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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

People power

28 September 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights



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?


  • All relevant players – first and foremost of course states – have to step up to better protect movements. This is why the discussions you will be having during this conference are so important – because we need to take protection efforts to the next level. What can we from UN Human Rights bring to the table? 3 thoughts:
  • Recognizing the criticality of empowering communities to “own” the decisions that will shape their futures, the UDHR, 75 years ago, enshrined a human right to participate. A good way of bringing that spirit to life is investing in more meaningful and inclusive participation and debate spaces at all levels and around a wide range of issues. And having readily available channels to point to injustice and discrimination would allow movements to focus on advocacy and finding solutions rather than on removing obstacles to their work. Needless to say that this is even more urgent in relation to the three focus areas of this conference: environment; peace&security; digital.
  • It is time to reflect on what is behind the movements, listen to what people want. For now, often there is too much focus on the how – processes and procedures of association and assembly often get more attention than the what, the asks. A human rights lens can help zoom in on the underlying issues – and using human rights as universally accepted guardrails can be a first step towards more constructive engagement around resolving those issues and joint strategies to effect change.


  • UN member states, in their Declaration on Human Rights Defenders from 1998 held that everyone “who, individually or in association with others, promotes and strives for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” is a Human Rights Defender. On that basis a protections landscape has developed, with elements at national and international levels. And although, under this definition most leaders and members of social movements are human rights defenders, these protections – unfortunately far from perfect – have not been systematically extended to them. I invite you to reflect how we can make sure that we address this gap more meaningfully.


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.