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Do Human Rights Still Matter?
An Agenda for Equality and Social Justice

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Chatham House, London, 19 November 2019

Ms Mandal,
Distinguished Members,
Colleagues, Friends,

Thanks very much for giving me this chance to speak to you today.  This is a particularly interesting moment to be discussing challenges to our human rights agenda, as well as the many ways that same agenda can provide solutions to some of the challenges.

I want to begin with a topic that is literally burning up the streets of many world cities, as we speak: inequalities.

Inequalities in opportunities, in political power, in access to justice, education, pensions and other fundamental services and resources.  They are a cause of alienation, grievances, exclusion, social tensions and conflict. They result from poor governance, corruption, failures in the rule of law and discrimination.  They are generated by violations of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.   And they undermine the development of countries.

They fuel insecurity and extremism. They lead to involuntary migration. They increase the vulnerability of many to the impacts of climate change and widen the gap between those with access to technology and those left behind. 

They also kill: failure to ensure adequate access to health services, adequate housing, clean water and food, kills people every day.

We recognized the profound damage generated by inequalities when we committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  In fact, SDG 10 is devoted to overcoming inequalities, within and between countries, but in a very real sense the theme pervades all 17 Goals, with their mantra of “leaving no-one behind” and reaching those furthest behind, first.

Regardless, economic inequalities have actually accelerated in the SDG era. As Oxfam has reported, the concentration of wealth is intensifying: the world´s billionaires saw their net worth increase by 2.8 billion dollars in 2018, while the wealth of the poorest half of humanity, 3.8 billion people, fell by more than 10%.

Four billion people have no access to safety nets or any kind of social protection. The world’s poorest and most marginalized people are suffering the worst impacts of climate change – and this sharply discriminatory impact will probably deepen, as the climate emergency grows worse.

In 2019, street protests have erupted across a large number of countries:  Algeria, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Gabon, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mali, Nicaragua, Niger, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sudan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe – as well as global climate protests across even more nations.

The very wide spectrum of political systems, economies, governance models, and resource capacities they represent suggests that a very broad movement is underway and denotes a fundamental failing of contemporary politics and economics.

These are not necessarily the world’s most unequal societies. Each of the protests takes place in its own context, for its own reasons. But clearly, inequalities are a factor in most, or many, of these situations.

A second key factor appears to be dissatisfaction and deep mistrust in leadership.  There is a perception of a democratic deficit, and a sense that the people’s well-being is not the highest priority of the many States.   A perception of corruption, nepotism and a deterioration in public services – such as water and sanitation, housing and healthcare – feeds into this widespread anger at the people in power.

A third common theme stems from a conviction among young people that they are being robbed of their right to operate on a level playing field – politically, socially and economically – and also, robbed of hope. Climate change will increasingly deepen inequalities. It is also supercharging the perception that young people's rightful share is being stolen from them. “Playing by the rules”, working hard, paying your dues is no longer seen as enough to succeed, and there is rising fear that today's children and successive generations will inherit a much harsher and more brutal world.  Paired with the perception that traditional political structures are either deaf to these concerns, or actively engaged in looting the future of young people, is destructive of hope and social cohesion.

A fourth factor, common to most of these protests, is that the initial response by many governments has been to focus on law enforcement.  It has been about putting the protests down, rather than listening to what the protestors have to say.   And in many cases, this has involved allegations of excessive and sometimes lethal use of force by police – with video evidence flashing across social media and amplifying public outrage to the boiling point.

Frequently, we've seen protests spark off from a limited and specific trigger point. They then amplify in outrage at police brutality; resonate with a sense of unfulfilled human rights; and – powered by those deeper, and sometimes intertwined, root causes – shift into a much broader expression of dissatisfaction.

It is relevant to note, here, the very widespread trend towards increasing restrictions on the civic space and fundamental freedoms. Across every world region, States in recent years have adopted laws, which sharply constrict the rights of their peoples to come together and act for their rights.  They include restrictions on funding, and very restrictive requirements for registration and operation of civil society organisations.  Activists are also suffering disinformation and smearing as traitors to their nation; and misuse of the justice system to repeatedly raid civil society organisations, and prosecute them as criminals, merely for expressing political views or coming together in demonstrations.

These restrictions to the civic space don’t make anyone safer. In fact, by shutting down people’s voices, they leave injustices unheeded, generate rising social tension, and essentially force people into the street.

People know they have a right to come together peacefully to express their views, and to engage in dialogue with the authorities.

People want governments to uphold and serve the people’s rights and well-being, to work for all not just a few. They are demanding transparency and inclusiveness. They want to be heard.  

The use of unnecessary and disproportionate force against people who peacefully claim their human rights – or who express critical views – constitutes a human rights violation.  But in addition, by heightening tension, it makes a sustainable exit from crisis more difficult – meaning that it is also counterproductive, in a very practical sense.

As a former Minister of Defence and Head of State, I am well versed in the challenges of dealing with security threats.  And I think many authorities need to remind themselves that the point of public order interventions is to keep the peace.

Let me emphasise three key points here.

One: in protesting violations and abuses of human rights, today’s demonstrators make it extremely clear that sustainable solutions, which address their underlying grievances, can only be advanced through a human rights based approach.

 As a human rights advocate and former policymaker, I can see both sides of this equation very clearly.   My own experience – and that of many others – demonstrates that the best first step towards addressing protests and dissent is for the authorities to avoid hasty responses based on violent repression and instead address the underlying causes by engaging in dialogue that is inclusive and free. This is precisely what the human rights agenda requires and promotes.

Many of the demands we’re seeing in these recent protests relate to economic and social inequalities and rights.   But to the extent that those economic and social rights cannot be claimed without the ability to speak, assemble and protest, they are, intrinsically, about civil and political rights too.

So this is my second point: we need to view civil and political rights, together with economic and social rights, as a comprehensive and integrated picture. Today’s protests may be triggered by economic measures; but they are bridging traditional sectarian and political divides and raising issues across the entire spectrum of the human rights agenda – bringing the indivisibility of those rights into heightened perspective.

Third point: while continuing to emphasise indivisibility, I think that many high-income and middle-income countries have failed to take economic, social and cultural rights seriously, as rights.   Under international laws and treaties, they are legal obligations, to which the State must ensure every individual has access.  States are bound to maximize available resources to measurably improve the lives of all individuals living in their country.

We need to recapture the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which all rights – including economic, social and cultural rights – need to be respected, regardless of each State’s choice of economic or political system.

I have spoken at length about inequalities and protests, and I think it might be useful now to look at other interacting challenges that are sparking protests.

Let me start by talking about climate change.   For me the issues here are even larger than the millions of marchers suggest.

Jobs, infrastructure, transport systems, agriculture, health, the disappearance of neighbourhoods and towns, the displacement of people – and even rising conflicts: climate harms are already underway. In terms of the exacerbation of inequalities, hunger, health, infrastructure, economic development, conflict, displacement, and the creation of social tensions – and obstacles to the realisation of human rights – of many different kinds, climate change will have an impact on every country in the world.

Failure to adequately address the climate emergency is more than just a serious policy blunder or misstep. It constitutes a breach of every government’s responsibility to its people.

Because there is still time for us to act.  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.

Addressing the issues; preventing climate harms, where possible through effective climate change mitigation; supporting adaptation to help communities flourish in the face of a changing climate – this work is crucial, for all of us.   We must ensure that States, businesses and all other actors take effective measures to prevent climate change; help everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, adapt to climate change; and protect rights in the context of climate action. 


Migration is yet another issue that has drawn considerable attention in the last few weeks, and which is also related to the question of inequalities and protests.  The deaths of 39 migrants in a refrigerated lorry in Essex led to an outpouring of compassion that was quite remarkable when you consider the kind of headlines usually reserved for dozens of migrants travelling across borders without a valid visa.   Although a police investigation swiftly ensued, it has not led so far to much examination of some pretty obvious questions.

Why do some people die in the attempt to cross borders that many of us cross every day with relative ease?   What made the journey of these 39 individuals so dangerous?

Currently, there are about 272 million international migrants around the world.  Many are demonized, treated like criminals, arbitrarily detained, and sometimes even separated from their children.   Walls and barriers are built, based on the idea that shutting down channels for safe and regular movement, and deliberately making migrants’ journeys more dangerous, will deter them from leaving their homes.

But when people face violence, persecution, deprivation and despair, nothing deters them from moving.

In the past decade, we've seen policymakers in country after country deliberately stirring up hostility against migrants, because the powerful surge of outrage that they generate can then drive headlines, high profiles and votes.

Once in power, some of these leaders have openly constructed lethal barriers to the movement of migrants. 

But migrants are people just like you and me – or our parents and grandparents.   My name is Michelle Bachelet because one of my great-grandfathers moved to Chile from France.   And I'm sure that many of you can claim a migrant in your own forbears. 

The Global Compact for Migration, adopted by an overwhelming majority 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 the global inequalities, environmental degradation, and other root causes, 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.

The nationalism that is on the rise in many countries -- fuelled by xenophobia -- is also accompanied by outspoken racism and other forms of discrimination, including attacks on women's rights, and the rights of LGBTI people. 

Regarding women’s rights, progress has been made. More and more governments talk about women’s rights as human rights – and women's rights and gender equality are acknowledged as legitimate goals.
Just last week I was at the Nairobi Summit, where Governments, the UN, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders came together to deliver on the unfinished business of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Agenda. The Summit was hailed a success, mobilizing more than 1,200 commitments from around the world, including billions of dollars in pledges from public and private sector partners.

The Summit was also a critical space for amplifying the voices of those from marginalized communities, who were able to engage with leaders and decision makers to forge a path forward on the rights and health of all people. The Summit demonstrated a collective resolve to achieve the promise and potential of the ICPD agenda, for the realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights and against gender-based violence, as stressed in the "Nairobi Declaration"

Regardless, there was mobilization against the objectives of the Summit in the lead-up to Nairobi and there were some countries, which expressed their disagreement with the results of the Summit.  Once again, we witnessed how instead of moving forward, some Governments, and many lobby groups, are pushing back on women’s rights.

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, to mobilize, to stand firm, and to push to progress.

The same goes for the recognition of the equality and rights of LGBTI people.  We have witnessed the progress 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.

So we are seeing all these new processes are leading to hostility, divisiveness and rejection of cooperative global processes comes from the alienation and dissatisfaction with leadership.   And I think is yet another factor driving today’s protest movements.

So again, this heightens the urgency of addressing the perception that the State and its institutions do not hear, and do not care, about people’s ordinary lives and their access to what should be their rights.

Lastly, let me turn to the role of social media and other digital tools in this new landscape.

First, we need to recognize the role of social media and new technologies in general, but also specifically in the rise of these protests.

Technology is playing a central role in facilitating access to information and mobilizing and bringing together people - very positive outcomes. The capacity people have today to share and receive information and converge around a cause has clearly risen and this naturally increases the pressure on those making decisions and avenues for ensuring accountable government.   And the potential for emerging technologies to contribute to the 2030 Agenda are multiform and unprecedented.

The immediacy and interconnectedness of our digital world can be a powerful force in organizing and being heard.

Indeed, these new platforms are so significant, that many states have resorted to blocking apps or even internet shutdowns to stem the tide of protest.

But we cannot overlook that information technologies are contributing to the very forces that fuel the protests.  Hate and misinformation are everywhere, and their disturbing impact on our societies, our discourse, and our lives is immense.   The same platforms that connect those who wish to fight inequality are used to perpetrate the vilest of crimes.

At the same time, technology has also created unprecedented ways for States to surveil and target critical voices such as journalists and defenders.  Facial recognition and cell phone trackers give States new opportunities to trail demonstrators and increase risks of reprisals.

Harassment, trolling campaigns, intimidation and lies have polluted parts of the internet, and can pose very real off-line threats – with disproportionate impact on women, and on members of minority groups and human rights defenders.

Developing appropriate responses to such on-line behaviour is complex, but clearly human rights can help in that endeavour.   And the way forward is not to simply ban vaguely defined concepts such as hate speech – we need more nuanced approaches and thresholds to determine what constitutes prohibited content.   Here again, human rights law may be a useful and universal tool.

Many other issues call out for much more effective governance of the digital landscape.  Just one clear example is the deployment of artificial intelligence systems to assess and categorise people; draw conclusions about their physical and mental characteristics; allocate social protection benefits; and predict their future medical conditions, their suitability for jobs, even their likelihood of offending.   This issue, like others, request much more thoughtful mix of regulations, policies and incentives to address the human rights implications of digital transformations.

We simply cannot allow the digital landscape to view itself as an ungoverned or ungovernable space – a sort of human rights black hole.

I agree that over-reaction by regulators to rein in speech and use of the online space is also an important human rights issue.  Many countries are limiting what people can access and curbing free speech and political activity online – often under the pretence of fighting hate or extremism.

We need to ensure that regulatory systems and the systems they aim to regulate comply with international human rights law.  We need to ensure that the digital revolution is serving the people, and that it complies with cornerstone principles such as transparency, fairness, accountability, oversight and redress.

This means going well beyond the somewhat vague ethical principles and guidelines being developed by some corporations.  The international human rights framework is already well developed in the area of business-related human rights risks and can build on ethical frameworks.   It provides checks on power and an agreed foundation that is concrete, legal and universal, to act as a basis for States and firms to build their responses in the digital age.

Perhaps you can sense a theme emerging here: many of the challenges I've addressed today pose significant threats to human rights and are sparking protests.  They are separate issues, but interlinked, constraining our ability to seek solutions and create societies that are harmonious and peaceful.   Human rights have an essential role to create new spaces for dialogue and shaping policies that allow us to face those challenges and to right the wrongs that are being done.

And as I pointed out earlier, this is not only about justice – it is about self-interest.   It is about shaping societies which can survive and thrive in the turbulence of a very challenging era.

We need to rebuild public trust in shared institutions – and no marketing tool can do that.   It will take genuine efforts to deliver on what people know to be their rights.  

The force of 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 have proven themselves to be essential to the maintenance of our mutual peace, prosperity, and sustainable development.   And they can guide policy makers to better policies as we jointly navigate through the threats that lie ahead.

Framing our responses to mass protest in terms of human rights can constitute a very productive basis for advancing, together, towards solutions.  Governments have legal obligations to uphold specific rights and focusing on this point can create leverage for a genuine and respectful discussion with critics and protestors, to facilitate effective and positive policy changes.

Each of these protest situations has its own roots, narrative and lessons.  But I think all of them generate a small number of recommendations that all officials, everywhere, would do well to bear in mind.   

  • Listen to critics, respectfully and attentively. I often encourage policymakers to view activists as their allies, whose analysis and engagement can drive positive changes. 
  • Move beyond bare-bones measurements of average national progress, like GDP, to broader indicators of social justice and well-being across all of society.
  • Drive fair economies, with development that is sustainable and inclusive.  The 2030 Agenda is about realising economic growth that promotes greater freedom, well-being, justice and rights. For the first time in human history, thanks to advances in health, economies and many other fields, we now have the capacity to end extreme poverty and advance universal social protection, and universal health coverage.  The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive.
  • Ensure respectful policing: police brutality is perceived as an expression of the government’s contempt for its own people.  It can only make a challenging situation worse.
  • Eradicate discrimination.   There is nothing beneficial about laws, practises and mindsets that impede people from enjoying their rights and contributing fully to society. Discrimination is harmful to society as a whole, profoundly unjust, and its humiliations and affronts create lasting suffering and resentment.
  • Last but not least, build governance that is responsive, participatory, transparent and accountable. Difficult to achieve; but vital.

Thank you.