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Impartial, independent rule of law is vital to sound societies

Finland, Sweden and Norway in multilateral cooperation. How can we secure the legitimacy of multilateral cooperation? What are the tendencies in Europe and globally?

The rule of law

Keynote speech by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Helsinki, 6 February 2020

Distinguished Ministers,

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to exchange ideas with such a dynamic and influential audience.

Many of the challenges that countries face today are not limited to their own borders. From the climate emergency to globalization, the movement of people, and issues raised by digital technologies, these are topics that cannot be adequately addressed by domestic mechanisms alone. So I very much appreciate your emphasis on how we can best secure productive methods for multilateral cooperation.

Indeed, I would argue that across every sector of government, national policies can benefit from more effective international cooperation, in order to achieve shared goals. The consistent and remarkable successes of Finland, Sweden and Norway in terms of key civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights clearly demonstrate this reality. Over a century ago, Finland became the first European State to grant all adult citizens the right to vote. Finland has also been a consistent actor for greater transparency and participation in decision-making, including in the context of the EU. Like Finland, Sweden and Norway also stand for a strongly principled approach to public life, and this extends to your cooperation with my Office, and your constant advocacy for the fulfilment of human rights across the world.

Thanks to this kind of principled work by Nordic and other States, Europe is among the strongest pillars of the multilateral system – as Minister Haavisto noted last month in Davos. The Finnish Presidency of the EU also brought in unprecedented transparency and participation, including in cooperating with our office in Brussels. And Norway hosted us twice to speak to the general public about human rights and the rule of law, both internal and external, at the Norway house.

But across the world -- and also within Europe -- we are seeing a markedly weaker commitment to multilateralism by many actors. More polarized political landscapes in several countries are contributing to this. Rather than tackle the need for difficult reforms, some opinion-leaders reach for a fleeting and dangerous substitute: they scapegoat actors who are in no way responsible for the entrenched problems they face.

Often, these are migrants, or members of minority communities. We are also seeing a backlash against the advancement of women’s equality and freedom of choice, including rights to sexual and reproductive health. In other cases, it is foreigners – or the so-called “foreign bureaucrats” who supposedly seek to dominate the nation, and impose their will.

These tactics can reap votes – but they also sow the seeds of failure.

Growing deadlock in several major global and regional institutions, and a growing lack of compliance with international commitments and international law, are eroding the capacity of the international community to prevent and resolve conflicts. They are undermining progress towards sustainable development. They are breaking our hope of preventing and mitigating the growing climate emergency. And they are leading to vastly increased suffering, poverty, injustice and displacement for millions of human beings.

I whole-heartedly commend the European Council Conclusions last June on ‘Strengthening Multilateralism’, which reaffirm the EU’s commitment to an international rule-based order and put human rights at the forefront of EU foreign policy. I am also grateful for its clear commitment to the mandate and particularly the independence of my Office. The work we do to uphold human rights across the world is often very challenging – particularly in terms of our investigations and advocacy – and your support is essential.


Why is the European Union founded on democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law? Because these are the most effective principles to combat conflict, tyranny and exploitation. Law that is just, applied to all, grounded in human rights principles and impartially administered is a shield against the arbitrary and unprincipled rule of narrow interests.

When all people, and all institutions -- including the State itself -- are accountable to laws that are consistent with human rights norms, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and publicly promulgated, the basic ground has been established for the advancement of the common good. 

The rule of law makes public institutions accountable for upholding human rights and the fair delivery of public services. And it empowers all individuals – including those who suffer entrenched discrimination - to claim their rights. The independence of the judiciary, as a central component of the rule of law, is key to the protection of fundamental rights. But that independence is coming under threat in various part of the world – including in some established democracies in Europe.

This is why civil society is a vital safeguard to protect and advance the rule of law. This is acknowledged by the European Commission July 2019 Communication which outlines proposals for strengthening the rule of law in the EU. Those who wish to undermine the rule of law will first attack civil society. Every State should be granting all individuals their public freedoms, and support civil society organizations’ capacity to thrive – not only because this is the right thing to do, but also because it is the smartest and most productive strategic approach.

Protecting civic space and protecting the rule of law are two sides of the same coin. This equal and impartial rule of law is fundamental to democracy – and vice versa. The weakening of one immediately threatens the existence of the other. We have seen in Europe the shrinking of civic space and harassment of human rights defenders.

Moreover, regional and international governance systems should also be grounded in rule of law. Our nations co-exist in a single space: our planet. History has repeatedly demonstrated that sustainable development and durable peace can only advance when countries respect each other and come together in a rule-based system, founded on shared values, that can manage multiple power centres and diverging views.


Because the independence, impartiality and integrity of judicial systems is an essential prerequisite for every sound society, any attempt to jeopardize the independence of the judiciary is of profound concern.

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution that reaffirmed the deterioration of rule of law in Hungary and Poland, and emphasised the impact this has on the integrity of common European values, mutual trust and the credibility of the European Union as a whole. In an unprecedented move, the EU’s Article 7 procedure was activated over a year ago for both States.

Like many of you, I am concerned that the legislation which passed into law in Poland this week risks further jeopardizing the independence of the judiciary in Poland, restricting the rights of judges and the impartiality of courts of law. Under this new legislation, judges who question the Government’s planned judicial reforms could be fined or even dismissed.

Membership of the European Union is grounded on respect for EU law and European legal norms -- including fair trial norms and the impartiality and independence of judges. Decisions taken by Polish courts may also apply in other EU countries. Clearly, legislation on this point could affect people living across the entire EU – and impact not only core values, but also rights.

Prior to these challenges in Poland, Hungary had already taken steps to undermine the independence of judges, freedom of the media, academic freedoms and the protection of minority communities and migrants. The resulting deterioration of institutional checks and balances has been matched by a decreasing space for civic freedoms. Hungary's refugee and migrant policies, and treatment of Roma people, are also a matter of concern.

Legislation adopted by Hungary in December will have further negative impact on judicial independence and on the right to a fair trial, including by enabling the Government to interfere in the court system in politically sensitive cases. I also note with concern that the legislation was fast-tracked, without adequate consultation with civil society.


No one should be above the law. No Government, no monarch, no leader can be viewed as free of accountability. And the law must be the same for everyone, protecting all from violations and abuses.

The ultimate test of this strength of rule of law can be seen as how our justice systems deal with the most vulnerable. And among the most vulnerable people in every society are migrants.

A few minutes ago, I used the word “scapegoating” to address the stigmatisation of migrants that has become familiar in the political landscape of many European nations. Overt hostility against migrants is increasingly frequent. Several European States have taken action to criminalize, impede or halt the work of migrants’ rights defenders. And some European States have made bilateral agreements with countries outside the region in order to limit migration - despite evidence of cases of serious violations of human rights in this context.

 To take a particularly serious example, we have multiple reports indicating that supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants’ vessels is leading to their prolonged and arbitrary detention in shockingly sub-standard conditions. UN human rights staff in Libya have documented torture, rape, forced labour, acute malnutrition, severe overcrowding and related infectious diseases – and even disappearances and trafficking - in both official and unofficial detention centres. Libya should not be considered a safe third country; we need to support bilateral and multilateral efforts on migration that are grounded in respect for human rights and the rule of law.

These fundamental principles are affirmed in the Global Compact on Migration, which I view as a significant opportunity to strengthen human rights protection for migrants and to improve the governance of migration. I encourage all Member States to implement and review progress on the Global Compact, including through the upcoming 2020 round of Regional Reviews.

In several cases, judicial institutions have stood up against unprincipled action in migration-related cases, as well as other important human rights issues, and they have successfully protected the rule of law and human rights. Some of these judges have been targeted by threats and abuse; even, in some cases, from State officials. But the courage they have shown is vital, and it should be mirrored by similar attachment to fundamental rights by the leaders of States, particularly in terms of the rights of society’s most vulnerable or marginalized members.

I strongly encourage leaders in Europe – and around the world - to further advance human rights within their own nations. Many countries have accepted context-specific and precise recommendations on these issues by international human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review. What we need now is action to follow through on those commitments. In many countries of this region, much work remains to be done to fully uphold the rights of migrants, members of the Roma community, people with disabilities, women’s rights, LGBTI communities, the elderly, and the poor.

Doing so will not only live up to the UN Charter, EU principles, and national commitments – it will also drive greater political and economic success. Only by tackling the policies which generate and maintain deep inequalities within societies can we build nations and economies that are strong and more resilient because they are fair.


On the multilateral stage, you (Finland, Sweden, Norway) have been a precious ally for the promotion and protection of human rights. Successive Governments have given us important support, particularly on issues of adequate housing, non-discrimination, extreme poverty, minorities and the human rights of migrants, as well as country-specific situations. On these issues, and regarding the engagement of my Office, the Nordic States have sponsored or co-sponsored key resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council.

I am convinced that European actors can work more strongly to promote human rights and rule of law in many global crisis situations.

I welcome the good cooperation established between the EU and my Office to promote human rights compliance in complex crises such as the Sahel, with the support we jointly extend to the G5 Joint Force. I am also grateful for the support of many European nations for the establishment of our office in Sudan, and a host of other situations where guidance grounded in human rights law can help societies steer away from conflict and instability, and build greater peace. 

I encourage further efforts to integrate human rights in European responses to crises, including in the ongoing dialogue on the European Peace Facility. My Office can support you in these efforts, including by sharing the tools we have developed in the course of 15 years of work integrating human rights into more than 30 UN peace and political missions.

I also believe the rule of law has a key role to play in fulfilling the commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which I view as our once in a lifetime opportunity to advance human dignity and rights across the world. As Sustainable Development Goal 16 acknowledges, participatory, transparent and accountable institutions are the key to unlocking development that is sustainable because it is deep, broad, and self-regenerating. They also ensure durable partnerships – not only within countries, but also between countries. Nordic countries have been strong supporters of these goals, and with just one decade of action before us to fulfil the promise of the SDGs, I trust that support can be amplified.

I also encourage all Nordic countries to continue actively engaging with other Governments and stakeholders to raise awareness of the catastrophic impacts on human rights of climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, and to seek more ambitious climate action. Prime Minister Marin has described her task as "to make the Nordic model part of an environmentally sustainable future" – in which the struggle to address climate change "creates new jobs, new technologies, new opportunities".   Like many, I am inspired by this approach.  And in this context too, I want to emphasise the importance of multilateral cooperation – including the climate negotiations and the negotiations of the post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework – as a vehicle for promoting rights-based environmental action.


There is great power and authority in multilateralism, when it is guided by principle and respect. When many voices speak as one – whether we are talking about a UN body or European institutions -- they are louder, clearer and capable of shaping much more effective action. And in this 25th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration’s commitments to women’s equality, it is also vital to address the world’s continued reluctance to fulfil the rights of women and girls.

Approximately one out of every three women in the world today will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime – often, both. Fewer than one in four parliamentarians in the world is a woman. In over 50 countries there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence. 830 women and girls still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And as Oxfam recently reported, just in the course of today, 6 February 2020, women and girls will undertake a total of 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work.

All of our societies remain affected by harmful gender stereotypes that limit the voices of women and girls – and their rights, including sexual and reproductive health rights, and access to justice.  

The rule of law must uphold the human rights of everyone. And this universal respect for the rule of law should be consistently monitored and strenuously defended by all members of the community.

When it is directed by the powerful, – whether for political interest or for economic gain – the countdown to serious conflict and decline has begun. 

I am heartened by the strength of recent moves to uphold the rule of law in Europe – and I am hopeful of even broader support from Europe to uphold rule of law principles across the scope of international affairs. I am hopeful because I have heard you today and your intentions, and we expect much from you - the Nordic countries.

Thank you.