Good morning, it’s good to see many of you here today.
In just over a year as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have met, during my travels, with people from numerous countries, across all continents, including those in the midst of major crises. I have also talked to civil society actors from many other parts of the world that I have not yet been able to visit.
Across each and every country, I heard – and witnessed – the universal desire for human rights to be respected and protected.
I heard it from young women in Khartoum taking to the streets to drum up participation in protest rallies demanding their voice be heard in Government.
I heard it from a rights defender working on environmental rights in the marshes of southern Iraq.
From Indigenous Peoples’ representatives in Ecuador, Canada, Norway and Sweden.
From people of African descent in the US and Colombia.
From civil society in countries at war, deeply worried about the impact of the violence on human rights, but also about what kind of society will emerge the day after.
In many of my interactions with people, I’m also asked – given the pervasive conflicts and coups, climate change and other crises – have human rights failed?
No. Human rights have not failed.
It is the cynical disregard for human rights, and the failure to respect and heed warnings on human rights that has got us here.
The conflicts and crises stalking us today should be wake-up calls for the international community.
A wake-up call that when human rights are violated or sidelined, conflicts erupt.
A wake-up call that failure to respect human rights results in instability, suffering, more inequalities and economic crises.
A wake-up call that when human rights defenders and the UN Human Rights Office ring alarm bells, you must listen and you must act to prevent violations.
Human rights must be at the centre of governance – not just in of beautiful speeches by high-level officials. They must be in policies and in laws, and guide how these laws and policies are implemented. They must be the common thread, running through all aspects of governance, economy and society.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was crafted with lessons drawn from two global wars, the Holocaust, atomic destruction, profound economic devastation, and generations of colonial exploitation, oppression, injustice and bloodshed. It was conceived as a roadmap to a more stable, more just world.
Human rights are inherent to every human being.
Leaders who ignore this truth imperil the people they are meant to serve.
Unfortunately, leaders in many parts of the world have done just this. As a result, we are seeing violent conflict increase and intensify across the globe.
Two months after the horrific 7 October attacks on Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, in which civilians were directly targeted and hostages taken, civilians in Gaza continue to be relentlessly bombarded by Israel and collectively punished – suffering death, siege, destruction and deprivation of the most essential human needs such as food, water, lifesaving medical supplies and other essentials on a massive scale. Palestinians in Gaza are living in utter, deepening horror.
Military operations, including bombardment, by Israeli Forces continue in north, middle and south Gaza, affecting people who have already been displaced multiple times – forced to flee – in search of safety. But no place is safe. As we speak, some 1.9 million out of the 2.2 million Palestinians have been displaced and are being pushed into ever-diminishing and extremely overcrowded places in southern Gaza, in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions.
And humanitarian aid is again virtually cut off, as fears of widespread disease and hunger spread.
The catastrophic situation we see unfolding in the Gaza Strip was entirely foreseeable and preventable. My humanitarian colleagues have described the situation as apocalyptic.
In these circumstances, there is a heightened risk of atrocity crimes. Measures need to be taken urgently – both by the parties concerned and by all States – particularly those with influence – to prevent any such crimes.
The international community needs to insist with one voice on a ceasefire, immediately, on human rights and humanitarian grounds.
The human rights crisis in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is also extremely alarming, including an increase in unnecessary or disproportionate, even militarised, use of force by Israeli forces resulting in a rise in unlawful killings, much more aggressive and frequent settler violence leading to the forced displacement of Palestinian communities, record increases in arbitrary arrests and detention, an alarming spike in deaths in custody and allegations of ill-treatment of Palestinians in detention, including sexual violence. The Israeli authorities must take immediate steps to end widespread impunity for such violations.
As the catastrophic consequences for civilians in Gaza mount, I want to again express my grave concern regarding dehumanizing and inciteful statements made by current and former high-level Israeli officials, as well as Hamas figures. History has shown us where this kind of language can lead. This is not just unacceptable, but a competent court may view such statements, in the circumstances in which they were made, as incitement to atrocity crimes.
As more information emerges on serious allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by members of armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, during their attacks on Israel on 7-8 October, it is painfully clear that these attacks need to be fully investigated to ensure justice for the victims.
It is crucial that there are rigorous investigations and accountability for all serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law. Individual criminal responsibility must be established.
As an immediate step, I call for an urgent cessation of hostilities and the release of all hostages. All parties are aware of what is really needed to achieve peace and security for Palestinian and Israeli peoples; violence and vengeances can only result in more hatred and radicalisation. The only way to end the accumulative sufferings is ending the occupation and achieving the two-State solution.
In Myanmar, the human rights crisis caused by the military continues to inflict an unbearable toll on civilians. To date, credible sources have verified that military forces have killed over 4,232 civilians since the coup. Civilians have suffered countless violations – facing airstrikes, artillery shelling, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, as well as sexual violence, displacement, denial of humanitarian assistance and the burning of their homes, fields and villages. The situation of Rohingya Muslims is ever more protracted, with no prospect of safe and sustainable return. Many are taking to dangerous journeys in the region by sea.
The Myanmar military has lost critical ground since the end of October as a result of coordinated attacks by Ethnic Armed Organizations and anti-military armed groups. Civilian casualties and internal displacement have been rising at a rapid rate. Now, as ever, it is necessary that all parties ensure that the civilian population is adequately protected. There must be intensified efforts by the international community for an end to the violence and the peaceful restoration of an inclusive and representative government.
In Sudan, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces rages, with significant risk of a protracted civil war and fragmentation of the country. More than 7,000 civilians, including women and children, have been killed since April 2023, and 6.3 million displaced. Half the population is in need of assistance. We have documentation of rape being used as a weapon of war, particularly by RSF and affiliated forces. Ethnic and racial tensions are being stoked. And there is a general breakdown of the rule of law across Sudan. Neither party to the conflict has sought to address seriously the conduct of their own forces.
Both parties must ensure all personnel responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights are held accountable.
In Ukraine, more than 10,000 civilians have now been verified killed since the Russian invasion into Ukrainian territory on 24 February 2022. The actual death toll may be significantly higher. Ukrainians living in territory occupied by the Russian Federation encounter appalling restrictions on their fundamental rights and freedom. This protracted, destructive war must be brought to an end.
Unconstitutional changes in government, including military coups, in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger have significantly weakened human rights protections and the rule of law in these countries. It is vital that transitional authorities commit and adhere to timelines towards a return to democratic rule, and take effective steps to protect human rights during that process.
I am also following with growing concern the political crises in countries like Guatemala, Peru and Nicaragua, and their impact on human rights. In Guatemala, I am particularly alarmed at continued and systematic attempts, in particular by the Attorney General’s Office, to undermine the outcome of the general elections held in June and August. I urge all Guatemalan authorities to refrain from any further attempt to challenge the election results, and to ensure that all human rights, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, are fully respected. The will of the majority of Guatemalan people must prevail and democracy safeguarded, with the support of the international community.
In the coming year, elections are scheduled to take place in more than 70 countries, covering half of the world’s population. In the pre-electoral period, it is particularly important to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and political participation are fully respected.
Unfortunately, pre-electoral periods are often fertile ground for extremism, stoking of fears, and hate-filled rhetoric, and the politics of division, distraction and deception. I urge political and other leaders to refrain from sowing fear of “the other”, creating divisions and instrumentalizing differences to win votes.
These elections will be among the first in the era of widely available generative artificial intelligence. There are obvious risks of unusually powerful propaganda and disinformation being produced at scale by a growing assortment of actors. It will be more important than ever to ensure that States and technology companies can respond to online harmful content in a way that upholds our rights to information, our right to debate, openly and freely. And which also uses human rights as a guide to address harmful speech that discriminates and incites to violence.
Over the past two months, there has been a sharp rise in hate speech, both online and offline – in particular anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry. Homes and religious buildings around the globe have been defaced to frighten and provoke hate. Political leaders have also used inflammatory, toxic and hateful rhetoric. This must be vigorously condemned. International human rights law is absolutely clear on this.
Also unacceptable is the vilification of human rights defenders – including civil society actors, UN independent experts, UN officials and others – who speak out about rights violations. I urge States to engage on the substance of allegations rather than unjustly attempting to discredit the messenger.
At COP28, my Office is joining others to press for more action to address the climate crisis and secure the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
I am worried that those trying to highlight the harmful impact of climate change and the need to act now may be drowned out by powerful voices who have – at best – mixed agendas, including in support of the continued use of fossil fuels.
Fulfilling the rights to life, and a healthy environment requires the equitable phase-out of all fossil fuels. Human rights law requires those responsible for climate harms, including States and businesses, to be held accountable for remedying them. It is time that we ensure that environmental destruction carries criminal sanctions, as an essential deterrent.
The future of our planet and generations to come are at stake and it is essential that the voices of civil society representatives are heard loud and clear in crafting actionable solutions.
At this sombre moment in history, I look forward to hosting next week’s high-level event marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to take stock of where we are, how we got here, and what we can do to craft a better future for all human beings, no matter who, no matter where.
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Jeremy Laurence + +41 22 917 9383 / [email protected] or
Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]