Countdown to Human Rights Day
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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
28 September 2023
Hello, Copenhagen! I’m very glad to be able to connect with the activists and movement leaders who are present at this conference.
You and your colleagues in social movements are leading the struggle for climate justice. For a safe, free digital environment. For inclusive and sustainable peace. The struggle to free people from all forms of discrimination. To ensure that people everywhere can meaningfully participate in decisions that affect their lives. The struggle, also, for an equitable, inclusive, human-rights based economy.
Your activism and defence of human rights is vital. It takes principles, and it takes courage. I know, as you do, how hard it can be to challenge established norms and demand radical changes in society -- especially in the face of many crises and deepening tensions, like we see today.
For me, it is helpful to remember that others have preceded us.
At a time of massive horror and destruction -- after two World Wars, the holocaust, the first use of the atomic bomb and the greatest economic recession the world has ever known -- States met to devise a text that would guide them away from further disaster.
They came up with a map.
They outlined the path away from war, discrimination and injustice; the path towards the reconciliation of disputes. They set out the steps that would build more fair, more equal, and therefore more resilient societies. They laid out civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights.
The right to live free from any form of discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture. The rights to education, and to adequate food; healthcare; water and sanitation; social protections; and housing. Freedom of expression, opinion, and the right to privacy. Freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of religion or belief.
That was 75 years ago. Since then, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has guided tremendous progress in countries across the world.
Structures that maintained severe racial and gender discrimination were dismantled. Massive advances were made in education and health. The need for governments and institutions that listen to, inform and fully and meaningfully include people in decision-making also became clearer.
Many countries took back their independence. And many people took back their rights. Women freed themselves from patriarchy.
The Universal Declaration unlocked a great wave of activism and solidarity. It inspired millions of people to demand transformative change, to free people from discrimination, repression and exploitation and advance our equal and inherent dignity and rights.
It is that push for transformation that is at the core of activism like yours. You seek to enable people to take ownership of their futures. And like the movement to end apartheid, feminism, the labour movement, and many other historic human rights movements, you devise new, creative forms of protest and communication to advance your goals.
You also meet with push-backs. I am deeply worried by the escalating repression of civil society movements in many countries. More and more, we’re seeing surveillance and restriction of their activities; unnecessary or disproportionate police violence in the context of demonstrations; the criminalization of protest and arbitrary detention. The space for sharing and debating information is closing down in some regions.
Instead of silencing or restricting movements, it is time to reflect on what has inspired and led to their activism. We need to listen to what people want and strategize how we can effect the changes that people demand.
Social movements are key forces for positive change. They need support. In this 75th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I’m asking all States and international organisations to lend their support to the social movements that advance respect for human rights.
We need concrete steps now so that social movements can drive the changes that our societies so urgently need.
My thanks to you, leaders and members of social movements, for your work to bring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to life.
What are some of the priorities in terms of supporting movements better?
What can the UN do differently from your point of view?
The UN, with its convening power, definitely has a role to play in this. With UN Human Rights in the lead, we have taken steps to enhance attention to civic space and do more to preserve it (see the Call to Action for Human Rights, OCA). The UN also has issued a Guidance Note on Civic Space built around 3 Ps (enabling more systematic civil society participation; promoting more open and vibrant civic space; and better protecting civil society actors), which informs the approaches.
But more needs to be done to build broader civic space coalitions who can strategize and advocate together with a view to overcoming divisions within civil society and to strengthening the protection of critical voices, including those active in social movements. We are also looking at how to strengthen our support to protection networks and – relatedly – social movements.
In those countries where I have teams, please view them as partners in these endeavours – we will do our best to provide concrete, even if modest support, to helping the society make the needed human rights changes.