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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
20 July 2023
Distinguished Chairpersons and Members of the European Parliament,
It is an honour to be back in Brussels, and to have this exchange of views with you about the range of human rights issues that your work addresses.
Walking into the Espace Léopold, with its transparency and symbolic representation of union and accountability, it occurs to me that just one human lifetime ago, none of this existed. This building, these institutions, but also my Office, the United Nations – and the dialogue, the sense of common values which actually underpin every single thing we do.
Both of our institutions were built as acts of courage and defiance, in the face of war upon war upon war; atrocity crimes the horror of genocide; generations of exploitation and pain.
The United Nations, and the European Union, were built as acts of hope and a commitment to profound and enduring principle. These acts manifested the values that seventy-five years ago our forebears set out, to mark a new path that would lead to peace, justice and shared prosperity for all human beings.
In 1948, when States drafted and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they had no time for idle idealism. They forged these commitments as practical tools for the problems that the world faced coming out of the Second World War.
And we know that those tools have worked.
Over the past 75 years, the world – and Europe – have made great strides away from colonial exploitation, discrimination of every kind, and many other types of injustices. Nobody could claim that this progress has been perfect – nobody is perfect – but it seems clear that much of it has been guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most translated, and perhaps among the most influential documents in history – and the subsequent treaties and laws that have been adopted.
Today, as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are also approaching a kind of crossroads. We see a conjunction of multiple crises forces us to make choices of immense significance. Our choices to act, or not to act, with careful determination and in line with these deep-seated and shared values, will alter many aspects of politics, economy and society across Europe and the world.
We have seen how Europe continues to lead the development of careful regulation of digital technologies, but we know how their intense acceleration – especially of generative AI – fuels echo chambers and extremist movements, and challenges privacy, truth, equality, free speech, and democratic institutions.
Russia's war on Ukraine continues to threaten the world's peace architecture. It tugs multilateral and regional institutions back to blocs and to hostile standoffs, just at the time when we need to forge consensus solutions for problems that are too big for any country or for any region to face alone.
Climate change is out of control. The world's triple planetary crisis is threatening all of humanity, with human rights implications in each aspect of that. Despite a great deal of work being done in the EU – and I do want to acknowledge that considerable effort – still, a lot more work needs to be done to stop subsidising fossil fuel industries before they turn all human beings into fossils.
Unfortunately we also are seeing more conflicts breaking out – with climate change and environmental degradation a growing factor, as people compete for scarce resources. The sudden outbreak of conflict in Sudan demonstrates how fragile peace is and how quickly hard-won gains can be lost. Next week I will be going to Chad, where well over 100,000 more refugees have fled, especially from Darfur – and which also suffers from massive climate change impacts and violent extremism.
Progress towards the Sustainable Development Agenda has been derailed, with sharp economic inequalities of every kind. Extreme hunger is a particular concern. The World Food Programme estimates that more than 345 million people will face high levels of food insecurity this year – more than double the number in 2020. Again, conflict – including the war in Ukraine – and climate change are among the major factors driving global hunger.
The movement of migrants and refugees is clearly related to this dismal state of affairs. It has to be said that most displacement occurs within countries, and in the poorest regions of the world. I very much welcome the fact that EU countries have received over 4 million Ukrainian refugees. But I have also watched with great concern how polarised and fraught the broader discussion around migration and refugee protection has become in Europe. It deepens, unfortunately, political divisions in countries and fuels populist hostility, rather than what I think is needed: rational and evidence-based debate that tries to find really solutions.
Factually, for example, the former so-called 'Australia model' of deterring arrivals and transferring people, who are seeking safety, to third countries has raised serious human rights concerns; it has also engaged great cost to tax-payers; and it has not been viable. At the same time, robust immigration is actually vital for countries where birth-rates are declining.
We have also seen that numerous countries, including some in the EU, are backsliding on other fundamental human rights commitments. I'm thinking especially of commitments to support the widest possible civic space, including the right to peaceful assembly; commitments to support the independence of an impartial judiciary; and to commitments to uphold equality and non-discrimination. And we have seen a backlash against women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and against the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, as we really need to make sure there is much stronger work to uphold the equality of people of African descent and migrants.
This is the most complex geopolitical and geo-economic backdrop in decades.
But we know that human rights is the compass that can help us to navigate safely through such times.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was laid out at a time of immense challenges, and it distils the practical steps which ensure that people of different origins and opinions can walk away from crisis, and live together peacefully, fairly, and well.
These steps to uphold human rights add up to make the difference between conflict and peace; between destruction and prosperity; between tyranny and social harmony. They advance justice, participation, conflict resolution and power-sharing and nourish a resilient social contract that prevents the outbreak of violent conflict and uncontrolled spread of extremism.
Human rights begin at home. They are not an annex to foreign policy; to geopolitics; or any kind of annex at all. They must be at the core of legislation, at the national and the EU level.
We have launched this concept of the human rights economy because we need to place human rights at the core of the economy, including through economic and fiscal policy, and the regulation of businesses, including – as you are demonstrating – human rights safeguards in global supply chains.
We need human rights to be at the core of all decisions and behaviour made by every public servant, in every country.
As Members of key Committees of the world's largest democratically elected parliament, you are human rights actors. No doubt about this. In this anniversary year, I encourage you to make one or several pledges to take action that can catalyse positive change, and transformative change, in human rights. These pledges can be presented at the Human Rights 75 High level event we are convening in Geneva on 11 and 12 December.
Human rights must not become the collateral damage of politics.
Thank you for contributing to this work of my Office and for helping to sustain a world, that is peaceful, prosperous and fair.