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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

At the University of Ottawa, Türk urges Governments to align policy and action with human rights principles

16 October 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


University of Ottawa

Provost Dr Jill Scott,  

Professor Packer, 

Dear friends, 

I'm delighted to be speaking at this remarkable university. I take this opportunity to honour the Anishinabe Algonquin Nation, who have lived on this territory since time immemorial, as well as all First Nations, and the Inuit and Métis peoples. My statement today is inspired by the resilience and courage that they continue to draw from ancestral wisdom.

Today, humanity faces towering challenges that are crashing headlong into each other, potentially creating globally disastrous outcomes.

One very clear example of this is taking place in the Middle East. The horrific violence of the attacks on Israeli civilians which were launched from Gaza nine days ago, and the taking of over 150 hostages, including children, has unleashed a powder keg. The Israeli response has so far included bombardment of targets in densely populated urban areas in Gaza and shutting off electricity, water, food and fuel supplies,  with already a devastating impact on civilians. Further escalation, and spillover into neighbouring countries, appears possible – and would be catastrophic.

Before I discuss any of the other issues that the world is facing, I want to give this situation a little more attention, because it is deeply worrying to me – and I imagine also to you.

Given the mass killings, hostage taking and other possible war crimes against civilians that were inflicted by Hamas on 7 October, it is clear that Israel has legitimate security concerns.  It is also cleat that the response must be in strict compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law.   

Millions of Palestinian civilians must not pay the price for the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas and other armed groups. It is clear that international law, including the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality, must be respected by all parties to this conflict.

This crisis did not come in a vacuum. Political leaders today need to break from vicious cycles of violence, torment and vengeance and replace it with a vision for peaceful coexistence. 

Ultimately, what is the real goal? It is for Israelis and Palestinians to become able to live together, in respect of each other's rights. Palestinians and Israelis are still each other’s only hope for enduring peace.

Elsewhere in the world, conflicts have also been rising. We now face the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945; last year, it was estimated that one quarter of humanity lives in places affected by conflict. And these wars and conflicts are pitiless, with shocking lack of respect for the most basic rights of civilians.

The global development agenda, which promised to end extreme poverty by the end of this decade, is faltering – in part due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, with its massive impact on food and fuel prices. 

Racism and discrimination – notably against women and girls – are again rising, with concerted pushbacks against the significant important progress made in recent decades. Deliberate provocations, such as recent and despicable incidents of burning the Quran, are intended to drive wedges between countries and communities. 

Digital platforms are becoming delivery systems for vicious hate speech against women and girls; people of African descent; Jews; Muslims; LGBTIQ+ people; refugees and migrants; and many people from minority groups. Ungoverned digital advances in artificial intelligence, autonomous weaponry and surveillance techniques look set to profoundly threaten human rights.

Moreover, in more and more countries, harsh restrictions of the civic space undercut impartial justice; independent media; and the space for everyone’s fundamental freedoms. The pandemic has also profoundly affected all societies – scarring our economies, our institutions and our relationships.

And all these trends compound and fuel the accelerating, comprehensive menace of the triple planetary crisis, which is the defining human rights threat of our generation. Two years ago, the obliteration by fire of the Canadian town of Lytton warned the world of the dystopian future that awaited us, if we could not shift rapidly into decisive action. Now, after a summer of punishing heat and extreme weather patterns, it can fairly be said that the dystopian future is to some extend already here. 

Conflict. Poverty. Divisive hatred. The weaponisation of scientific and technical progress. The suffocation of civic freedoms. And punishing, pervasive climate change. These are all unnatural disasters. They are man-made, predictable, and unbelievably dangerous. 

Faced with these realities, I think that all of us feel a degree of unease, perhaps event panic, faced with the sense of a sharply narrowing horizon. But this is true above all of young people. These powerful trends will surely impact all of your careers, and the trajectory of your lives, as well as those of generations to come. 

I am here today to assure you that they can still be managed and resolvedif all peoples and all States, including Canada, can share the work of building the path to solutions.

But what would those solutions look like? 

Let me begin with a story. A story about the wisdom of our ancestors – at a time whose darkness and uncertainty resonates, I think, with our own.

Seventy-five years ago, World War Two had just ended. Two World Wars had just been fought in a space of just 20 years and at the cost of millions of lives, and many devastated countries. Horrific genocide had used the most abominable system of death to murder millions of people. The atomic bomb brought death of a new kind and scale into the world. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes and take root in completely unfamiliar, challenging places.

And from every region of the world, countries came together to establish the United Nations and create a declaration that would end the churning cycles of horror and destruction and poverty which they had endured.

They came up with a map. A text that showed, for themselves and for future generations, the path away from war. The path towards the reconciliation of disputes. They planned, and mapped, the steps that would build societies that would be more fair, more equal, and therefore more resilient.

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; and to fair trial and to equal protection of the law. The rights to education and to adequate food; healthcare; housing; clean water; sanitation; social protections, and to fair and just conditions of work. Freedom of expression, opinion, and the right to privacy. Freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and to participate, freely and meaningfully, in public affairs. Freedom of religion or belief.

These and other rights, inherent in every one of us – you, no less than me – were laid out in a text that has become a landmark on the path to greater human dignity.

Over the past 75 years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has guided tremendous progress in countries across the world.

Many 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 more clear.

Many countries took back their independence.

And people took back their rights. Perhaps most important of all, the Universal Declaration inspired vibrant, creative, powerful activism and solidarity, empowering people to claim their rights and to engage actively in their communities and societies.

Those groups drove further impetus to eradicate additional forms of discrimination, including against LGBTI+ people. They pushed for recognition of the right to development and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; and for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and specific, binding treaties and laws to advance and protect human rights.

I am convinced that the human rights ideal has been one of the most constructive movement of ideas in human history – and that overall, it has also been one of the most successful.

How could such a simple text guide such profound transformation?

Because "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” Greater respect for human rights – all human rights, building on each other ­– constructs more sustainable development and peace. This is an extraordinarily powerful truth.

Societies that are grounded in human rights are better equipped to withstand shocks – whether those shocks stem from natural disasters, conflicts, a pandemic or global recession.

They offer their people – regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic – a better life. A life that is more free from misery and fear.

Economies and societies that are inclusive and participative; in which opportunities, resources and services are equitably shared; and where governance is accountable, deliver justice, opportunities and hope.

Free and independent media, and the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, contribute to better, more informed decisions. These rights are also essential to ensuring that everyone in society – including young people – feel that they have a stake and a voice in the common good.

No country or economy can develop to its full capacity if many people are excluded from opportunities. The rights to be free from discrimination, and to have equal access to resources and opportunities, benefit everyone.

At the core of the United Nations, and all the work that it has done to ward off war and poverty, is that shared conviction that every human being is equal in dignity and in rights. Women, people with disabilities, people from every religion or ethnic background or sexual orientation or nationality – every one of us is born equal.

Canada has long been an important leader in globally promoting human rights and an international order grounded in agreed rules and treaties. I am here, at the invitation of the Government, to reinforce our partnership at a time of severe global pushback to key human rights goals, as well as to the need for multilateral approaches to problems that all countries share. I also seek engagement with Canadian civil society and Indigenous Peoples.

I want to emphasise my solidarity with Indigenous Peoples in this country who have experienced generations of human rights violations and abuses.

For 120 years, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend schools where they were forced to discard their languages and traditions, and where many suffered physical and sexual abuse. The discovery, two years ago, of 215 unmarked graves of children at just one such school in British Columbia is shocking in itself, and suggested that many more children may have died in unclear circumstances. Last year, the House of Commons unanimously described the residential school system as genocide.

In addition, between 1956 and 2016, some 4,000 Indigenous women disappeared – and were perhaps murdered – without adequate investigation by the authorities. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has found that these thousands of disappearances and murders were also the result of genocide. 

This recognition has been an important step towards justice. Subsequent settlement agreements have provided compensation for survivors of residential schools and their families; survivors of the forcible relocation of Inuit people from their homelands; and harm caused by the provision of unsafe drinking water. Several class-action lawsuits are still pending, including with respect to forced sterilization of Indigenous women; abuse suffered in so-called “Indian hospitals”; and severe discrimination by law enforcement officers and prisons.

These issues need to be addressed.

There also needs to be broad acknowledgment – not only by the Federal Government – that intergenerational trauma resulting from these systematic human rights violations, and persisting severe discrimination against First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, continue to generate massive harm today. This requires rapid, decisive and effective action. 

Canada has done a great deal of very welcome work to advance the rights of women and girls. It has taken a principled stand on the human rights of LGBTIQ+ people, including the Federal 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan; and I also welcome its open approach to refugee protection and immigration. As in much of the industrialised world, the right to affordable housing is threatened in this country by financial markets, and this creates increasing difficulties for families and young people. While I acknowledge the solid work that has been done by Canada to acknowledge that housing is a fundamental human right, I encourage the authorities to further increase the availability of affordable housing units.

I also want to emphasise the urgency of our climate crisis – particularly so close to the Arctic, where the climate emergency is creating disproportionately massive impact. Canada has an important role to play in this respect. The majority of the world's mining and mining-exploration companies are based in this country. The Government's Strategy for Responsible Business Conduct and creation of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise in 2019 are significant measures. But much more must be done to phase out all use of fossil fuels, swiftly and without exception, and to align fully with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 

If humanity is to have a future, on a planet that is safe for human life, there is no alternative. Action by Canada on climate change is essential – both in terms of faltering global talks, and domestic and global energy sources. I am glad to note that earlier this year, a Bill was adopted that recognizes the universal right to a healthy environment. 

This is an area in which leadership by this country can help to stem despair among young people. In a survey of 1000 students across Canada that was published earlier this year, 78% reported that climate change harmed their mental health, to the extent that 37% reported negative impact on their daily functioning. This is very much in line with other global studies. Last month, a survey of over 36,000 people in 30 countries by the Open Society Foundation found that climate change tied with poverty and inequalities as people's major global concern. The survey also found that young people had far less faith than older cohorts in the capacity of democratic politics to solve issues, and I think this point is key.

To build trust in Government, it is vital to ensure that Government recognises and advances people's rights, and that it delivers fair and effective solutions.

Today, we face the collision of multiple crises, and the increasing division of countries into interest groups and blocs.

Where is the path to solutions?

First, we must overcome geopolitical divisions. We need a common language, and a sense of common goals, to seek solutions together. There is no way around it. That requires an approach that is ideologically neutral, but which engages the deep, shared values of humanity.

Second, solutions to the world’s current challenges must also be consistent with each other. Measures to advance sustainable development must also mitigate climate change and address systematic discrimination. If one workstream undermines another, the result is a chaotic waste of time. But if one solution can build on another, we’re making progress.

Third, solutions need to engage our deepest reflexes: solidarity and empathy. Today, the people with the least are being hurt the most. In terms of climate change, for example, it needs to be clear that the countries and businesses that have generated climate change must contribute to righting those wrongs.

Fourth, effective solutions will also need the full contributions of every member of every society. Free, meaningful and active participation by all is essential, to bring about real change. We need to draw on the creativity, the skills and the critical observations of everyone, and especially those who are silenced and harmed by today’s malfunctions. In every aspect of decision-making, it is vital to build bridges between people – especially the people most affected – and the institutions of Government and businesses.

In short, we need guidance that stems from values rooted in every culture of humanity. We need core goals – human equality, human dignity, human rights – that span every domain of policy and challenge. We need to dismantle discrimination and other oppressive barriers to people’s participation.

We need the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Yes, the Universal Declaration was written in an era before climate change. An era that may seem long ago. But it draws on experience of almost every kind of disaster that humanity can face. And while nobody could claim that human rights violations have been eradicated, Its guidance of the Universal Declaration ­– conceived at a time of desperation and darkness – has proven itself to be practical, pragmatic and effective. It teaches us how humanity can survive, today

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 can be trusted to resolve disputes and advance social and economic stability.

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. 

The only way to forge enduring peace. Because sustainable, durable peace – in the Middle East and elsewhere – stems from justice and accountability. 

Every State has an interest in promoting a strong core of human rights at the centre of policy and governance. 

And every individual can choose to shape their life in alignment with these values – chief among them the simple truth that regardless of sex, race, belief, sexual orientation, disability, migrant status or any other characteristic, we all have equal value and equal rights

I hope that 2023 will be remembered as the turning point that renewed our commitment to solving challenges through human rights. This year's 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration is an opportunity to recapture the spirit that led to its adoption, and to project it into the future, as a navigational compass and a time-tested, coherent set of solutions, that can guide us out of danger today. 

The Human Rights 75 Initiative that my Office is leading will culminate in a high-level event on 11 and 12 December in Geneva. I encourage the Canadian Government, and Canadian businesses and civil society groups, to make important, catalytic pledges to take human rights action, to help generate the transformative changes that we so badly need.

Human rights matter at any time, of course, because people will always matter – and upholding their rights and sustaining their well-being is what government is for. But these laws and principles are especially vital in times of crisis – when the future is anxious, and it seems that options are narrowing. It is then that core values, and the wisdom and lessons of our ancestors, can guide us onto the right course.

Thank you.