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Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Global Challenges to Human Rights

Public conference at the European Convention Centre in Luxembourg

20 January 2017

Distinguished panellists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Government of Luxembourg for kindly inviting me to visit this beautiful country. I am the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to do so, and I feel privileged to have met such important, dedicated and influential people to discuss current challenges to human rights. Allow me to extend my sincere appreciation also to Ambassador Bichler and the UNESCO Chair for Human Rights, Professor Jean-Paul Lehners, for kindly joining us here today.

We are at a pivotal moment in history where never have so many of us been so wealthy and free, and yet where global challenges to human rights, indeed to human life and the life of our planet, loom large.  And against such a backdrop, are we - perhaps unwittingly, definitely dangerously - about to throw away the advances and protections of the human rights architecture built up over the last 70 years?

The warning signs are there.  Large parts of the world remain marked by war, violence and displacement; by inequality and discrimination; by corruption and the abuse of power. Xenophobia, racism, religious prejudice and ethnic hatred have broken out of the dark corners into which the last several decades of human rights progress had confined them, even in societies that had long felt secure and immune to their toxic effects.

We have seen the rise of demagogues who stoke hatred of the other to further their own aims and who capitalise on the anxieties of citizens who feel ill-served and disregarded by their governments, by traditional politicians and by international institutions. We have seen rising intolerance and hatred, including here in Western Europe. Those who have fled war and violence have encountered verbal and physical assault and abuse, instead of safety. And feeding off this hatred in an ever deepening cycle of mistrust, terrorism movements have spread, sowing fear and suffering.

With several European elections scheduled, 2017 will be a test of tolerance, and I am concerned at the prospect of election campaigns in key nations being marred by racist and anti-migrant statements. 2017 will also require that we keep challenging the fact-free narratives spun by bigots and racists across the globe, that we counter the wilful ignorance or deliberate denial about climate change, and that we continue to highlight and denounce the disregard by all, including those who lead us, of human rights principles and respect for human life.  

2017 will be a challenging year, but I am not here to deliver a message of despair.

In Europe and across the globe, the world of fear and loathing can be countered by the world of choice and opportunity, a world where technology and human rights have brought unprecedented progress and prosperity. A world where thoughtful political and civil society leaders strive to close gender pay gaps and tackle income inequalities, to ensure decent and valuable work and study opportunities for young people, and to maintain adequate social safety nets for older people. A world where LGBT and intersex persons can express themselves without fear and intimidation, exclusion or violence.

Human rights – attacked, undermined, disregarded as they may be – are our guide to this world. Human rights build strong societies, safe societies. Human rights bridge divisions.  

We recently marked the 50th anniversary of the two core international human rights covenants. These two legally binding international instruments – on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights – built on the beautiful ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to lay the foundation of human rights law.  Many countries that ratified these covenants began implementing fundamental rights – such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, freedom from torture and the right to access education or healthcare. Indeed, without these covenants, there would not be democratic societies as we know them today.  Yet we need renewed commitment to ensure their implementation - and the implementation of all the other human rights treaties and instruments that followed. 

Such faith in human rights also requires genuine support from the international community. Luxembourg, as a generous world donor, can play an important role and lead by example in ensuring that human rights become a key component of development co-operation programmes in all its partner countries.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers us real hope that respect for human rights will grow as efforts take shape to reduce the inequalities that obliterate opportunities and freedoms for so many. Indeed, sustainable development will not happen without human rights. A poverty reduction programme would not function without the recognition of the right of women to non-discrimination.

In 2017, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, together with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Framework Convention on Climate Change, will offer important opportunities to advance human rights for all people in all countries.  I urge the donor community - both public and private – to use this momentum to better support the human rights-based implementation of the 2030 Agenda at global and country levels.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On his first day in office, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on the international community to make 2017 a year for peace. In a world facing extremism and violence, where even hospitals, children and humanitarian workers are the frequent target of vicious, indiscriminate and routine attacks, we need renewed faith and commitment to the universal values that the United Nations upholds. 

This means the value of ensuring the rights of all are protected, respected and fulfilled; and that those who commit human rights abuses and violations are held to account, according to the law. The United Nations can help communities embrace such values. Fighting discrimination and ensuring respect for diversity in all its forms - gender, ethnicity, culture, affiliation, belief and religion - will bring us together, not drive us apart.

In a world that seems at times frightening, we need to act now in a strong, concerted defence of human rights principles, before those principles are so eroded, attacked and diminished that they give way.

It is for this reason that my Office has launched a global campaign “to stand up for someone’s rights”. Help someone today who might be in need. A colleague or fellow student might be being bullied. You might see someone being racially abused on public transport or in a bar. An older person in your community might be the victim of violence; or you might know of an irregular migrant being exploited.  We don’t have to stand by. We can speak up for the values of decent, compassionate societies. We can join others to call for better leadership, better laws and greater respect for human dignity. We can all stand up – individually, jointly, locally - to make a global commitment to human rights, ready to withstand any and every global challenge.  

Thank you.