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Alpbach Forum
Human Security. Human Rights. Fundamental rights


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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

31 August 2021

Greetings to all of you, and thank you for this opportunity to speak to an essential topic – the linkages between human security and human rights.

What is human security?

As the Ogata-Sen Commission reported in 2003 ,"Traditional notions of security, shaped largely by the Cold War, were concerned mainly with a state's ability to counter external threats" – but in the human security vision, "development, poverty eradication and greater social equality are increasingly linked to conflict resolution, peace-building and state building... People's interests, or the interests of humanity as a collective become the focus."

The air we breathe, our ecosystems, infrastructure, public health – these goods are shared. And while military invasion, internal armed conflicts and other traditionally defined threats to state security, can certainly be harmful, they are not the only threats that can befall societies. COVID-19 has brought this home with full force, as have the even more powerful threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Both directly and indirectly, they contribute to undermine peace.

Let me outline a concrete example. The Sahel region – specifically in neighbouring regions of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, an area sometimes known as the "Liptako-Gourma" – is afflicted by a brutal armed conflict that is growing in scope. UNHCR currently estimates that over 4 million have been displaced from their homes across the Sahel, and the humanitarian emergency is becoming overwhelming. Environmental disasters and climate change have contributed to this crisis, with increasing desertification; long droughts followed by sudden flash-flooding; and unequal access to natural resources. The Sahel is experiencing global warming to a far greater extent than other world regions. And the resulting food insecurity is compounded by poor management of natural resources and weak governance.

Resource scarcity aggravates intercommunal tensions, including between farmers and herders. This dynamic has greatly escalated conflict in recent years. Small arms are pervasive; in such a context, self-defence groups spring up quickly. It would be a mistake to point outside extremists as the only cause of the conflict – although extremism has definitely contributed to it. Although the root causes of this conflict could be viewed as "non-traditional", they have generated a growing threat to national and regional peace. And I would argue that they were largely preventable.

So how do we prevent these non-traditional threats to security? In recent decades, despite a great deal of pushback, there has been growing recognition that human rights are the necessary foundation for peace.

Looking at the traditional, conflict-related view of security, human rights are not ideals that can be aspired to only after conflict has ended. They are also not the gold star that can be bestowed only after development has finally been achieved. Measures that uphold human rights are the bulwark against conflict and violence, an interlinked and mutually reinforcing foundation for peace, security and development.

For development and peace efforts to be successful, they need to address the root causes of core grievances – including impunity, discrimination, inequalities, corruption and repression. The well-founded catchphrase of the 2005 World Summit was that there can be "no peace without development, no development without peace, and neither peace nor development without human rights".

But despite this broad knowledge about the value of human rights to building more sound and resilient economies and societies, COVID-19 has exposed decades of failure to prioritise universal human rights.

Policies based on narrow political interests and narrowly-defined economic growth left health systems, social protections, and other human rights, such as clean water and adequate housing, under-resourced. Long-standing patterns of discrimination continued to skew the benefits of development away from women and specific communities, weakening all of society. And environmental destruction – often at the expense of communities who rely on nature for their livelihoods – has multiplied many threats, including the threat of new infectious diseases.

The cost in shattered lives, and to development and social cohesion, continues to grow. It will be felt for generations. And as lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines continues to drive situations of uncontrolled contagion, which brew new variants, the reality of our interconnected world will become even more painfully clear. 'Divergent recoveries' undermine everyone's efforts. Neglect of global vaccination is clearly another threat to human security: it will harm us all.

So COVID-19 was a wakeup call – to the fragility that has been generated by short-term thinking and neglect; to the connected destinies of our societies; and to the need to adapt our mechanisms for collective action to the threats of today. No policy-maker should be allowed to ignore the fact of our growing environmental emergency – a threat to human rights and human security of a magnitude we have never before seen.

How can we fix these shortfalls and obstacles, to accelerate our recovery from COVID – and combat other human security threats, such as the environmental emergency?

COVID-19 makes clear the centrality of health to all aspects of life. And it shows that health inequalities are driven by policy choices. Backed by broad participation – especially by those most affected by the pandemic – measures must be taken to achieve universal health coverage.

To address the fractures exposed and aggravated by COVID, we also need to advance greater investment in universal social protections, and public participation in decision-making that ensures greater trust, and more effective policies. We need, as the UN Secretary-General has stated, a new social contract between governments and the people.

Many Governments have responded to COVID by expanding social protection schemes on an ad-hoc basis. To reverse the rise in inequalities, these safety nets need to be made permanent. Social protection policies need to cover formal and informal workers, as well as non-workers – especially women from marginalized groups.

The New Social Contract also needs to advance more equitable distribution of income, wealth and resources. Redistributive measures (such as minimum wages, labour rights, consumer protections and regulations) need to be adopted and chronic underinvestment in public services should be reversed.

Governance institutions may require reform so that access, power, wealth and opportunities are more fairly shared. Effective, permanent and safe channels for the broadest possible participation should be viewed as a key transformative action that needs to be prioritized in every world region.

We also need to end structural and systemic discrimination, which harms millions of people and holds back every society. As we face the destruction we have generated for our planet, the truly effective climate mitigation and adaptation measures will be those policies which empower women; indigenous peoples; and others discriminated populations, as well as people who live in vulnerable areas. This requires Governments to recognise the structural factors which deepen these communities' environmental vulnerability; to involve them in seeking solutions; and to dedicate resources to upholding their rights.

The climate emergency is already here – visible in all our daily lives. There needs to be bold, innovative, and urgent government action, including through commitment and sharing of the required resources, to protect the planet and us all. The impact of environmental destruction on human rights make this action not only a necessity, but also an obligation.

To avert future climate harms and ensure climate justice, we need to empower and motivate businesses to step up and become part of the solution. The Caring for Climate Initiative, hosted by the UN Global Compact and UN Environment, brings together more than 400 companies from around the world that have committed to taking action to address the climate crisis.

Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. States have an affirmative obligation to effectively regulate business to prevent human rights harms. Yet in many countries, Government support and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry endangers climate goals. I constantly remind the representatives of States of the need for policy coherence – nationally and internationally – in how they seek to address the human rights impact of climate change, including in relation to business activities.

But is all this realistic? Can we deliver on all these costly initiatives at a time when fiscal revenues are crumbling?

I am convinced we can end fossil fuel consumption and take other steps to curtail climate change and address the damage done to ecosystems. We can undo structural discrimination, and more effectively uphold justice. We can help realise the right to development, including by standing up for everyone's right to participate in decisions. With sufficient determination, acting in partnership, we can take steps to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms – and in doing so, we will strengthen our societies, and build a better future for us all.

States may need to expand fiscal space through progressive taxation for wealth redistribution, and by addressing tax avoidance. Many low- and middle-income countries will require financial support and debt relief, together with international cooperation in relation to matters such as tax evasion and illicit financial flows, among others.

The Secretary-General has also called for a Global New Deal – with global governance that shares power, wealth and opportunities on a more fair basis, and the UN playing a catalytic and convening role to spark more inclusion, more cooperation and more foresight.

Decisions that we take today will drastically impact the lives and rights of future generations. It is urgent to more systematically embed long-term thinking in national and

international institutions. Safeguarding human security is now also – and necessarily – a global undertaking, demanding global solutions to global threats. Above all, it is vital to more powerfully implement our existing commitments to protect sustainable life, equality and human rights – so that humanity can face future threats with greater resilience.

Thank you