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Keynote address by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

Human Rights Council Retreat
Dakar, 21 October 2019

Distinguished President of the Council,
Your Excellency Mr. Amadou Ba, Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Excellencies,
Friends and colleagues,

My thanks to His Excellency Ambassador Seck and the Government of Senegal for hosting this important retreat.

The role of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms has never been more essential. It stands as a forum where all issues can be discussed, concerns voiced, recommendations made and standards developed. It plays a pivotal role in tackling the global human rights issues we are discussing here – inequality, mass migration, climate change and the digital revolution.

Inequalities are both a cause and an outcome of precarious migration and conflicts, and they are deepened by climate change. Economic inequalities have continued to worsen despite States’ commitment in the 2030 Agenda to reduce inequalities within and among countries. As the Secretary General has highlighted, half the world’s wealth is held by people who could fit around a conference table.  

Four billion people have no access to safety nets or any kind of social protection. The world’s poorest and most marginalized people suffer the worst impacts of austerity, injustice, climate change and poverty. Inequalities in income and wealth, and in access to resources, power and justice, undermine equality, dignity and human rights, and risk alienation, unrest and extremism. People’s civil and political rights, as well as their economic, social and cultural rights, are under threat.

No one would suggest that improved business practises can tackle all the causes of inequality – poor governance, corruption, lack of rule of law, discrimination, weak institutions, conflict and social injustice. That requires a full set of regulatory and voluntary measures, international action and national policies including fairer economic policies and progressive tax systems.

Neither should we forget that it is States, not businesses, who are the primary actors responsible for upholding human rights, with the primary responsibility to deliver on the SDGs.

But business is nonetheless uniquely placed to take action on inequalities, with potentially global consequences. Corporate decisions affect not just the pay and safety of individual workers, but the future of entire communities whose land and resources have commercial value.

Showing this level of corporate responsibility isn’t just the “right thing to do” – it’s good business.  Respecting human rights builds stable communities and creates conditions in which businesses themselves can thrive.  

The Council has already provided a strong lead on business and human rights. Its positive and practical steps have included unanimously supporting the Guiding Principles, establishing the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, mandating an annual forum, and creating important mechanisms for exploring the interface between business and inequalities.

But more can be done.  For example, all business components of Council resolutions could be directly aligned with the Guiding Principles. 

There could be more effective engagement with all stakeholders, including businesses themselves – to ensure they are seen as part of the solution.

Civil society organizations have highlighted that relatively few UPR recommendations – just 20% according to one study – deal with economic, social and cultural rights rather than civil and political rights. The Council’s increased engagement on the SDGs is already addressing this gap and demonstrating its important potential as an SDG accountability mechanism. The Council can directly impact the delivery of the SDGs, including through the recommendations made by human rights mechanisms. 
It’s very encouraging to note that between the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015, and March 2019, over 40% of texts adopted by the Council mentioned the Agenda or the SDGs. That is 155 out of 361 texts over the whole period, and the proportion is continuing to rise. Discussions linked to sustainable development are also now taking place under multiple Council agenda items – with resolutions adopted under agenda items 3, 4, 5, 8 and 10. This trend highlights the importance the Council is placing on the SDGs, and emphasizes just how important the 2030 Agenda is to the realization of interconnected human rights.
Special Procedures mandate holders have also been actively involved in both the development and implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Many have used their thematic reports, country visit reports, and other activities to assist States and other stakeholders in adopting a human rights-based approach to the SDGs.
Moving forward, it will be crucial to ensure that the linkages made with the SDGs are substantive; that they push for a rights-based implementation of the 2030 Agenda; and that they reinforce each other.  The Council should consider how it can best motivate and assist Member States to deliver on their promise in practice.
Alongside this very significant work on the SDGs, the Council can encourage economic policymaking that is anchored in human rights standards, contributes to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, and helps tackle economic inequalities – one of the main threats to SDG implementation.

Given the urgency of stepping up progress on the SDGs and tackling inequalities, I also urge the Council to work with ever-increasing vigour on businesses and human rights.

Excellencies,

Millions of people are leaving their countries seeking an end to, poverty, hunger, deprivation and discrimination. Many others are fleeing conflict, persecution and repression. Climate change will go on adding to these numbers, as homes become uninhabitable, sea levels rise, and food and water security are threatened.

Already, our world has an estimated 272 million migrants, many of them in vulnerable situations. Tens of millions move in the shadows, facing systematic violation of their human rights and lethal disregard for their dignity. Walls and barriers are built to keep them out. They are demonized, treated like criminals, arbitrarily detained in appalling conditions, and sometimes even separated from their children. Many live and work in situations of extreme vulnerability, discrimination and abuse. Already this year, we know of the deaths of more than 2,500 migrants. The true figure is probably much higher.

We have also seen the criminalization of compassion and solidarity. NGOs are unable to safely disembark migrants rescued at sea. Citizens have been prosecuted for providing food, water or shelter to undocumented migrants. Migrant rights defenders have been arrested and threatened with violence. These approaches spawn xenophobia, put lives at risk, damage the social fabric of our societies, and undermine our common values.

The global response has fallen short and we urgently need meaningful international cooperation and a people centered approach. 

I believe the Council, along with its bodies and mechanisms, can add to the important work it has already done, to ensure its overall engagement is systematic and proactive, rather than piecemeal and reactive.

This could include meaningfully putting the human rights of migrants onto the Council’s regular agenda – creating an annual panel discussion – or holding an annual forum similar to the Forum on Minorities. The Council could also mandate my Office to monitor and report on this issue.

The Council has a vital role in driving implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the Marrakech Agreement, by guiding Member States in developing human rights-based national action plans.

There is a case for a committee of experts or fact-finding process to examine the grave violations and abuses perpetrated against migrants who travel through Libya, in the Mediterranean, and from Central America, Venezuela and elsewhere.

The Council’s Advisory Committee could also be mandated to undertake a global investigation of practices that cause or exacerbate violations and abuses against migrants. A regular or intersessional panel could focus on technical issues, such as the human rights situation at international borders and alternatives to detention.

All these approaches would not just deliver progress but highlight the Council’s own relevance and responsiveness. 

Excellencies,

I turn now to the issue of climate change and I promise won’t speak as along as at the last session. Environmental degradation, we discussed extensively last month. There can be no solution to this ongoing human rights situation unless we forge partnerships across traditional divides. There is a critical need for strong leadership, better international cooperation and immediate national action. This means full engagement – not just by States, but by businesses, human rights defenders and the whole of civil society.  

Many of you are from States that are already suffering from the worst impacts of climate change, but no State should fool itself that it will be spared.  Neither should we forget that in all States, it will be the poor and the marginalised who will bear the worst consequences. Addressing these disproportionate impacts is at the core of the movements for climate and environmental justice.

Climate change campaigners are reminding us of a wider truth - that activists are our allies and their engagement can drive positive policy changes. We need to harness that power for human rights.  

The Human Rights Council has done significant work, adopting several resolutions on climate change and the environment, as well as environmental human rights defenders. I am also impressed by the tremendous work on climate change done by some Special Procedures mandate holders.

The Council can now build on its strong track record. The biggest imperative is helping to propel national policies as far forward as possible, as quickly as possible.  I will look forward to sharing some detailed recommendations with you during the panel later this morning. They will include urging the Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures to seize every opportunity to make country-specific recommendations.  I also hope we will see UPR and Council resolutions being used more systematically.  We must mobilize every aspect of every mechanism if we are to maximize our impact.  

I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, in more than 100 national and regional law, including here in Senegal, which define the relationship between the environment and human rights.

Excellencies,

The fourth focus of this retreat concerns a global human rights threat of a very different nature, but not less serious. The digital revolution is expanding into more and more areas of our lives, with an ever-greater impact on human rights. 

Some of these effects are very positive, not just in daily life but also in our human rights work.  Encrypted communications are connecting and supporting human rights defenders. Social media is enabling unprecedented communication and information sharing.  Data streams are disrupting human trafficking and spotting signs of modern slavery. Satellite imagery is helping with monitoring and investigation. Data is being verified and cross-referenced to build prosecution cases, trace missing people, identify bodies in mass graves, and detect patterns of human rights violations. Digital tools are providing early warnings of abuses, such as spikes in hate speech.

All these, and many future advances in digital technology and artificial intelligence, will have the power to transform and save lives.

But we’re already very familiar with the dark side of the digital revolution – online hate speech and harassment, internet shutdowns and restrictions on access, the deliberate targeting of human rights defenders and civil society groups through digital surveillance and spyware, and of course breaches of privacy. Data has been harvested on a huge scale and used to manipulate voters.

There is also a growing threat of human rights violations caused by machine-driven processes and artificial intelligence. These systems run the risk of replicating or worsening real-world inequality.  Human rights safeguards must be built into all these systems from their inception, and continued throughout their development and use.

Combating digital-age threats to human rights will require a robust mix of State action, legislation, regulatory frameworks, business responsibility and strong partnerships, working within the framework of international human rights law.

This framework goes beyond ethical guidelines and corporate codes of conduct – in its legitimacy, precision, global scope and potential for accountability.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are as relevant in the digital sphere as they are in all other business activities. There is a growing number of excellent examples of the application of human rights norms and standards to guidance for the tech sector, including the Global Network Initiative Principles and Guidelines, the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue, the European Union’s Information and Communication Technologies Sector Guidance, and the Rabat Plan of Action – which considers the distinction between free speech and hate speech.

But much more needs to be done in this sphere, including the important work of the Advisory Committee, as mandated by the Council, to report on the opportunities and challenges of emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Special Procedures mandate holders have often addressed the human rights impact of new digital technologies, such as robotics and automation, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, drones and lethal autonomous weapon systems. This important material could be better used by the Council.

As we move forward, new and more specific guidance tools will also be needed for many other tech-related fields, from granting loans to building robots. I encourage the Council to consider mandates that will address some of the more pressing and sensitive challenges, including research on digital identities, internet shutdowns, and surveillance technology, building on some of the initial work done by mandate holders in these areas.

It’s critical for the Council to be at the forefront of efforts to engage with these increasingly urgent questions, and to maximize the use of technology in support of human rights.

I wish you fruitful discussions and I hope this will be a great session.  Mr President, Minister, thank you for the great hospitality of Senegal.

Thank you.