"Parliaments as promoters of human rights, democracy and the rule of law"
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
22 November 2018
Vice President of the Council,
Colleagues and Friends,
It is an honour to open the second Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law. I welcome the Council’s decision to renew this Forum, so that it can remain a space to discuss and propose solutions for increased enjoyment of human rights, stronger democracies and more resilient rule of law systems.
This Forum attests to the fact that it is impossible to look at democracy in isolation from the rule of law and human rights. The weakening of one immediately endangers the existence of the others. Democracy entails transparent and accountable institutions – including Parliaments. And the legitimacy of these institutions depends upon compliance with the fundamental principles of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Although their functioning, and other aspects of the practice of democracy, may vary in important respects according to context, the core values they represent are universal. They have been expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in binding core human rights instruments: the values of equality, justice, human dignity and human rights. These values form the bedrock of any democratic State and empower us all.
Parliaments are national “debating chambers”, where all kinds of ideas are freely expressed. They provide effective scrutiny of the work of the Executive, checking and balancing the power of Governments.
In a democratic country, Parliaments represent the whole spectrum of their society’s majorities and minorities, looking to work together on the solution of the country’s needs and concerns.
This representative function of Parliaments is important. The diverse needs of all people should be taken into account in law-making processes. MPs do not have to be identical to their constituents in every respect, but common experiences and perspectives do matter.
So it also matters that the world average of women in parliament is 23% – still far from gender parity – and some national parliaments have no women MPs at all. Women and girls are half the population of the world.
It is also important to reduce the challenges and obstacles that minorities face in serving as parliamentarians, including their recognition and legal status; the existence of positive electoral measures (such as quotas or reserved seats); and parliamentary procedures that ensure their issues are addressed. Furthermore, there is a need to improve the representation of youth. The average age of parliamentarians globally is 53, and only 1.9 per cent of parliamentarians around the world are under 30 – although the median age in developing regions is 27.8, and in developed countries it is 41, according to UNDP.
I want also to emphasise the rights of parliamentarians. Members of parliament are often subjected to hate speech, harassment and physical attacks. As you know, last year the Inter-Parliamentary Union documented over five hundred human rights violations against Members of Parliament – including arbitrary detentions, failure to ensure fair trials and violations of their right to freedom of expression.
Parliaments should uphold human rights and protect civic space. But time and again, governments seeking to shut down the space for civic participation have used legislative tools to restrict foreign funding of civil society organisations, control their registration or impose excessive restrictions of other kinds.
To stand up for the human rights which form the basis of their own legitimacy, and to protect the political and civic freedoms of the people, Parliaments need to be alert to attempts to restrict the legitimate activities of civil society through laws and other means.
As bodies that are democratic by nature, Parliaments can set the example and be accessible, transparent, accountable and effective.
I am pleased to see that on your agenda is a discussion of cooperation between parliaments and national human rights institutions, civil society organisations, the media and the judiciary. This is a vital area, which offers many avenues for constructive, common work.
I encourage you to explore how parliaments can rebuild trust in democracy and State institutions. In these troubled times, we need our institutions to be viewed as legitimate and useful by those they are meant to serve.
Global challenges are increasingly complex and transnational, testing our ability to respond. Parliaments can help tackle these issues, and promote coherence between national and international agendas. At times of division and strife, it is particularly important to note the positive role parliaments can play by promoting essential values of respect, dialogue and compromise, leaving no place for discriminatory and xenophobic rhetoric.
On migration, for example, parliaments from host and origin countries could cooperate on more effective policy frameworks for migration, addressing the associated human rights and rule of law challenges. They can help to change the false narrative of hatred that has built up around migration in our societies. The work of parliaments in shaping policy and laws can be crucial to reforming migration governance mechanisms, including through the adoptions of processes, which help migrants, integrate into society, and facilitate their meaningful and positive contributions.
Parliaments can also help to drive implementation of the SDGs. As you are aware, every country needs to translate the global framework of the 2030 Agenda into actionable national policies and, where necessary, legislation. Parliamentarians will play a vital role in the delivery of commitments to this important human rights agenda.
In a few days' time, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It helped shape the liberation movements, the national Constitutions, and the institutions of many of your countries. That Declaration of hope and principle calls to us as strongly today, as it did among the ashes of World War II.
I hope that strong, human rights-based recommendations will be made during the two days of this Forum. I appeal to the cooperation of States in implementing the recommendations arising from this meeting. My Office stands ready to assist with this important work going forward.
I wish you a fruitful meeting.