Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
European Union Foreign Affairs Council
High Representative Josep Borrell,
Distinguished Ministers and colleagues,
I am grateful to Belgium for this invitation.
We are at a moment of extraordinary crisis – a challenging context, where human rights need to be central to finding a way out.
The world has rarely experienced so sharp a rise in so many different threats to life and rights. Some 55 conflicts are battering civilians, communities and economies, characterized by widespread and serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as massive displacement — across the Middle East; the Sahel, Eastern and Central Africa; Ukraine; Myanmar; and elsewhere.
Development gains are being obliterated. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is steeped in human rights, is swerving way off-track. Global poverty has risen for the first time in more than two decades. By 2030, almost 600 million people are projected to face chronic undernourishment, and 84 million children will be out of school.
Climate and environmental threats are accelerating, while humanitarian needs are exploding. Since the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund was created in 2006, funding needs have increased tenfold – from $5.2 billion in 2006, to assist 32 million people, to nearly $57 billion in 2023, to help 245 million people in need.
This is very personal to me. For decades, I worked in situations where prevention had failed. These were situations of mass displacement, where huge numbers of ordinary people were forced to flee their homes by conflict, persecution and often atrocious deprivation.
From this experience, I have drawn a number of lessons – and among them is a profound conviction that human rights principles are by far the most effective way to tug societies away from crisis.
These principles are linked to equality, justice, inclusion, sustainable development: in short, the pathway to peace. Human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis on the ground literally tracks the deepening grievances and rising tensions that stoke conflict. It tells us why violence is happening. And by the same token, it also provides benchmarks that assess progress – or lack of progress – in making and nourishing peace.
It is a fact that human rights-based measures, step by step, will effectively ground States in better governance. Such measures are, by definition, based on the broadest possible civic participation – and this is crucial to help address discrimination and inequalities. By emphasising justice and inclusion, human rights-based measures ensure sustainable development. And I want to emphasise that last point: sustainable development is inextricably bound up with human rights. Without human rights, there is no sustainability: there is only fuel for the inherently unstable rule of an élite.
The European Union and its Member States — Team Europe — have been very supportive of this approach. My Office is deeply grateful for your political support and your contributions – including financial – that enable us to do our work. And beyond that help to my Office, your own development work contributes, often very powerfully, to advancing human rights.
EU States, singly and together, represent the greatest magnitude of overseas development assistance across the world today. And there is a growing realisation that human rights standards are not a simple box that can be ticked — a kind of silo within programmatic or financial planning.
Human rights are the meaning of development, the purpose of development, and the tools that can ensure that development will be effective – and that it will ‘stick’. There is no area of development where human rights are not a core ingredient. Rights need to be the value that drives and informs every investment and development partnership, and every area in which the European Union engages.
In the Sahel region, for example, we share very similar concerns about the ways to approach issues of violent extremism, climate change, youth unemployment, areas of poor governance and discrimination, all of which underlie a complex set of development and security challenges. This is an example of how policies that focus only on security issues will not provide the deeper and more comprehensive solutions that can stem waves of violence and suffering – and how a focus only on economic levers, which does not address marginalization and governance, will similarly fall short.
To ensure that development assistance has effective and durable impact in the Sahel, we need to work across the full range of development and human rights issues. Our strategies need to empower local actors to become participants in economic, political and social decision-making. And among these local actors, there must be a strong emphasis on women and youth. We need employment opportunities for young people – including young women – that also address environmental degradation and poverty, and which also counter the exclusion of marginalised communities; help to stem recruitment by armed actors; and address some of the causes of migration.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is another area where development assistance has to reach across a wide range of profound human rights needs. These are particularly acute in areas close to the frontline, where loss of lives, livelihoods and infrastructure is especially intense. The joint Rapid Disaster Needs Assessment by the EU, UN, World Bank and Government of Ukraine, which will be released this week, will no doubt reveal the vast scope of recovery needs across the whole country. In addition, the war also undermines Ukraine’s public finances, in ways that may have far-reaching implications for human rights. With so many resources being devoted to national defence, Ukraine's budget for investment in essential resources for rights is stretched, and budgetary aid – such as the 50 billion euro Ukraine Facility for 2024-2027 – is critical.
Ukraine will also need support with the sensitive issue of re-integrating and restoring the rights of people who have lived under Russian occupation. In communities where Ukraine has regained control following Russian occupation, my Office has documented serious human rights violations alongside painful divisions between residents.
Next month my Office will release new information on these issues in a report that analyses the occupation’s impact on human rights, and the complex legacy that occupation leaves behind. I hope this report can spark new discussions – with development actors, the Government of Ukraine and members of local communities – about the policies and approaches that can best promote inclusive, just and durable recovery for the long term.
Ukraine’s candidature for accession of the EU is also an important opportunity to ensure that structural support to the country and its institutions, including governance and rule of law institutions, is firmly grounded in human rights principles and law.
There are clear and durable benefits from an interlocking, broad-spectrum approach to the nexus of development and human rights. There are also tremendous benefits from really operationalising human rights on the ground, by working with civil society, including and perhaps especially women and young people – providing safe spaces and contributing to empowerment and inclusion, as well as changes in laws and policies. All this is also part of the rationale behind promoting the concept of human rights-based economies.
A human rights economy is onein which core human rights goals and methods infuse every policy and decision-making process, including taxation, investment and all issues of resource allocation in Government budgets.
Let me take the example of the work my Office is currently doing in Kenya to advance human rights-based and participatory budget processes – which ties in also to our broader work on expanding civic participation in all forms of governance, and advancing the SDGs.
With an initial pilot in three counties in different parts of the country, the Office consulted county government executives, members of county assemblies and civil society groups on ways to strengthen participation and human rights in budgets. Ninety “community budget champions” – including women, young people, Indigenous Peoples and members of minority groups – were trained on often complex county budget processes and complex, as well as ways to assist ordinary people to participate in decision-making about the allocation of resources to finance progress on economic, social and cultural rights.
The success of this collaborative approach in promoting engagement and holding decision-makers accountable means we are now expanding the experience to historically marginalized areas of north-eastern Kenya, close to the border with Somalia. It is one of many examples where more resources are needed to expand and deepen work towards a human rights economy that benefits everyone.
Crucial to this work of reshaping economies to put people at the centre is the need to free core human rights goals from the stranglehold of debt repayment. As you are certainly aware, in a growing number of countries, debt repayments are so burdensome that they prevent vitally needed investments in healthcare, quality education, and other essential human rights goals. Reforming our international financial institutions, and making sure that the operations of development banks are fully aligned with human rights standards, is a matter of urgency.
This isn’t only “leave no-one behind”. It’s promoting the rights of those people – ordinary people, including women, young people and marginalized groups – to the forefront of decisions that change lives. A h uman rights economy is one that works to reduce corruption and inequalities, including those that result from systemic discrimination. And it isn’t just about the economy, because it also promotes broad participation in transparent and accountable governance.
Human rights permeate everything that is human. They shape a comprehensive governance model, and they are relevant to every activity and topic. So in closing, I want to address something that weighs heavily across the world today: the increasing grip of a binary, “us vs. them”, mentality that scapegoats specific, often vulnerable groups and divides people, institutions and communities into groups viewed as either “for us” or “against us”. This sharp edge becomes a toxic selling-point, for views, votes and "likes"; even worse it spreads contempt, hatred and potentially violence. It dehumanises the other.
We lose part of our own humanity if we fail to understand our essential connectedness – if we lose our understanding of the suffering and challenges that all other humans face, slowly numbing our deepest sense of humanity.
We lose our sense of the very real universality of human rights, which becomes a political football, even a kind of weapon – an object of derision and vilification, so that if you speak up for human rights, you're seen as taking a political position, for or against others.
The chief lesson of the painful history of this continent is that the rights of every single person must be respected – for everyone's sake. That lesson is transformative. It is unifying. And I mean this very deeply: it is not just my job to uphold and apply it. It is our job, the job of every member of the human family, ceaselessly to uphold and advance human rights.
In other words, we are all in this together.