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Turning international norms into local reality: the 2021 implementation agenda for the Human Rights Council

Distinguished President,

It is a pleasure to be among you, and I am once again grateful to Norway and Switzerland for their assistance in organising this informal gathering.

After ten years, I think we can state with certainty that the Council has improved the lives of large numbers of people by promoting their human rights. It has set up investigations of unique depth and expertise, raised alarms on a number of critical situations all the way up to the highest level of relevant international agendas, and deployed mechanisms for prevention.  It has worked to end severe and chronic human rights abuses of many kinds, and it has promoted accountability and justice, for more effective and sustainable reconciliation.

The Council has also amplified and supported the voices of activists and human rights defenders across the world. And both within the UN system and on the level of regions and States, it has helped to promote the now widespread acknowledgment of the core importance of human rights to all work relating to development and security.

This is a strong track record. Can it do better? The answer is obvious.

Massive and entirely avoidable suffering is all around us –  caused by conflict, inequality, discrimination, the backlash against women’s human rights, torture, enslavement, the corruption and distortion of rule of law institutions, terrorism, nationalism, xenophobia, environmental destruction. The list of urgent violations of human rights, which should have no place in our century, is intolerably long.

More and more leaders are freely violating some of the most profound principles ever to be commonly agreed by States. This  collapse of a vital force for sanity and stability in the world is occurring at every level – from the use of veto power in the Security Council in the face of atrocity crimes; to the misuse of national security laws to attack human rights defenders and civil society activists; blatant denial of the human rights of migrants; and many other deliberate refusals to deploy policies that respect and promote human dignity, fundamental freedoms, and equality.

I recently returned from the USA and Austria. In the US, I was deeply troubled by the rhetoric of two of the  Presidential candidates on issues related to the rights of migrants and vulnerable groups. I was also alarmed to learn that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified, according to polling data. In this volatile national mood, if there are further acts of violent extremism, then, subject to the results of the elections, we may find that torture and rendition are back on the policy agenda.  In Austria, the leading Presidential candidate also focuses intense hostility towards migrants and has pointedly made known that he carries a Glock pistol – arguing that with increasing migration, “people need to protect themselves”.  

The power of the demagogue stems precisely from his capacity to demarcate a scapegoat to take the blame for the public’s difficulties and fears. As the Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering put it, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Today, in these and other countries, we are hearing rising calls to hatred – calls that stigmatise and demonise vulnerable minorities, and begin the validation of violence.
Elsewhere, although political leaders might be using the human rights vocabulary with great flourish, we may justifiably suspect that these enthusiastic speeches are part smokescreen, part lip-service. 

Our topic today is our vision for an implementation agenda for 2021. I sincerely hope that in 2021 we will not meet, in horror, to ask each other, “Why did we not see the signs; how could we have ignored the warning signals; why did we not take action in 2016, when we could still, so easily, do so”.

So our first job today is to discuss implementation: to devise ways which can ensure that the body of analysis and recommendations made up of the Council’s resolutions and the work of the UPR, Special Procedures mandate-holders, Commissions of Inquiry, other ad hoc or sui generis Council procedures and Treaty Bodies are applied. Not acknowledged, or shuffled to the side of the desk with a knowing smile  – applied, creating real change in people's lives.

I'll begin with efforts that must be made throughout the UN system. All UN entities need to pull together in support of States as they seek to implement human rights recommendations.

This mainstreaming is the thrust of the SG’s landmark Policy Committee decision of August 2014. Following up that decision will require increased human rights field presences -- to promote human rights approaches throughout every UN country team, and to make sure that every Resident Coordinator understands why human rights concerns, and long-term investments in rule of law institutions, the eradication of discrimination, and the rights of the marginalised and deprived, must be prioritised over apparently conflicting short-term political or economic factors.

That increased field presence is the main objective of my change initiative, as you know. We want to take the staff of my Office out of Geneva and into the field, with an equitable geographical spread that can promote human rights in every region. The vital importance of that goal is the reason why -- despite a temporary setback in the Fifth Committee last year – I will continue to work towards implementation. The full support of Member States will be crucial.

On the national level, States are increasingly interested in moving from ad hoc reporting arrangements to more standing structures which also follow up implementation of recommendations from all human rights mechanisms. My Office will shortly publish a Practical Guide with advice to States on the key ingredients for an efficient national mechanism for reporting and follow-up.

As you know, much of our technical cooperation to States is closely linked to implementation of recommendations, and here, again, your support for greater field presences by my own staff, to assist more effective implementation, would be a key measure. We are already assisting a number of States to maximise their engagement with human rights mechanisms; to improve coordination between Ministries, National Statistics Offices, Parliament and the judiciary; to boost consultation with NHRIs and civil society, and to better track implementation of recommendations.  This work has included developing a prototype national database, so that States can download all recommendations from the Universal Human Rights Index and record implementation in real time, thus facilitating reporting. 

I would also suggest that as we enter the 3rd cycle, UPR recommendations will need to become more specific and more focused, with better assessment of real progress towards implementation and more support for national follow-up. If this is not achieved, there is a risk that the UPR will become obsolete or overly ritualized by the end of the coming cycle. I urge you to consider ways to ensure that States’ reporting focuses more clearly on implementation and impact on the ground.

Civil society has an important role to play in this shift of focus. Civil society engagement with state institutions which are responsible for implementation can support and give greater thrust to their actions. Grassroots activists and defenders also have a key role in making States accountable at the national level for their UPR commitments. And their assessments of implementation can provide crucial input for the UPR reviews.

More broadly, I believe that the Council as a whole – and not only the UPR – could benefit from a stronger role for civil society. Activists and human rights defenders of all kinds are key partners in our work to fulfill our mandates, and NGO organization of side-events and participation in general debates or interactive dialogues are of core importance to the efficient functioning, impact, relevance and credibility of the Council. It is absolutely essential that victims, defenders, activists and other civil society groups be empowered to cooperate with and contribute to the Council’s work without obstruction and fear of reprisals. Both to protect the individuals who have been threatened, and to prevent any further attempts at intimidation or attack, we should be strengthening the Council's responses to all such allegations, ensuring that they are, without exception, effectively pursued and addressed.

I have sketched out a few ideas for more effective implementation of the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms;  I want also to make a few points regarding our second job today, which is to devise ways to improve our work on early warning and prevention.

The Council's record is clear. No-one can ever be sure what would have occurred in any one crisis if the Council had not mandated investigations, issued resolutions, called for Special Sessions and worked to pressure key actors to back away from escalating violence. However, I believe we need look no further than the current events in Burundi to see a crisis where the Council's continued, high-level advocacy and pressure has slowed the escalation of events and contributed to saving lives.  I trust that the Council will be able to act with similar resolve in future crises, wherever they are – even, perhaps, in Europe.

We have seen a number of innovative approaches in the past year or two, including new uses for item 2, new types of Commissions of Inquiry using existing (thematic) Special Procedures mandates, and my own participation in informal inter-sessional briefings. In the past session, a new type of mechanism was mandated – the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan – and, on DPRK, a resolution to designate two existing independent experts to support the work of the Special Rapporteur on accountability, thus moving forward from reporting on gross violations to actually recommending legal channels of redress and justice. 

One tool that has frequently been discussed but never used is the proposal for missions by the President and his Bureau to areas where a fast-moving human rights emergency appears to be developing, in order to meet the authorities and concerned stakeholders and report back to the Council at the next opportunity. This may be an idea we could examine in greater depth.

Finally, all of us are aware of the logjam of work that arises at every Council session.

Cramming ten very wide-ranging panels into each session, in addition to country concerns, means delegates have barely time to properly consider the insights and analysis that have been presented, let alone weigh the necessary action and recommendations that must be made.  As many of you are aware, preparing panel discussions and reports also creates a heavy burden for my Office, and their rapidly increasing number does not necessarily lead to greater impact.

Possible solutions could include inter-sessional, targeted meetings, fewer and more focused panels, or even parallel chambers. The Council should come up with its own approaches to de-clutter its agenda, but it is clear that it is suffocating itself with too much information and too little considered action.

Regarding Special Procedures, you may wish to discuss action to strengthen the system as a whole and its Coordinating Committee. In the past two years this body has greatly contributed to ensuring a coordinated and consolidated approach to the work of mandate holders, avoiding duplication and ensuring consist methods of work. I do want to emphasise the extraordinarily positive impact of the work of many mandate holders, and my gratitude for their contributions. 

I have spoken for too long; and our goal here is not eloquence but action. The Human Rights Council matters. It has done strong work for the common good, and that impact can be stronger still.  The world is shifting on a risky and unstable axis: the Council’s voice is needed. I look forward to your contributions and ideas.