Video statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
29 September 2020
I am delighted that we are highlighting the need to protect the civic space, and in particular, the right to peaceful assembly.
At this crucial time, with the COVID-19 pandemic undermining people's well-being and livelihoods in every country, we urgently need to empower more people to raise their voices for human rights.
We have seen how critical it is to have universal access to affordable health care and social protections. We have seen how COVID has been fuelled by structural discrimination against Afro-descendants, indigenous peoples, Dalits and ethnic minorities.
And we have seen some governments respond to the pandemic by criminalising criticism; attacking those who speak out; expanding tracking without privacy safeguards; and intensifying other restrictions on the civic space.
But to be effective, Governments need truthful feedback about the measures they are taking. They need ideas – and, yes, criticism too – from the broadest possible range of people. Demonstrations, which are a core part of democracy, are vital.
The pandemic clearly demonstrates that respect for human rights is beneficial to everyone. Universal health care, universal social protections, and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – online and offline – contribute to protecting our well-being, and promoting our shared interests. Effective access to reliable information, and meaningful participation in decision-making, have helped to save lives. I believe this realisation can invigorate our advocacy for a broader civic space and far stronger human rights-based action in every field of work.
Yes, there is a great deal to be worried about. Poverty, violence and misery are on the rise – and deepening repression can only perpetuate and magnify these harms. In the digital era, surveillance technologies and artificial intelligence can be misused to stifle our voices and deny our rights.
But as John Lewis said when he called on us to "get in good trouble," it is important not to get lost in a sea of despair.
I pay tribute to the Human Rights Committee, and Christof Heyns, for the recent General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly. It provides solid guidance to States – and an excellent basis for human rights advocacy. Our staff in the field are constantly engaged on these issues, particularly excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, and it is certainly most helpful to us.
I hope that together, we can encourage many people to join this great venture of rebuilding our societies with more just, more peaceful and more sustainable and climate-friendly systems.
Thank you for standing up for human rights.