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Monash International Affairs Society Model UN

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

25 September 2020

Thank you for inviting me to speak to the Monash International Affairs Society at this difficult, challenging time. The world is facing a global pandemic, climate catastrophe and – linked to both of them – massive global recession.

With COVID-19, a fast-moving and global health crisis has collided with many slower, and more entrenched, political, social and economic crises around the world. Those multiple underlying fractures, which have made us more vulnerable to this virus – and create entry points for its harms – result from gaps in human rights protection.

Discrimination and inequalities create intense suffering for affected communities – and increase the vulnerability of all of society.

Repression and crackdowns on people who criticise, or speak up about policies deprives all of us of the benefit of people's experiences, contributions and views.

COVID-19, which zeros in on these vulnerabilities and failures of protection, is shaking the foundation of our world, bringing turmoil and uncertainty to every country. And no matter how swiftly scientists manage to develop, distribute and deliver a vaccine, we can assume that COVID-19 will be a factor that we will need to manage for the forseeable future.

As young people poised to actively participate in building your society – and through this Model UN exercise, thinking about rebuilding the world – you face hard dilemmas.

But COVID-19 is also teaching us a number of lessons. And as you take the next two days to reflect on these issues, you may find it will be worth bearing some of these lessons in mind.

To me, the first lesson of COVID-19 is its demonstration of the profound value of human rights-based approaches.

Policies that deliver universal and equal access to social protections and health care; institutions which promote respect for the views and rights of all members of society; and laws that require accountable policing and access to justice support greater social and economic resilience. They are the foundation of prosperity and political stability. And they protect vulnerable people from the worst impacts of crises, helping to avert the escalation of tensions and grievances into violence and conflict.

In other words, in order to navigate this pandemic in security, we need more empowerment, and more participation by civil society. We need to build up human rights-based systems to protect and cherish the people, who are the greatest resource of any country and the only bottom line that really counts. We need to face policies that are grounded in right, democracy and rule of law, so that we can minimize the devastating social and economic consequences of COVID-19 – and build back societies that are resilient and fair.

And there's a second lesson that I want to highlight – an old lesson which is just as vital and life-changing as it was in 1963, when Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, that all of us "are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all."

To effectively protect us from crises, all of us need not only national, but also global policies that prioritise civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

We should be building global support for sustainable, inclusive and climate-sensitive growth. It should be clear to all of us that a greater effort by everyone to fulfill the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would have mitigated a great deal of the suffering we see today – and we need to strongly advance on that agenda in the coming decade.

We're going to have to build back. We may as well build back better. And this will be among the challenges of your lifetimes. And as in every crisis, I think you will find that core values will ground you. Allow me to suggest what those principles may be.

Whatever you brought to this university, you have certainly learned that no matter how deeply you examine one topic in international relations, that effort will always feel incomplete, because each topic and each country is connected to so many others.

We are not alone. Other people matter. Justice matters. Violence, exploitation, discrimination and injustice have far-reaching consequences. By trying to see matters with full clarity, and understand others' points of view; by acting with integrity, to advance justice and human rights; by seeking always to build on your love for other people and all forms of life; by looking to construct, and advance – rather than to destroy – you will be shaping a life for yourself that holds steady to your principles.

The world around us is very jittery and fearful now. The pace of technological change and environmental destruction is quickening. Human beings are breaking our planet: catastrophic climate change, declining biodiversity, mass extinctions, plastic-polluted oceans are urgent threats. And the motivation of world leaders to constructively and jointly address these issues is flagging.

We need you. In a very real sense, it is up to you. We can rebuild in ways that uphold human rights. The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, health, food, shelter, clothing and social security. Freedom from any form of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, belief, sexual orientation or any other factor. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention. The right to a fair trial.

It is these principles that build more stable, more peaceful and more adaptable societies, with dialogue, cooperation, and respect.

Thank you for standing up for human rights.