Header image for news printout

"Human rights – and why they matter "
Address by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

18 October 2019

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to speak and to listen to you.   You are in a place, the Kennedy School of Government, where thinking about solutions to some of the most urgent challenges of our times is a daily occurrence. We, in the human rights community, need your ideas and thoughts on some of the most pressing issues we face everyday.

How do we make the world more secure? 

What strategies will generate the broadest, fastest and most effective responses to the global climate emergency? 

How can governments, businesses and individuals best meet the challenges created by globalised economic processes? 

Can freedom of expression, information, thought and belief survive in an era when 360 degree surveillance by corporations and States is possible -- or will it soon be Game Over for the right to privacy and many other fundamental human rights? 

Why, in an increasingly connected world, have so many leaders and communities begun to walk away from connected and collaborative solutions, retreating into isolation and division? 

In a world of intensifying inequalities, how can we construct justice, human dignity, and equality for every human being, regardless of sex and gender, race, religion, migration status, or any other characteristic? 

These are urgent questions. The lives of all of you here today, and of your children, may be shaped by the policies that world leaders devise – or fail to devise – in response to these issues today. 

And all of us have a responsibility to influence those policy choices. 

Here, I am speaking to you, not only as a former Head of State and Government, or as a UN official, but also as a mother and grandmother: as an ordinary human being who cares about our world, as all of you do. 

I view politics as an essential effort of hope and positive construction. It is about doing the best we can, because we care – and because we must. Within that struggle, I am a strategic optimist. I know that if we are going to try to shape better policies to meet these global challenges, we need first of all to believe that success is possible. 

So let me begin this discussion by emphasising that yes, we can meet these challenges. Human beings have faced many tests, and generation after generation, have advanced solutions. 

Nations have given the right to vote, or full participation, to large numbers of people who were previously deprived of those rights – including, for many of our countries, to half the population: women. Some countries have brought millions of people out of poverty, and enabled their access to higher education, quality health care and greater dignity. These have been enormous gains for the cause of human rights. They were achieved in the face of tremendous difficulties: political, economic, social and cultural. 

And they have strengthened our societies, opening the path to greater advancements in every field. 

So while it won’t be easy, I do want to assure you that this is not a time for despair, any more than it is a time for disillusionment or disengagement. 

Now let’s look at what the challenges are and how they can be addressed.

Climate change  

Climate change is affecting every region of the world, and its implications for human rights, in the very near future, could be catastrophic. Already, it is driving a sharp increase in global hunger, which according to FAO has increased this year for the first time in a decade. WHO expects climate change to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone. In many nations, chaotic weather patterns and other manifestations of our environmental emergency are already reversing major development gains; exacerbating conflict, displacement and social tension; hampering economic growth; and shaping increasingly harsh inequalities. 

The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every State; and the human rights of every community will be impacted.  

Being a strategic optimist is not about cultivating illusions. It's about clarity. And although this reality is grim, and the window of opportunity for action is closing, there is still time to act

We live in an era of tremendous innovation. More thoughtful approaches to our use of natural and renewable resources; policies which protect and empower marginalised communities, including various social protection initiatives; and better strategies by businesses across their supply chains can be good for the environment and promote greater human dignity and rights. 

Human rights principles, and human rights law, can inform and strengthen international, regional and national policymaking in the area of climate change. They can promote policies that increase our resilience and ability to adapt to climate harms; policies that protect the most vulnerable communities; and policies which enable us to benefit from the skills and ideas of every member of society. 

Effective climate action requires broad and meaningful participation. Effective climate policies will be those which empower women; indigenous peoples; and others who live in vulnerable areas, who are often members of marginalised and discriminated communities. This requires Governments to acknowledge the structural factors which deepen these communities' climate vulnerability; involve them in seeking solutions; and dedicate resources to upholding their rights. 

Just a few months ago, former High Commissioner Mary Robinson spoke here about climate change. As she pointed out, women are among those who are most deeply harmed – but they may also be able to assist in developing the best climate policies. 

The same is true of indigenous peoples. Although they are increasingly being driven off their lands by environmental destruction and climate harms, it is the ancestral knowledge and leadership of indigenous peoples that have allowed many of humanity's forests, and other resources, to still exist. Traditional fire management; weather early warning systems; rainwater harvesting; traditional agriculture techniques; and coastal marine management are examples of their potential contributions.

I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, in over 100 national and regional laws, which defines the relationship between the environment and human rights. To each of us, a healthy environment is no less important than the food we eat, the water we drink, or the freedom of thought we cherish; and we need to be able to hold to account those who create obstacles to the achievement of this right. 


Let me move on a little – but not very far. One of the characteristics of the challenges we currently face is that they are as tightly interlinked as any ecosystem.  We cannot tackle climate change, vast movement of people, rising tensions and conflicts or sustainable development unless we also deal with inequalities – and I would argue that we cannot effectively deliver on any of those issues unless we uphold and promote the full range of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. 

Looking now at inequalities, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has highlighted, half the world’s wealth is held by people who could fit around a conference table.  Four billion people have no access to safety nets or to any kind of social protection. The world’s poorest and most marginalised people live with the worst impacts of austerity, injustice, climate change and poverty.

Inequalities in income, wealth, access to resources, and access to justice are currently growing, across every region of the world. They are an affront to the principles of equality, dignity and human rights for every human being. They result from poor governance, corruption, lack of rule of law, discrimination, and weak or biased institutions: they are generated as much by violations of civil and political rights as of economic, social and cultural rights. 

Inequalities are a key driver of several of the global trends which are of greatest concern to my Office and the UN as a whole. Armed conflict is frequently cited as a root cause of involuntary migration. But time and again, we see that involuntary displacement and conflict are both being driven by inequalities, and their underlying factors – including poverty, discrimination, oppression, violence, poor governance, climate change and violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. 

Inequalities also undermine peace and security, by fuelling grievances, extremism and conflicts.  

Resolving the interlocking issues which shape and accentuate inequalities is a vital part of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – an unprecedented, once in a lifetime opportunity to end extreme poverty on the basis of a cooperative and truly global plan. And this, in turn, will require comprehensive work to advance the whole spectrum of rights – including economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, so they can work in synergy. 

Over the course of the next 12 years, the international community has the capacity to end extreme poverty and hunger, ensure much broader and more inclusive development and set the planet on a course of greater peace, greater justice, and far less harm. 

But progress on the 2030 Agenda is faltering. We are not on target to meet those goals, and in a moment I'll talk about some of the reasons I think are behind that decline in commitment. But first I want to outline another set of complex challenges on the horizon.

Digital landscape 

The digital ecosystem now influences a large and growing portion of our lives. 

And this is, in many ways, a very positive thing. Digital tools can be extremely helpful to human rights work. 

Data streams have been used to track and interrupt human trafficking and exploitation, including practises akin to modern slavery in business supply chains. Spikes of hate speech and other online indicators of rising tensions can constitute early warning of impending violence. Monitoring these phenomena can help officials act quickly to prevent violence. 

But it is also more and more evident that there is a dark aspect to the digital landscape. The Internet is increasingly a space of threat for human rights defenders. People are attacked or abused by private actors, purely because of their activities online in support of human rights. 

Governments in every region are also using digital surveillance tools to track down and target human rights defenders and people perceived as critics – including lawyers, journalists, activists on land rights or the environment, and people who support equality for members of the LGBTI community. 

A range of surveillance, online monitoring, and data collection measures -- such as browsing history; purchase history; search history; location data; financial data; health data, and so on -- feed into massive banks of data on every woman, man and child. These data banks may include detailed portraits of our opinions, the nature of our relationships, our social background, medical information, financial situation and so on. 

They can be sifted, processed and evaluated by governments or private actors for a whole range of reasons -- without accountability; without adequate supervision of the outcomes; even without us knowing that this is happening, or that the data banks exist. 

In many cases this use of digital technologies for massive and wide-ranging surveillance is of a scale and nature that clearly contravenes the right to privacy, the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and other rights.

Already today, from so-called “predictive” police work to criminal sentencing, medicine, finance and key aspects of social protection, machine-driven processes are making forecasts about people’s behaviour and producing decisions with enormous impact on their lives. 

How safe are these outcomes? Not very. 

The systems are only as good as the data put in, and that data itself is often flawed. In many cases, artificial intelligence-based predictions appear arbitrary and unjust, in addition to exacerbating the systemic discrimination embedded in society. These outcomes are not inevitable, but they are already occurring – and their incidence and severity will grow, unless we act.  

Is there proper oversight or adequate transparency regarding this use of Big Data? There is not. 

The use of artificial intelligence and big data also raise new and essential questions about responsibility. Although the State is always the primary actor in upholding human rights, in this case private companies are responsible for the design and manufacture of tools which collect data and conduct surveillance – as well as the maintenance and ownership of the servers where this information is stored. I will return to this point about the key role of the private sector in a moment, but it is worth noting here. 

Even more fundamentally, are the purposes of these systems benign? 

In some countries, vast amounts of data are being collected through surveillance, and they are used to determine a personal score employed in granting or denying people’s access to opportunities and services. This could resemble the use of credit histories in other settings. But will it stop there? We've seen globally that data, once collected, has almost a life of its own -- it can be used for a multiplicity of purposes that go far beyond the original or stated purpose. 

And this interplay between artificial intelligence and the buildup of data about our personalities and choices goes one step further when it is used, by private or public actors, to manipulate our thoughts and change our choices. 

That’s not a distant, fictional scenario.  Whether in the United States Presidential election, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, or the recent elections in Brazil and Kenya – where fake polls and other disinformation were widely shared – we are seeing increasing reports of the use of bots and disinformation campaigns on social media  to influence the opinions and choices of individual voters. 

It appears the internet is increasingly becoming an arena for sometimes very sophisticated forces for propaganda – whether by movements of violent extremism, by private actors, or State authorities, working nationally or with residents of other States. 

We absolutely need to ensure that human rights safeguards are built into all machine-driven processes and artificial intelligence systems, from their inception. This will require actions by States – including laws and regulatory frameworks – as well as by businesses. It will also require working within the framework of international human rights law, which goes beyond corporate ethical guidelines and codes of conduct, with far greater global legitimacy, precision and scope.

Business and human rights

States are the primary actors responsible for upholding human rights. But businesses also have a responsibility to manage, prevent and address human rights risks and negative impacts in their operations, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and human rights. 

The primary purpose of corporate human rights due diligence is to manage risks to people – but good due diligence work also strengthens corporate risk management overall. It is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do, to meet growing expectations and pressure from consumers, employees, investors and regulators. It also makes sense in a wider setting, as it contributes toward the environment in which responsible business can thrive by strengthening good governance and the rule of law.

The vast majority of boardroom decisions have a human rights dimension. They may affect the pay and safety of workers and suppliers – or the future of entire communities whose land and resources have commercial value. They can drive consumer demand for products that are sustainably sourced or unethically produced. Perhaps every business product has some kind of human rights back-story.  

No one is suggesting that better business practises will solve every human rights issue. But to devise effective solutions to climate change, inequalities and digital challenges, we need business actors to step up, embrace their responsibilities and participate – and this will require a smart mix of measures, both regulatory and voluntary.

Nationalism and discrimination

All the issues I've discussed so far pose some fundamental questions about our future.  More accurately – these are questions about your future. 

You, the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen, are coming of age at a crucial turning point for humanity. And it is precisely at this moment of growing complexity and interconnectedness that some leaders are turning away from cooperative, global efforts to seek solutions.

Nationalism is on the rise in many societies, accompanied by outspoken racism, discrimination and xenophobia. 

It is striking to note how much hostility against women, racial or religious minorities, and migrants is whipped up in online spaces where hate and isolationism flourish – and how rapidly these attitudes can become part of the wider public discourse. 

From there, they may go on to distort public policy, with even more dangerous and disturbing consequences. 

Regarding women’s rights, for example – where there has been tremendous progress, not only in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of even the youngest person in this room. 

In almost every workplace and institution in this country, there are more and more women in leadership positions – and this is true of many countries in the world. Issues that were once considered “private”– such as domestic violence- or that were “normalized”, such as sexual violence in conflict, sexual harassment in the workplace – or seen as “trivial”- such as maternity and paternity leave – are taken far more seriously, as a matter of public policy. More and more governments talk about women’s rights as human rights – and women's rights and gender equality are acknowledged as legitimate and indispensable goals.

Maternal mortality has been halved and the availability and use of contraceptives has sharply increased. Women live longer, we are more healthy, we have more opportunities to develop skills, and broadly speaking, we have more choice. 

There are still many issues to be addressed. Women continue to be poorer than men. They have fewer opportunities, less access to basic services such as education, and a lot less freedom to make their own choices and raise their voice. However, let’s acknowledge the very significant progress that has been made, in terms of women's rights. 

Let's also pause to recollect that women’s activism has driven enormous human rights progress for everyone – in every kind of movement for human dignity and equality across the world.

I am inspired daily by the women and girl activists who defend human rights around the world. 

And yet, this is once again becoming a very arduous challenge. 

It is deeply troubling to see that instead of moving forward, some Governments, and many lobby groups, are pushing back on women’s rights.

The isolationism and divisiveness which we have seen gaining ground in a number of countries frequently begins with pushbacks against rights for women, and a return to laws and social attitudes we thought we’d left behind.  

In several States we’re seeing attempts to pass laws or enact policy changes aimed at controlling, or limiting, women’s freedom to make choices about their lives, including – but not limited to – sexual and reproductive health and rights.  There seems to be a renewed obsession with controlling and limiting women’s decisions over their bodies and lives.

We have got to come together to end this injustice. We need to mobilise, we need to stand firm, and we need to advance. 

If women face discrimination, if racial or religious minorities face discrimination, if indigenous peoples face discrimination, then all of society is harmed, all people are held back, all our lives are impoverished.

I am profoundly concerned by the rise of hate speech, racism and pushbacks against the rights of racial and religious minorities in some countries. These trends, too, seem to be intertwined with the divisions and demonization that so many of today’s nationalist movements fuel. Around the world we see some politicians and would-be opinion leaders who are only too eager to demonize some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people for political gain.
This constitutes a clear attack on the core of the human rights agenda, which is the equality of every human being.  

We are seeing a revival of anti-Semitic and Anti-Muslim attitudes and violence, in many countries. We are witnessing what seems to be a revival of openly voiced racism. 

Recognition of the equality and rights of LGBTI people has progressed significantly in many countries in the past decade – but these advances, too, are increasingly suffering pushbacks. It is essential that we defend and protect LGBTI communities from violence and discrimination. There should be nothing “controversial” about stopping people being murdered, or executed by agents of the State, simply because of who they are or whom they love. LGBTI people are entitled to the same rights, and the same protection, as everyone else. 

As I pointed out earlier, public narratives about migration and asylum are also object of misinformation, as well as xenophobic and racist attitudes.


Currently, there are about 272 million international migrants around the world.   Walls and barriers are built to keep them out. They are demonized, treated like criminals, arbitrarily detained in appalling conditions, and sometimes even separated from their children. 

To avoid such measures – and to avoid the physical attacks and abuses that are so frequent in their voyages -- tens of millions of migrants must move and live as invisibly as possible. Undocumented, marginalised, many migrants live and work for years and decades in situations of extreme vulnerability, discrimination and abuse. Already this year, we know of the deaths of more than 2,400 migrants who have died while undertaking precarious journeys seeking safety and dignity. The true figure is almost certainly far higher.

Although no State is obliged to accept every person who arrives at its borders, all human beings are bound by the basic value of compassion, the recognition of our common humanity. 

Desperate human beings seeking safety and dignity are victims, not criminals; they are people just like us – with exactly the same fundamental human rights. 

They are largely moving because they have no other choice. Denying these realities will bring security to no-one. It can only vastly increase the magnitude of the suffering of many individuals – deepening poverty, grievances and tensions around the world. 

The Global Compact for Migration, adopted by an overwhelming consensus of UN member states in 2018, reminds us that the human rights of all migrants must be “respected, protected and fulfilled at all times”. 

It inspires us to greater international cooperation to address global inequalities, environmental degradation, and other human rights violations which compel people to leave their homes. It is about cooperating to reduce inequalities, protect the rights of all people on the move, and ensure greater freedom and opportunity for all. 

In my service as a Head of State and Head of Government I learned many things. One was very simple, and I have said it before, but let me repeat it here: there was rarely a serious gap between the interest of humanity, and the national interest of my country. 

If a policy seems in the short term to advance a narrow interest, but hurts the future of humanity, that policy is surely counter-productive. 

We sometimes hear human rights being dismissed as supposedly "globalist" – as opposed to the patriotic interest of a sovereign government. But how can any State's interests be advanced by policies that damage the well-being of all human beings?

We will not solve our problems in isolation. To be sustainable and effective, solutions to complex global issues – like climate change, global inequalities, the mass movement of people, transboundary conflicts or epidemics – must be cooperative. 

And they must uphold human rights. 

The right to equal protection of the law. The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, to healthcare, food, shelter and social security. 

The right to be free from any form of discrimination. The right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The right to due process and fair trial. The right to be free from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention. 

The force of these and other fundamental rights binds us together as human beings, regardless of our sex, race, belief, sexual orientation, nationality, migration status or any other factor. These core values and principles are essential to the maintenance of our mutual peace, prosperity, and sustainable development.  

Today, around the world, many courageous young people are marching to defend freedom and the environment. Policymakers need to listen to their demands. Leaders – not just political leaders, but social and business leaders too – can and should encourage greater participation and involvement by young people, whose lives will be shaped by the issues that are coming to the fore right now.

As High Commissioner, I am determined to work with States – the primary actors responsible for upholding human rights – to reboot this consensus:  no matter what type of government or economic system they have adopted, all Member States have an obligation to respect economic, social, cultural as well as civil and political rights. 

This respect for human rights is certainly a moral imperative. But it is also a very pragmatic and practical way, perhaps the only way, to generate truly sustainable development and peace. 

So, in conclusion, let me say this. The world faces many hard challenges. Challenges too big for one country. Challenges that don’t comply with borders. Challenges as immense as climate change -- which threatens all of humanity, and all human rights. And these challenges are tightly intertwined, as closely connected as the connections which bind the destines of all human beings, on this planet that we share. 

How do we solve these challenges? As you can imagine, there won't be one simple solution. But there may be a coherent, joined up approach: a principled set of guidance, grounded in a very broad consensus, which has demonstrated its value to policy makers for decades. 

We need to build broader, safer spaces for civic participation and strengthen civic engagement. And within those spaces, wherever it is possible, we need to come together and strive actively for better policies. We need to push for them.

We need to stop working in silos – as women’s advocates, refugee advocates, indigenous advocates.  In fact, we have to stop working in silos as human rights advocates: we need to find common cause with people working on the environment, climate change and sustainable development. 

We need to build new partnerships – with businesses, with trade unions, with religious groups, with educators and others – to expand the constituency for human rights.

As a new global and digital landscape comes into sharper focus around us, it is essential that people like you, in institutions like this one, sharpen your analysis of what has worked best in responding to people’s needs. This is true globally, but also nationally and locally: good governance, and sound activism, both need to ceaselessly search for new approaches, new strategies, new partnerships, new ways of working.

Human rights are not a niche concern for policy wonks. They are the lifeblood, the vital force that sustains every healthy democracy and society. They shape solutions. 

In anchoring ourselves and our societies to human rights principles, we can better face the challenges and uncertainties of coming years.  They are our compass through uncertainty. 

We need to work together – human rights lawyers, computer scientists and engineers, representatives of businesses, activists and governmental and inter-governmental bodies. It is not easy to forge agreement between such diverse groups, but it is essential to forward movement.

Above all, I urge you: Do not give into hopelessness. Look within yourselves: recognise your values, your principles, and your hopes.  And act on them.  Act, in the name of social justice and equality before the law. Stand up for human rights, and get involved in advocating responsible, human rights based solutions to the challenges of this new era. 

Thank you.