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Human Rights Day 2019

Event entitled "Celebrating Human Rights Day: Youth Standing Up for Human Rights"
UN Headquarters, New York, 10 December 2019

Remarks by Andrew Gilmour,
UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Welcome to the UN - especially those for whom it’s your first visit. And a deep thanks for attending our Human Rights Day event.

In three weeks, we will be celebrating the start of a new decade. Many of us with the fervent hope that the 2020s may be more positive on human rights than the decade we’ve just lived through. After all, we are now experiencing a sustained and sometimes ferocious push-back against the entire human rights agenda. I don’t think we have seen anything like it before.

But to take a slightly longer view than the past decade (and next week I will be leaving the UN after 30 years), we mustn’t lose sight that the previous three decades – starting in the late 1970s – saw an unprecedented advance in human rights. And hopefully we will get back on that track.

To do that, we have to recognize what it is we are facing now. And that the current pushback against human rights manifests itself in many ways.

- The rise of populist authoritarian nationalists, who invariably seem to seek scapegoats to blame for the ills of their society - usually from groups that are already among the most vulnerable.

- An attempt to roll back progress in women’s rights and LGBTI rights.

- The rise of hate speech and prejudice against migrants and refugees.

- Brutal measures against protestors that we have seen in recent weeks in many cities in the world.

- Justifications of torture, journalists murdered and otherwise silenced and imprisoned, harsh restrictions on NGOs and civil society.

- The reappearance in our vocabulary of the term “concentration camps” to describe the treatment of minorities or migrants in two countries.

- Even in this building. Some UN Member States are i) cutting budgets for human rights work, ii) preventing discussions of human rights topics in the Security Council, iii) complaining about or threatening UN officials who speak up, and iv) going to extraordinary lengths to prevent human rights defenders from even entering this building to participate in meetings.

- An alarming growth in the number of cases of reprisals and intimidation carried out against brave individuals or who cooperate with and provide information to the UN on human rights, often claiming that rights defenders are in fact “terrorists”. What gives us hope though - and which is why we’ve made it the theme for this year’s event - is the sight of today’s Youth Standing Up for Human Rights. You will hear more about that from the other speakers.

I do need to explain, with regret, a change in our advertised programme for today. A youth indigenous leader from Guatemala, Feliciana Herrera, wasn’t able to participate on our panel because her visa application was rejected by the Host Country.

It is increasingly recognized that my generation, and the generation that came before it, has left a deeply damaged legacy to the next generation - both on the environment, and now on human rights too. The global movements against injustice on these two great issues need to work far more closely together, and not as now in almost entirely separate silos of activity.

To repair the damage we have done, today’s youth will need to take matters even more into their own hands - peacefully and persuasively.

The global human rights movement and today’s youth are partnering more than before, and some spectacular progress is being achieved. But some of the forces that oppose and seek to reverse that progress are also increasing in their power, their influence, their technical surveillance, their determination, and I’m afraid to say their unscrupulousness.

We, and you, have a big struggle on our hands. It will take well over a decade. But your generation, the next generation, makes us optimistic about the outcome of that struggle.

I thank you again for coming to join us today. And I now have the pleasure to invite the Secretary-General to speak.