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Le Conseil des barreaux européens Human Rights Award

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

10 December 2021

Greetings to all of you, and I thank you for this opportunity to speak with a group of people whose work is so vital to advancing human rights.

The Conseil des barreaux européens works to uphold and defend the rule of law. And this rule of law is infused with the concepts of equality and non-discrimination: it stands for human rights in a very substantive way.  Not only is no-one above the law, but everyone is equal before and under the law, and is entitled to its equal protection and equal benefit.

This is the backbone, the core, of good governance, the key driver of  sustainable development and peace. Where there is equality, justice and legal and practical respect for human rights, everyone can fully contribute to development; there is public trust in institutions; and because disputes can be impartially resolved, there is greater peace.

No work could be more vital than this effort to uphold justice, dignity and equality, which unlocks positive processes in every public and private domain.

We see this very well when it is absent.

In many societies across the world – perhaps in an increasing number of societies – the rule of law has broken down, or is deliberately broken.

Let me pull two numbers from a report that was published in 2019 by the Task Force on Justice.

This report estimated that a quarter of a billion people are living in extreme conditions of injustice – deprived of any shred of meaningful protection of the law. They includes people who are stateless, people living in conflict zones, people who are so oppressed by arbitrary dictatorship that they have, in effect, no rights; and people who are trapped up in modern forms of enslavement.

The second number: this report estimated that 4.5 billion people – 60 percent of the people on this planet – are excluded from basic social, economic, and political protections and opportunities which the law should provide. They cannot access land tenure, residency papers or vital housing documentation. They are employed in jobs without any form of contract or social protection. People in this kind of situation are going to be deprived of full access to healthcare, education, banking and loans. They may not be properly protected by the institutions that should represent, express, protect and enforce their rights – like  political leadership, the courts and the police.

Sixty percent of the people alive today lack these protections – and this report appeared before the pandemic of COVID-19, which has certainly made both these numbers worse.

What happens in these places, to these people? Without the protection of human rights and the law, these women and men, and these children, are abused; their rights are violated; hey endure policing that is oppressive or discriminatory; and systems for justice and redress are fatally skewed against them. They are pushed further and further behind.

That isn't just a series of tragedies of almost unimaginable magnitude. It also creates a constantly more severe cycle of growing instability – economically, politically and in terms of public trust.

Ensuring access to justice for everyone, including through adequate legal aid services, is a service to all of society. It opens access to all human rights – from the right to freedom of expression to the right to adequate housing and decent work, the right to non-discrimination, and many more.

This brings me to tonight's award.

In honouring lawyers around the world who work in situations of heightened threat to defend the rule of law and human rights, you do a great service.

You demonstrate that the world recognises their work, and that we acknowledge how important, how vital that work is to their societies, and to us all.

We are acting as a kind of conduit – amplifying the voices of human rights defenders; helping them build their capacity; promoting dialogue with institutions and authorities.

We know that where there is justice – when the State and institutions are transparent, participative and accountable to the people – public confidence is strengthened. Wherever human rights are upheld, grievances diminish. The capacity for dialogue and responsive governance is enhanced. The inclusion of access to justice in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as Goal 16, is a clear indication of its key role in building inclusive, sound economies and societies.

But today, justice and human rights are increasingly under threat, in every region of the world. Minorities are vilified and targeted. Women’s rights face forceful pushbacks.  Civil society is under threat. We are seeing increasing threats to lawyers and judges, in many societies; to the rule of law; and to the commitments made under essential international human rights agreements and treaties.

Everywhere, the pandemic has greatly accelerated these and other negative trends – and the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss further compounds them.

I believe that the work of advancing human rights has never been more consequential, or more vital, than it is now.

Thank you for working for human rights.