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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Informal Briefing to Members of the Human Rights Council, 4 September 2019

04 September 2019


Notes for the statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

I am very pleased to hold this informal briefing, just a few days before the beginning of the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council. 

It has been a year since my mandate began, and I'm evaluating the strategies we've been using to assist States in upholding human rights. Put simply, I am asking what works, why it works -- and equally, I want to know what is not working, and how to fix it.

Ours is not an easy task. We need to tackle both longstanding, entrenched human rights issues, and new ones – and many of these challenges are vast in magnitude and scope. This makes partnership an imperative. Cooperating involves compromises – which must be made by all sides – but it ensures we can advance.

I am convinced that progress on human rights is entirely within our grasp – even in today's difficult context. Let's reflect for a minute on recent decades in each of our countries.

In the past 50 years some countries have travelled from dictatorship to democracy – mine among them. Others 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 half the population: women. Some countries have brought millions of people out of poverty, and enabled their access to higher education, quality health-care – and greater human dignity.

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

As High Commissioner, I am committed to working with Member States to rebuild the consensus of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: no matter what type of government or economic system, and across every culture and tradition, all States have an obligation to respect economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.

This respect for human rights is a moral and humane imperative – and it is also a practical means to contribute to sustainable development, enduring peace, and sustainable environment for all of us. My speech on Monday will include a number of recommendations on the urgent issue of climate action.

I will be making some recommendations based on my view, which is confirmed by many experts, that any gains made in the context of the 2030 Agenda could be wiped out by a continued failure to urgently mitigate climate change and help the poorest –  who contributed the least to climate change – to adapt to its consequences, which threaten their most basic economic and social rights.

Partnership and Dialogue

I am strongly committed to partnership and dialogue with States, which have the primary responsibility for upholding human rights. It is States which need to protect the rights of their peoples.

Where shortcomings in human rights are the result of gaps in resources, capacities, and institutions, we need to offer help through technical cooperation, mediation, and other tools. But only if there is political will, and the support of key actors, can we advance positive momentum to advance human rights where they matter – on the ground.

One important entry point for engagement of States and other stakeholders. isThe UPR, which is half way through its third cycle, results in a large number of recommendations being accepted by Governments.

Another entry point is the important feedback I receive in the course of my missions, as well as key discussions with you, with world leaders, with victims of violations and with numerous civil society actors. I have received a great deal of feedback. I thank each of these interlocutors for taking the time to share their insights, and emphasise that I rely on and value their advice.

In some cases they have been critical, encouraging changes of perspective and approach.  I have given these comments a great deal of thought and taken action on that basis.

I remain committed to these processes of respectful dialogue and close partnership, and in several areas and in areas such as climate change, inequalities, and business and human rights, I can see evidence that they are beginning to bear fruit.. 

Our dialogue with every kind of actor may include respectful and constructive criticism. It can be private, but where quiet diplomacy is not effective, it may also include louder public advocacy. My Office works for the people of the world: we owe them information. And I believe our communications and advocacy are clear, obective and strong.

We report to the world on abuses – but we also produce detailed and do-able guidelines on ways to better advance human rights, sustainable development, and peace; and we highlight and honour positive actions. A clear example is the major guidance and training package we are developing on how to integrate human rights into the work of law enforcement authorities, and the capacity building which will ensue.

Treaty Body Review

As you know, next year the treaty body review will take place. International human rights treaties, and jurisprudence by treaty bodies, constitute the legal backbone of the entire human rights protection architecture. Any erosion of the treaty body system would undermine all that we do as human rights actors, from the UPR, to expert and fact-finding bodies, or building national laws and policies.

The upcoming review of the treaty body system is an opportunity to come together to streamline and harmonize procedures, and to strengthen the impact of the Committees' deliberations on the ground.

As you know, the General Assembly’s funding has not kept pace with the steady increase in the treaty bodies' work. The Committees' inquiries into grave or systematic rights violations are not adequately funded. And the ongoing new ratifications, with associated workload for my Office, are becoming unsustainable.

The backlog in dealing with individual complaints now means many petitioners must wait more than four years for a decision on individual complaints. Action to send recommendations to States with respect to the search for disappeared persons, pursuant to urgent actions of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, may now take months. This constitutes a credibility crisis for us – and for States – in terms of the effectiveness of this protection system.

So my Office is exploring interim solutions to alleviate some of these problems, including diverting extra-budgetary funds to address some of the most critical gaps. This comes at the cost of other OHCHR protection activities, and cannot solve the underyling, structural problems.

I welcome the vision of the Treaty body Chairs, and the fact that it echoes many of the important points made by the non-paper coordinated by Costa Rica, which has been endorsed by over 40 states. These include the need to tackle the resource gap; engage more in regions and with regional mechanisms; and better respect by States for their reporting obligations. Member States should not seek to deflect scrutiny by failing to submit their reports.

The treaty bodies’ main asset is their membership. Member States can help ensure that we improve gender balance and support the independence and expertise of Committee members, with transparent processes for the presentation of candidates.

Council issues

In that context, I'd like to commend the constructive work by several countries on a number of important resolutions by this Council. Increasing agreement on the SOGI mandate in the June session was an example of constructive collaboration to further the human rights of many millions of people.

Recently, the work of the Special Procedures has attracted attention. I hold the experts named by this Council in high esteem; their work is valuable to the cause of human rights. Their independent voice has been crucial on many occasions, and they have often been at the origin of important actions taken by the Council. Mandate-holders have acted with great efficiency and expertise, despite holding demanding – and unpaid – positions. They have visited a large range of countries, engaged with all concerned stakeholders, and contribute to human rights mainstreaming within and outside the UN.

Some of them have faced unacceptable attacks or threats in doing so.

Of course, as in all complex human activities, misunderstandings or even mistakes may arise, and these are usually overcome through dialogues and discussions with the mandate holders concerned, their Coordination Committee and also, in some cases, my Office. In a small number of cases, disagreements remain. Unfortunately this has led some States to criticize the system of Special Procedures as a whole.

We should not let a few exceptions overshadow the crucial achievements made by Special Procedures over their 50 years of existence. The overwhelming majority of mandate-holders are objective and responsible, acting in full compliance with the Institutional Building Package and according to established working methods.

The Coordinating Committee works with all stakeholders to constantly improve and consolidate the Special Procedures system. I trust in the Committee's good judgment. States should support this work. The Special Procedures were set up to equip the UN and the human rights system with independent and powerful voices able to bring human rights issues to the table – even difficult ones. We should all work together in defending this objective, and to ensure that the independent expert recommendations are fully implemented.


As we have discussed many times, multilateralism is being challenged by actors who seek their own short term benefits regardless of the harm inflicted on precious systems seeking ways to improve our world. The UN system is in some ways an easy target for blame. At the same time, the urgency of new challenges is intensifying ­– while older and more entrenched challenges keep broadening in scope.

As human rights actors, we need to help push back against attacks; move forward in dealing with both old and new challenges; and keep working to mainstream human rights within a system that is under pressure from the outside, and engaged in important reform processes within.

For example, the reform of UN development processes is an opportunity to mainstream human rights priorities throughout the work of the new generation of Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams.

Thematic concerns

On Monday, I will be formally updating the Council on a very wide range of our human rights concerns around the world. But I cannot cram every issue into one speech. So I'd also like to raise here a number of deep, cross-cutting concerns. And my first broad point must be the increasing threats to, and restrictions on, the freedoms of civil society.

Civil Society

In recent months, people in many countries have taken to the streets to ask for greater economic, social, civil and political rights. They want something fundamentally human: to have the right to participate in decisions about their lives and their future.

Experience demonstrates that the best way of addressing protests and dissent for a government is by engaging in genuine, free and inclusive dialogue.

The use of unnecessary and disproportionate force against people holding and expressing critical views  exacerbates tensions and makes a sustainable exit from crisis more difficult.

People have a right to come together peacefully to express their views, to demand action and engage in dialogue with the authorities to find solutions.

This drives better policies, and more responsive government, in societies which are more innovative, confident, resilient and secure. When that right is denied, there will be a build-up of legitimate grievances, and increasing repression, which lays the ground for growing risks of explosive tension and rage.

Increasing numbers of States are adopting laws which sharply restrict the rights of their peoples to come together and act for their rights. They include restrictions on funding, and very restrictive requirements for registration of civil society organisations. Activists are also suffering disinformation and smearing as traitors to their nation; and misuse of the justice system to repeatedly raid CSOs and prosecute activists as criminals, merely for expressing political views or coming together in demonstrations. We are also seeing attacks by non-State actors, including killings, which are not being adequately investigated and prosecuted.

Digital technology is now basic to all kinds of social, political, economic and cultural interactions. But public and private surveillance is also growing – from CCTV in the streets, to systems which collect and analyse people's activity on social media. Among other forms of repression, civil society organisations have also been targeted for malware attacks, and debilitating digital harassment, which may involve State actors. Heavy censorship of the Internet and social media, or cutting access altogether, is increasingly used to stifle social organization and community dialogue.

Our work to document SDG indicator 16.10 indicates that from 1 January to end October 2018, at least 397 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists were killed, in 41 countries. This does not include cases of kidnapping, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention or torture. Every week saw at least 8 people murdered because they were trying to build more inclusive and equal societies – a disturbing increase from the average of one victim per day recorded from 2015 to 2017.

Half of these victims had been working with communities on issues involving land, the environment, poverty, the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, and the impact of business activities.

This is one essential factor in our newly strengthened partnership with the UN Environment Programme. And in a context of very limited resources, our Office is also stepping up our work to ensure more protection of human rights for everyone in the digital sphere. But the primary actor responsible for protecting – and promoting – the rights of civil society and human rights defenders is the State. That is where accountability ultimately lies. It is not only a matter of principle, but also very basic to each State's own rational and national interest that the civic space be broad and free.

2030 Agenda

Freedom from fear and freedom from want cannot be achieved in isolation from each other, as the 2030 Agenda clearly attests. Advancing the right to development means progressing on civil and political rights as well as crucial economic, social and cultural rights.

For the first time in human history, thanks to advances in health, economies and many other fields, we now have the capacity to end extreme poverty and advance universal social protection, and universal health coverage. The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive.

I view the 2030 Agenda as a once in a lifetime opportunity to advance the principles promised by the Declaration on the right to development, and all human rights. The work being done by States and all other partners to achieve each of the SDGs can, and should, become much stronger, smarter and more far-reaching.

We need integrated approaches, grounded in broad participation, which build on the mutually reinforcing work of many communities. Equal participation and accountability are key so that women, minorities and marginalized populations share the benefits of sustainable development.

I look to your commitments at the high-level meetings in coming weeks at the General Assembly, to translate the promises – made by States to their people – into urgent action, as the Secretary-General has asked: that States come, not with speeches, but with action.

International Humanitarian Law

A third general issue I must raise with you here concerns the rights of ordinary people in conflict. The Geneva Conventions are an expression of principles which should be at the core of every human society. As Peter Maurer, the President of the ICRC has said, they are – "Do not target civilians
Do not rape, torture or execute 
Do not target hospitals or schools
Do not use illegal weapons
Do not threaten, kidnap or kill those who help.”

These are principles which resound with all of us, I think, as instinctively right and just.

But unfortunately, what we see in conflicts today is that they are being deliberately violated by an increasing number of States, as well as by numerous non-State actors.

There is no possible justification for actions such as repeated "double-tap" airstrikes on hospitals, and minutes later, on rescue teams and first responders. When attacks are made against precisely those key services whose location has been flagged to parties to a conflict in order to ensure that they will be protected, the very basis of international humanitarian law is under attack.

The toll of armed conflict on civilians is rising. The SDG indicator on conflict-related deaths that my Office is currently developing seeks to ensure that we have clear and authoritative global data regarding this trend.

This Council is responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. We must harness the greatest possible energy to ensure accountability for these severe and profound violations of human rights.

The Office is working closely with the Department of Peace Operations to ensure that the UN's own peace operations scrupulously adhere to human rights, international humanitarian law and the UN’s zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse.
We are also helping States to strengthen their domestic systems to screen troops awaiting deployment in UN missions, in order to exclude those who face credible allegations of human rights violations.

We provide experts on human rights and international humanitarian law to support UN peacekeeper trainings in major troop- and police-contributing countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, China or Uruguay. Just two weeks ago, we worked with the armed forces of Rwanda and the United States on a panel that allowed female military officers to brief commanders from 26 nations about the operational value of having more women serve in peacekeeping forces.

In closing, Mr President, I want to emphasise these few points:

  • The human rights agenda is our prevention agenda. The work we do, collectively and nationally, has the power to help prevent crises and suffering.
  • The most effective way to build the people's trust in government is by listening – and then delivering.
  • Constructive partnership is working – and I see many opportunities around us to reassert the relevance and effectiveness of human rights solutions.
  • In the face of threats to peace and to development, we need to stand together, and assist each other to advance the human rights protection which can sustain human dignity and freedom.   
  • My Office will always speak out for the voiceless: for women, for migrants, for marginalised and abused communities, but also, of course, for ordinary people across the world.

Thank you Mr President.