governments shut down all critical voices, they are no longer listening to the contributions of all the people – and from housing policies, to education policies, to health, development, defence, every sector of State activity – they are likely to forget that good governance is governance that serves the people. In other words, measures that curtail the rights and voices of civil society also undermine our hope of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Another area where we all have a responsibility to remain alert is women’s rights. Advances made in previous decades have stalled in some places – and in some cases, are heading backwards. It is extremely troubling to see the recent roll-backs on many fundamental questions in some countries. They are underpinned by what seems to be a renewed obsession with controlling and limiting women’s decisions over their bodies and lives, and by views that a woman’s role should be essentially restricted to reproduction and the family. Overall, women are still much poorer than men. They have less property, fewer opportunities, less access to basic services, and a lot less freedom to raise their voices and make their own choices.

Many of us are also very deeply concerned by the global rise in hatred being directed at members of racial, ethnic and religious groups, as well as against foreigners and other minorities. In many countries, what used to be extremist ideas have now entered the political mainstream, in tandem with a nativist, exclusionary, and intolerant worldview that also attacks efforts to maintain multilateral agreements and measures to ensure greater social justice. And this world-view exacerbates global instability by shirking, instead of sharing, global burdens.

Perhaps you have noted how connected these challenges seem to be. Climate change; unbearable civilian suffering in conflict; involuntary displacement; inequalities and extreme poverty; threats to the civic space; the oppression of women; a global rise in hatred being directed at members of minorities and migrants; and a sweeping world-view that undermines the search for agreement on joint action. All these negative trends, profoundly corrosive to our hope for a decent future, seem to accelerate and accentuate each other. 

But the solutions are also connected. 

Some countries – not always the richest, in income or resources – are choosing to adopt principled policies that are also more effective. Because they are grounded in the full range of human rights – taking steps to advance civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights together – they create a mutually reinforcing dynamic, in which justice and greater civic freedom build sound development policies, and measures for social protection feed into and greater social harmony and trust.

Ethiopia is a recent example where we see encouraging progress. Another, better known but older, is the intervention by the United Nations which helped to end 300 years of apartheid and a bitter, long-running conflict in South Africa, now replaced with democratic institutions. The UN Human Rights Office, which I head, has experience of many such interventions, in Guinea, Nepal, Togo and elsewhere.

This is not about waving a magic wand and having everything suddenly come out perfect: it is about progress.  We can prevent conflicts – and in fact, we do.

We will never see a TV reporter declaim into her microphone that she is “coming to you live from a country where war has not taken place”. The news doesn’t work that way. But the world often does.

It may not seem so, amid the turbulence and atrocities of world events. But in by far the majority of countries, disputes are de-escalated before they reach boiling point. Or, after conflict has broken out, they are mediated, and brought under control. Enduring reconciliation is possible.

This work is not just relevant – it is massively cost-effective. Because when human rights go wrong – when violations and abuses generate explosive crises and conflicts – the cost in bloodshed, in wrecked economies and humanitarian aid can be titanic.

All our field offices spend a significant portion of their time on training – for government officials, for members of security and police forces, and for civil society groups. Our monitoring of specific situations leads us to recommend targeted policy changes. We also work in the longer term, to strengthen the laws and institutions that should protect rights, including courts, parliaments, regional councils, schools and community groups. And we seek to empower human rights defenders and civil society activists of all kinds – including activists for minority rights – so that they can confront prejudice effectively, and with confidence. 

Every situation has different characteristics, but The core drive is to translate human rights into practical measures. How to question people without using torture. How to manage peaceful protests without violence. How to ensure that minorities can raise their voices and participate fully in the life of a nation. How to ensure that women – and other discriminated groups – can claim their rights from judicial systems that continue to be operated, in majority, by men.

This practical work may not be what springs to mind when we first speak of human rights. One's first thought is of lofty ideals – but those ideals are upheld by a huge range of very practical actions.

Why am I telling you this? Because this is not just our job.

Upholding human rights is your job too. This planet belongs to all of us, and this work is simply too important to be left to a handful of UN staffers.

To achieve sustainable development, and address climate change effectively, countries need to respect human rights.

To end inequalities and poverty, they need to embrace the voices of civil society and respect the rights and choices of every member of society.

To improve governance, fight terrorism effectively, and shape stable, secure societies, we need justice.

We need a perspective that looks not just at today, but at tomorrow. We need you - your generation, which may well be among the most important generations in human history, in terms of the survival of humanity in a benign ecosystem. 

The fact is, human rights violations – from the horrific to the chronic and almost invisible – are not random, they are not accidents, and they are rarely sudden.

They are almost always the consequence of long-term political, economic, social and cultural inequalities that create obstacles to the fair sharing of opportunities and resources, and limit freedom and participation.

And we can, all of us, contribute to shaping better policies, and better outcomes. We can come together to protect the important gains of the past; and advance towards more justice, greater dignity, respect for human equality – and better solutions for the world.

Remember this: a stable country is one where the people trust the government and each other. Without the rule of law, due process, and respect for human rights, there can be no long-term security of any meaningful kind. By the same token, economic growth that generates sharp inequalities generates chronic frustration, and thus potential violence.

States must be willing to protect the human rights of their people, and people must be able to hold the State responsible: this is our legal obligation, a moral necessity and also the only way to achieve the safety your generation will need, in order to accomplish everything you dream of achieving.

I am not willing to give in to defeatism and watch passively as the structures which maintain peace and security, and sound development, crumble. 

We have the opportunity. This generation of world leaders has the capacity to ensure far greater well-being for their people. Tools such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be transformational; fundamental principles can underpin needed reforms.

Thank you for your attention;  now is my turn to listen to your voices.