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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

Annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Human Rights Council and that of its mechanisms

Advancing a gender agenda

15 September 2017

Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Theme: The Universal Periodic Review and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

15 September 2017

Colleagues, Friends,

Today many women and girls continue to be routinely deprived of equal access to resources, denied choice, robbed of opportunities and constrained by false and humiliating stereotypes.  Holding women back not only violates their rights as individuals; it means they cannot contribute their full talents and skills. One recent report suggested global economic growth would increase US$12 trillion by 2025 if every country were to match the increase in gender equality achieved by the best-performing nation in its region – a goal which appears eminently feasible.

But instead of increasing momentum towards greater rights for women, we are seeing a backlash in many regions. The revival of populism has amplified a recent wave of efforts to restrict hard-won advances in women’s rights – for example, increasing efforts to de-fund, restrict, and criminalise aspects of sexual and reproductive health. In this context of increasing polarisation and threats to women’s rights, we can capitalise on -- and try to magnify -- a number of very hopeful openings.

Firstly, the ongoing reforms of the UN development system will encourage Regional Coordinators and UN Country Teams to follow up and assist implementation of the recommendations by the human rights mechanisms within the context of their development programming. This represents a unique opportunity to translate the recommendations of human rights mechanisms, Special Procedures, Treaty Bodies and the UPR into real human rights change.

Secondly, the universality of the UPR gives it a crucial role as a forum for making recommendations, sharing good practises and reporting on progress in upholding human rights. There is strong potential for deeper linkage between the UPR and the UN’s development framework and capacity. In fact, in his recent report on the work of the Organisation, the Secretary General states that in the context of the third cycle, “We will work to strengthen the relevance, precision and impact of (…) recommendations, including by providing better support to Member States in implementation, stronger collaboration with United Nations country teams, and the establishment of national mechanisms for human rights reporting and follow-up to link the Universal Periodic Review to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

But to achieve the kind of strong, actionable recommendations which can spark real change, the UPR must move away from cosy generalities and a sometimes fragmented approach, towards rights-based, comprehensive recommendations that promote women’s and girls’ choices and autonomy -- including when this means handling sensitive issues.

It is all very well to recommend that fellow States “adopt measures to address child marriage”, but these measures will be effective only if they are grounded in recognition that social norms which support such practices need to be challenged, and only if they also tackle the need to expand girls’ choices by providing quality education and control over their reproductive choices. Equally, recommendations to promote women’s access to health care must be premised on respect for their right to make decisions about their bodies– as the High Level Working Group on Health and Human Rights recently emphasized.

The UPR’s first two cycles have seen a considerable number of recommendations on women’s rights, but some issues did not receive much attention. These include sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the rights of adolescent girls. Yet for many girls, opportunities are suddenly and ferociously curtailed exactly at the turning point from childhood to puberty. With the highest number of young people that the world has ever seen, the successful realisation of the SDGs hinges on our ability to protect the human rights of the teenage girls, on the cusp of becoming either women free to develop as they wish, or women crushed and left behind.

The SDGs can become the Gender Agenda our world so badly needs. They are a framework for the practical realisation of the right to development of women and girls, among many other crucial human rights goals. For this to happen, there must be consistent and universal efforts to ensure disaggregated data. And above all, there must be vigorous efforts to ensure that marginalized groups of women participate in the development and monitoring of policies which affect them. Implementation of the SDGs must promote dignity, respect, autonomy and choice.

My Office has worked with UN Women to develop a framework on inequalities that is intended to guide implementation of the SDGs throughout the UN. The High Level Working Group on Health and Human Rights is also intended to act as a locomotive for a more integrated health and human rights agenda, with particular focus on women, children and adolescents. In addition, OHCHR is one of the key global actors in establishing good practises for dismantling the harmful stereotypes which drive so many violations of women’s and girls’ rights. The UPR and human rights mechanisms provide extremely powerful levers to boost these efforts towards gender equality.

It is the conviction of my Office that breaking down barriers to women’s and girls’ rights is not only essential to the well-being of billions of individuals, but also a driver of peace and development.

I look forward to the discussions of the distinguished panellists.

Thank you