Human Rights Council
22 February 2021
The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-sixth regular session, hearing from Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Council; Volkan Bozkir, President of the General Assembly; António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General; Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Ignazio Cassis, host country representative and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland.
Opening the session, Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed all the participants and highlighted that this was the first almost entirely online session of the Council.
Volkan Bozkir, President of the General Assembly, noted that the COVID pandemic was not just a health crisis, but a human rights crisis, and therefore all responses must ensure that human rights were central, for instance ensuring the equal access to all for vaccines.
António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, said that a year ago, he had launched at the Council a Call to Action for Human Rights. COVID-19 had deepened pre-existing divides, and opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights. Just 10 countries had administered 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines and over 130 countries had not received a single dose. Vaccine equity was ultimately about human rights.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the pandemic had ripped the mask off the deadly realities of discrimination and that today the medical impact of the pandemic was far from over, while its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people had only just begun.
Ignazio Cassis, host country representative and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, stated that all regions of the world had seen an increase in inequality. The progress made on the Sustainability Agenda was under threat. The pandemic had made everyone aware of how much their individual freedoms meant and had shown how at risk these were.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.
The Council will next start its high-level segment.
Opening Statement by the President
NAZHAT SHAMEEM KHAN, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed all the participants and highlighted that this was the first almost entirely online session of the Council. Explaining the proposed extraordinary modalities for this session, Ms. Khan noted that the in-person participation of the beneficiary delegates supported by the 15 Least Developed States and Small Island Developing States Trust Fund was unfortunately not possible. The high-level segment of the forty-sixth session would be taking place virtually. The active participation of representatives of civil society and national human rights institutions in the work of the Human Rights Council was essential to the fulfilment of its mandate, and the President said that she would follow up on all allegations brought to her attention of acts of reprisal and intimidation committed against persons in connection to their contribution to the work of the Human Rights Council, its mechanisms and procedures.
VOLKAN BOZKIR, President of the General Assembly, congratulated the President of the Human Rights Council on her election, and noted that a multilateral framework supported by robust institutions and underpinned by respect for human rights would benefit all nations in the quest for peace and security. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other landmark declarations on human rights over the years had been a great achievement. However, although human rights and fundamental freedoms were universal, they had seen that in practice they were not universally protected. They had spent decades building a multilateral system strong enough to meet global challenges, but more work was needed, and they had also seen that COVID had provided a veil behind which human rights abuses could occur. This pandemic was not just a health crisis, but a human rights crisis, and therefore all responses must ensure that human rights were central, for instance, ensuring the equal access to all for vaccines. Nine years remained to meet the 2030 Targets for Sustainable Development, and given these targets were symbiotic, all had to be met, otherwise they would not be a success. It was everyone’s duty to fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The onus on members was to build a United Nations to achieve a future we want.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General, said human rights were our bloodline and lifeline, and the Council was the global locus for tackling the full range of human rights challenges. A year ago, he had launched his Call to Action for Human Rights at the Council. COVID-19 had deepened pre-existing divides, and opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights. The lives of hundreds of millions of families had been turned upside down — with lost jobs, mounting debt and steep falls in income. The disease had taken a disproportionate toll on women, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples. Extreme poverty was rising for the first time in decades. Young people were struggling, out of school and often with limited access to technology. Just 10 countries had administered 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines and over 130 countries had not received a single dose. Vaccine equity was ultimately about human rights. Vaccine nationalism denied it. Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries had deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent.
Speaking on abuse of data, the Secretary-General said that data was used commercially - for advertising, for marketing and for beefing up corporate bottom lines. Behaviour patterns were being commodified and sold like futures contracts. This had created new business models and entirely new industries. Governments could exploit that data to control the behaviour of their own citizens, violating human rights. A Roadmap for Digital Cooperation had been developed to find a way forward and Member States were urged to place human rights at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of digital technologies. Two areas required imperative action - the blight of racism, discrimination and xenophobia and gender inequality. The danger of hate-driven movements was growing by the day: White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements were becoming a transnational threat. A special focus must be placed on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom were under threat around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic had further exacerbated entrenched discrimination against women and girls. The Secretary-General said he had delivered on his commitment to make gender parity a reality in the leadership of the United Nations.
Mr. Guterres concluded by saying that every corner of the globe was suffering from the sickness of violations of human rights. He called on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately, release the prisoners, end the violence, and respect human rights and the will of the people expressed in recent elections.
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the pandemic had ripped the mask off the deadly realities of discrimination and that today the medical impact of the pandemic was far from over, while its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people had only just begun. They now had to urgently act on the clarity of 2020 vision, facing year two of COVID-19, and to seize the possibility to rebuild better, more inclusive systems. This meant eliminating every form of discrimination, encouraging meaningful public participation and marshalling the full operational capacity of every United Nations body to support States. The use of force would not end this pandemic, nor would sending critics to jail or illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms. Instead, effective application of human rights principles based on public trust was the path to take. Over the past year, the Council had been fortunate to count on the Secretary-General's determined support, and particularly, the Call to Action for Human Rights framework which he presented at this Council a year ago. They had developed an extensive body of guidance, human rights indicators and a Checklist for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Socio-Economic Country Responses to guide the work of United Nations Country Teams. With despair and suffering escalating in every region, now was the time to bring people real hope that there would be swift, meaningful and positive change.
IGNAZIO CASSIS, Federal Councillor and Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, stated that all regions of the world had seen an increase in inequality. The progress made on the Sustainable Development Agenda was under threat. The pandemic had made all aware of how much individual freedoms meant, from freedom of movement to freedom to meet loved ones. The pandemic had shown how at risk these freedoms were for all. However, in particular, these were at risk for minority groups, for whom the pandemic attacked their freedom to health, as well as freedom of movement. With this in mind, the crisis had brought people closer together, and the response was understood to be planetary. The 2030 Agenda provided a good framework as it showed what was possible, and so the United Nations had a key role to play in this. The United Nations had continued to work throughout the pandemic, and the Human Rights Council had adapted its working methods to do so as well, continuing to address the issues at hand. This flexibility was an important attribute in these uncertain times. In concluding, Mr. Cassis thanked members for their continued engagement, and invited them to contribute to the world of tomorrow.