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Cambridge Union Informal Fireside Address by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

18 November 2019

Thank you for this invitation. I am delighted to be at Cambridge University and to address the Cambridge Union.  It’s a great opportunity to not only speak to you, but also to listen.

As a new global and digital landscape comes into focus around us, we, in the human rights community, need to be able to count on the analysis and innovative energy of young people, in order to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Climate change and issues like nationalism, migration and hatred pose some fundamental questions about our future.  More accurately – these are questions about your future.

You, the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen, are coming of age at a crucial turning point for humanity.

I am speaking to you, not only as a former Head of State and Government, or as a UN official, but also as a mother and grandmother: as an ordinary human being who cares about our world – as all of you do.

I am a strategic optimist. I know that if we are going to try to shape better policies to meet these global challenges, we need to believe that success is possible.

So let me begin this discussion by emphasising that yes, we can meet these challenges. Generation after generation, men and women have devised choices and decisions that have allowed us to move forward, to progress.

Nations have given the right to vote, or full participation, to large numbers of people who were previously deprived of those rights – including, for many of our countries, to women - half the population. Some countries have brought millions of people out of poverty, and enabled their access to higher education, quality health care and greater dignity.

These have been enormous gains for the cause of human rights. They were achieved in the face of tremendous difficulties: political, economic, social and cultural. And they have strengthened our societies, opening the path to progress in every area.

It will not be easy, but I am certain that this is not a time to lose hope.  It’s a time for engagement and common purpose.
So let’s look at some of the main challenges that we face, and see how we can try to address them, with solutions that are sustainable and effective.

Climate change

First, let´s talk about climate change, which affects every person and every region of the world. We know that If current trends continue, the implications for human rights will be catastrophic. Already, climate shifts are driving a sharp increase in global hunger, which according to FAO has increased this year for the first time in a decade.

In many nations, chaotic weather patterns and other elements of the environmental emergency are already reversing major development gains; exacerbating conflict, displacement and social tension; hampering economic growth; and deepening inequalities. Today in G5 Sahel you see conflict because of scarcity of water.

The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every State; and the human rights of every community are under threat.  But as in every disaster, those who have least are the most vulnerable to harm. Unless there is a significant shift in policies, climate change is likely to deepen inequalities.

Being a strategic optimist is not about cultivating illusions. It's about clarity. And although this reality is grim, and the window of opportunity for climate action is closing, there is still time to act.

More thoughtful approaches to our use of natural and renewable resources; policies protecting and empowering marginalised communities, including various social protection initiatives; and better strategies by businesses across their supply chains, can be adopted.

Human rights principles and law can promote policies that increase our resilience and ability to adapt to climate harms; policies, which enable us to benefit from the skills and ideas of every member of society. Effective climate action can also inform and strengthen international, regional and national policymaking, as will be seen next at COP25.

Like many of the other complex global challenges, such as inequalities and the movement of people, the best way to tackle climate change is by engaging the broadest possible participation in decision-making, and by delivering on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.

Indigenous peoples and women, although among those most deeply harmed, may be able to assist in developing the best climate policies. Despite being driven off their lands by environmental destruction and climate harms, it is the ancestral knowledge and leadership of indigenous peoples that have allowed many of humanity's forests, and other resources, to still exist. Traditional fire management; weather early warning systems; rainwater harvesting; traditional agriculture techniques; and coastal marine management are examples of their potential contributions.

Children are also important actors.  They must be protected from climate change impact, through a stronger focus on adaptation and by increasing the resilience of the services that children depend upon most - such as water, health, education, and nutrition. Resilience is one of the best tools we can provide in the face of a changing climate and to safeguard the opportunities of future generations.


Another issue that´s linked, as they are all interlinked. There are about 272 million international migrants around the world. Walls and barriers are built, based on the idea that shutting down channels for safe and regular movement, and deliberately making migrants’ voyages more dangerous, will deter them from leaving their homes. They are demonized, treated like criminals, arbitrarily detained in appalling conditions, and sometimes even separated from their children.

But when people face violence, persecution, deprivation and despair, barriers and walls won´t deter them from moving.

In the past decade, we've seen policymakers in country after country deliberately stirring up hostility against migrants, because the surge of outrage that they generate can yield big headlines and votes.  Once in power, some of these leaders have knowingly and openly constructed lethal barriers to the movement of migrants. 

But who are migrants? They're people just like you and me – or our parents and grandparents, our neighbors and fellow classmates.

Although no State is obliged to accept every person who arrives at its borders, all human beings are bound by the basic value of compassion, the recognition of our common humanity -- and surely, when faced with profound misery, all of us are bound at least to do no harm.

Women, men and children seeking safety and dignity are not criminals. Most are moving because they have no other choice. Denying these realities will bring security to no one. It can only create danger and death, and vastly increase the magnitude of the suffering of many individuals.

The Global Compact for Migration, adopted by an overwhelming majority of UN member states in 2018, reminds us that the human rights of all migrants must be “respected, protected and fulfilled at all times”.

It inspires us to greater international cooperation to address the global inequalities, environmental degradation, and other root causes, which compel people to leave their homes. It is about working together to reduce inequalities, protect the rights of all people on the move, and ensure greater freedom and opportunity.

Nationalism, Hatred and Discrimination

It is precisely at this moment of growing complexity and interconnectedness that some leaders are turning away from cooperative, global efforts to seek solutions. Nationalism, hatred, and discrimination are interlinked and can severely impact the future of our world.

Nationalism is on the rise in many countries, accompanied by outspoken racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, including attacks on women's rights, and the rights of LGBTI people. 

The rise of hate speech, racism and pushbacks against the rights of racial and religious minorities in some countries is a source of concern.  Around the world, we see some politicians and would-be opinion leaders who are only too eager to demonize some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people for political gain.

This constitutes a clear attack on the core of the human rights agenda, which is the equality of every human being. 
We are seeing a revival of anti-Semitic and Anti-Muslim attitudes and violence, in many countries. We are witnessing what seems to be a resurgence of openly voiced racism.

Hostility against women, LGBTI communities, racial or religious minorities, and migrants is whipped up in online spaces where hate and isolationism flourish – and negative attitudes have become part of the wider public discourse.

Regarding women’s rights, I acknowledge the tremendous progress, not only in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of even the youngest person in this room.

In almost every workplace and institution in this country, there are more and more women in leadership positions – and this is true of many countries in the world. Issues that were once considered “private”– such as domestic violence- or that were “normalized”, such as sexual violence in conflict, sexual harassment in the workplace – or seen as “trivial”- such as maternity and paternity leave – are taken far more seriously, as a matter of public policy.

More and more governments talk about women’s rights as human rights – and women's rights and gender equality are acknowledged as legitimate and indispensable goals.

Maternal mortality has been halved and the availability and use of contraceptives has sharply increased. Not enough, as there are still many women that have no access. Women live longer, we are healthier, we have more opportunities to develop skills, and broadly speaking, we have more choice.

Yet, there are still many issues to be addressed. Women continue to be poorer than men. They have fewer opportunities, less access to basic services such as education, and a lot less freedom to make their own choices and raise their voice.

Let's pause to recollect that women’s activism has driven enormous human rights progress for everyone -- in every kind of movement for human dignity and equality across the world.

And yet, this is once again becoming a very arduous challenge.

It is deeply troubling to see that instead of moving forward, some Governments, and many lobby groups, are pushing back on women’s rights.

The isolationism and divisiveness which we have seen gaining ground in a number of countries frequently begins with pushbacks against rights for women, and a return to laws and social attitudes we thought we’d left behind. 

In several States we’re seeing attempts to pass laws or enact policy changes aimed at controlling, or limiting, women’s freedom to make choices about their lives, including – but not limited to – sexual and reproductive health and rights

There seems to be a renewed obsession with controlling and limiting women’s decisions over their bodies and lives.

We have got to come together to end this injustice. We need to mobilise, we need to stand firm, and we need to advance.

The same goes for the recognition of the equality and rights of LGBTI people.  We have witnessed the progress in many countries in the past decade – but these advances, too, are increasingly suffering pushbacks. It is essential that we defend and protect LGBTI communities from violence and discrimination. There should be nothing “controversial” about stopping people being murdered, or executed by agents of the State, simply because of who they are or whom they love. LGBTI people are entitled to the same rights, and the same protection, as everyone else.

If women and LGBTI communities face discrimination, if racial or religious minorities face discrimination, if indigenous peoples face discrimination, then all of society is harmed, all people are held back, all our lives are impoverished.

As I pointed out earlier, public narratives about migration and asylum are also object of misinformation, as well as xenophobic and racist attitudes.

It seems to me that what is powering this new force of hostility, divisiveness and rejection of cooperative, global processes is the alienation and dissatisfaction with leadership that is also being expressed in today’s protest movements.

So again, this heightens the urgency of addressing the perception that the State and its institutions do not hear, and do not care, about people’s ordinary lives and their access to what should be their rights.

We will not solve our problems in isolation. To be sustainable and effective, solutions to complex global issues – like climate change, global inequalities, the mass movement of people, conflicts or epidemics – must be cooperative.

And they must uphold human rights.

The right to equal protection of the law. The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, to healthcare, food, shelter and social security. The right to be free from any form of discrimination. The right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The right to due process and fair trial. The right to be free from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention.

The force of these and other fundamental rights binds us together as human beings, regardless of our sex, race, belief, sexual orientation, nationality, migration status or any other factor. Respect for these core values and principles is a moral imperative. But it is also a very pragmatic and practical way -- perhaps the only way -- to generate truly sustainable development, in societies that are peaceful and strong because they are fair.

The world faces many hard challenges. Challenges too big for one country. Challenges that don’t comply with borders. Challenges as immense as climate change -- which threatens all of humanity, and all human rights. They are separate issues, but increasingly intertwined, forming tight knots that strangle our ability to seek effective and productive solutions.
I am convinced that human rights have an essential role to play in undoing those knots – creating new spaces for dialogue and shaping policies that right the wrongs that are being done.

We need to build broader, safer spaces for civic participation and strengthen civic engagement. And within those spaces, wherever it is possible, we need to come together and strive actively for better policies. We need to push for them.
We need to stop working in silos as human rights advocates: we need to find common cause with people working on the environment, climate change and sustainable development.

We need to build new partnerships – with businesses, with trade unions, with religious groups, with educators and others – to expand the constituency for human rights, ceaselessly searching for new approaches, new strategies, new partnerships, new ways of working.

It is not easy to forge agreement between diverse groups, but it is essential to shaping a better future – your future.

So above all, I call on you not give into hopelessness. To look within yourselves: recognise your values, your principles, and your hopes.  And act on them. Stand up for human rights. Get involved. We need you.

Thank you.