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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

At General Assembly, Türk urges support for human rights and international law

10 October 2023

Teams from the UN Human Rights Office in Groza, Ukraine, this week, where a missile strike killed at least 52 civilians.© Yevhen Nosenko HRMMU

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Third Committee of the UN General Assembly

Mr Chair,



This is my first opportunity to meet with you in the context of my mandate as the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I have of course previously benefited from helpful discussions with many of you, and I address this Committee today in that spirit of collaborative problem-solving, to maximise the impact of our human rights work.

I am deeply shocked by the horrific attacks launched by Palestinian armed groups on Saturday and the ensuing full-blown conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Civilians on both sides bear an intolerable brunt. I urgently appeal to all parties to pull back from total warfare and the vicious cycles of vengeance, which decades of experience have taught us will have disastrous and possibly irreparable long-term effects on peace and security for everyone ­– in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, across the region and beyond.

International humanitarian law, and international human rights law, have been developed precisely to diminish the horror and massively damaging impact of crises such as this, and I urge all parties to adopt their guidance.

The path to peace, for all of us, is one of justice and respect for human rights.

Mr Chair,

My report, A/78/36, makes completely clear both the immense scope of my mission, and its transversal nature.

Human rights are the connecting thread that runs through every area of the UN’s work. They cut through silos and across every sector, mirroring the full spectrum of national governance – clarifying priorities and helping to advance social and economic stability, inclusion, trust and justice. It is also the most transversal prevention tool that we have.

Human rights measures are the only way to make development inclusive, participatory – and therefore sustainable. The only way to shape laws that are just, and which will be trusted to resolve disputes. They are the only way to ensure that societies are equitable, and that they benefit fully from the contributions of every individual, without discrimination or repression.

They are also the only way to ensure accountability, promote reconciliation and a path away from conflict. The only way to forge enduring peace.

Every Member State has an interest in promoting a strong core of human rights at the centre of policy and governance – not least in light of the current turbulences the world is facing.

One quarter of humanity lives in places affected by conflict – places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Sudan, Ukraine, and now again, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, the number of civilians killed in war operations worldwide rose by over 50% – the first increase since my Office began compiling this data, in 2015.

Racism and gender-based discrimination – notably against women and girls – are also rising, with concerted pushbacks against the important progress made in recent decades. Deliberate provocations, such as recent incidents of burning the Quran, aim to drive wedges between countries and communities. Social media platforms, when unchecked, have also become delivery systems for vicious hate speech against women and girls, people of African descent, LGBTIQ+ people and many other minority groups. I am particularly worried about the rise in Antisemitism and Islamophobia, in light of recent developments. 

Abject poverty and skyrocketing inequalities constitute tragic failures of the world’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda and human rights. Harsh restrictions of the civic space undercut institutions of justice, media freedoms, and the space for fundamental freedoms. Ungoverned digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, autonomous weaponry and surveillance techniques, profoundly threaten human rights.

All these trends compound the accelerating menace of the triple planetary crisis – in fact, the defining human rights threat of our generation.

What can be done to repair this sobering landscape of ills?

At a time when we so urgently need to come together to confront existential challenges, the human rights cause has the potential to unify us.

In a world of rising storms, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a lighthouse of stability and clarity that guides us to the way forward. Its essential values, which connect all of humanity, were set out to ward off horror and destruction, and they have been tried and tested. They embody the power of unity of purpose and the potential for transformative action – both within societies, and in terms of an international order that promotes equitable development.

It is absolutely critical that we rekindle the spirit, impulse and vitality that led to its adoption, so that we can rebuild trust in each other, and move forward as nations, and peoples, united.

The human rights agenda is universal, and it provides solutions. It is a practical, concrete set of steps that yield results.

I hope we can advance, together, a unifying and solutions-oriented approach to human rights that speaks to the needs of every human being, in every State, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.

Mr Chair,

Human rights violations are crisis multipliers. Grievances linked to discrimination, exploitation, repression and injustice of all kinds make violent crisis far more likely. And assisting States and our partners to prevent crisis, by curbing and eliminating human rights violations and abuses, is the major task of my Office.

Prior to my current mandate, I gave 30 years of work to situations of failed prevention. Situations where conflict erupted, with dramatic impact on civilians; or where long years of discrimination metastasized into ethnic cleansing; or where deprivation had become so overwhelming that people were massively compelled to flee.

It is far better to address such issues before they explode into disaster. Better for the people who suffer; for the State, which risks destabilising crisis. Better, too, for those who must assist, effect – and finance – corrective work under emergency conditions, when it is likely to be insufficient: a fact that builds forward new grievances for the future.

We need to advance policies and structural reforms against the backdrop of the indivisible and interdependent spectrum of human rights, which must be treated, at last, on a fair and equal footing. We need to effect steps such as those that are outlined in the report before you – but writ larger.

Some have argued that discussion of the human rights situation in their country constitutes interference into their sovereignty. But even a passing knowledge of displacement, and other impacts of human rights crises, shows clearly that it is not so. We are interconnected, and the Charter recognises this. Human rights violations have clear impact across borders, and they are a legitimate matter of international concern.

Our work to monitor and address human rights violations is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of peaceful, secure societies. Let me give you two examples.

In Afghanistan, the dismantling of national human rights bodies, and pervasive violations – including unprecedented discrimination against women – make it crucial to sustain support for the UN's human rights presence. UNAMA human rights colleagues provide the country's only independent monitoring and engage with officials and individuals across the country. While we do not have access to all places of detention, UNAMA has been granted formal access to prisons in numerous provinces, and colleagues are seeking to expand this further. In this very challenging context, the incremental work of advocating greater respect for rights, step by step, is a precondition for Afghanistan and all its people being able to envisage a sound and stable future in the international community.

In Colombia, human rights work has been essential in the peace process. Our country office has served as a key bridge between all actors, and as an advocate for transitional justice and the rights of victims, Indigenous Peoples and civil society – especially women and girls.

Mr. Chair,

I am also determined to strengthen the efforts of my Office to foster economies that are grounded in human rights. We need to contribute better guidance and expertise to assist Member States in this area. Guardrails need to preserve core human rights and environmental policies from austerity cuts. More investment needs to be directed to dismantling barriers to equality and sustainability. We also need to share knowledge about what works to eradicate corruption, illicit financial flows and tax evasion, which reduce the fiscal space for measures that could advance human rights.

I view the human rights economy framework as an essential effort to uphold all human rights, across societies – with immense benefit to both people and States. Notably, by enabling meaningful civic participation in decision-making – particularly for women, and others who have long been sidelined – the human rights economy can address root causes of inequalities and grievances; ensure greater trust in government, and target policies more effectively to areas of need. This is a field to which my Office brings an added value, given its role as the bridge between civil society, United Nations operations, and national officials. In the face of today's deeply worrying crackdowns on fundamental freedoms, it is crucial that we further boost our work to advance and protect so much needed civic space.

Globally, human rights guardrails are also sorely needed for international financial and development institutions, so that governments are not forced to undercut their investments in human rights in order to repay foreign debt. The Declaration on the Right to Development promises an international order that can better fulfil human rights: it is time to act on it. In support of the Secretary-General’s call for reform of the international financial architecture and his SDG Stimulus proposal – and in line with the Political Declaration adopted at the SDG Summit – we will strengthen our work with these institutions.

The most powerful lever for improving the effectiveness of all policies is the integration of all human rights into governance. This is the reasoning behind Sustainable Development Goal 16. I am convinced that failure to achieve progress on SDG16 is a key reason why the entire 2030 Agenda is flagging. Our recent report with UNDP and other partners shows little or no progress towards Goal 16 since 2015.

People talk about the "extinction economy"; this is evidence of extinction politics.

In a world that is changing at breakneck speed, failure to uphold human rights will not lead to stasis; it will lead to deepening hostility, grievance, suffering and violence ­– together with the loss of our capacity to work together to deliver solutions.

Mr Chair,

In 2023, we received just over five per cent of the UN regular budget. This is vastly inadequate to our task. And although our extrabudgetary funding has increased somewhat in recent years, it, too, remains insufficient. Moreover, in 2023 it appears likely that we will receive only 60 per cent of the extra-budgetary funding we have requested.

For the Office to deliver on our mandate, we need a level of core financing that guarantees the capacity to implement all mandated activities.

To ensure that the Office can deliver maximum impact, I have embarked on an organization-wide change programme, which aims to place us in a better position to serve our partners. I look to you for your support to effect transformational change that can deliver on our mandate.

The Treaty Bodies are the backbone of the international human rights system, at the core of all our work. Yet they are slowly suffocating. The process of strengthening them will reach a turning point in 2024, with the consideration by this Committee of a resolution that, we hope, will ensure needed reforms and resources.

In conclusion: human rights is essential to all UN work. As preparations for the Summit of the Future advance, it will be imperative to ensure that human rights are central to all discussions, and to the work of strengthening the human rights pillar of the Organisation, so that the Pact for the Future reflects strong commitments to human rights and its institutional underpinnings. My Office is convening a high-level event in Geneva in December, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The conclusions coming out of this event will look to the future of human rights, and will provide an important contribution to the Pact.

Thank you.