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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the 161st Anniversary of the Fundamental Covenant "Ahd El Aman" (1857)

13 June 2019

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Tunis, 13 June 2019

Mr. President,
Colleagues, Friends,

It is an honour to conduct my first travel to Arab region as High Commissioner for Human Rights with this visit to Tunis, and to this conference.

Tunisia has been at the fertile intersection of many cultures in its history. And among the many gifts this country has bestowed on humanity, allow me to count the "Ahd El Aman" Fundamental Covenant.

The Fundamental Covenant's specific emphasis on the equality of people of all religions has been a tremendous force for social peace – a release from suffering for many members of religious minorities. It established the inviolability of persons and property and prohibited religion-based discrimination, using language which avoids any distinction between women and men.

The Covenant's proclamation of the intrinsic equality of all human beings makes it a luminous predecessor of our Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In other words, this country recognised and spelled out as law many of our most precious principles more than ninety years before the Universal Declaration was adopted by the rest of the world. And I want to really emphasise this point, because we hear so often the false argument that our universal human rights are not actually universal, that they are somehow only “Western”.

Human rights are an inherent part of every society. They constitute a common heritage of all nations, cultures and religions. I stand here, as a woman from Latin America, to celebrate one of the sources of human rights – one of their oldest and most far-reaching visions – here, in the Arab world.

Today, Tunisia – thanks in parts to those deep roots – stands out for its commitment to the human rights of all its people.

The revolution of 2011 has been a source of inspiration and hope for many people in the Arab region– and far beyond it too – who aspire to freedom, socio-economic justice and human rights for all. The revolution has added to human history an inspiring story of a courageous popular movement.

But protecting and promoting human rights is also a long-term “work in progress”. And this country’s recent history has brought us many lessons, on a range of challenging issues.

They include the need for measures to ensure justice and redress for abuses of the past. The profound benefits of the freedoms of expression, and peaceful assembly, in empowering the participation of vibrant, creative and thoughtful civil society movements. The need for economic development that is inclusive and reaches those furthest behind, leaving no-one behind. The deeply rooted relationship between religions and rights. And the equality and dignity of all members of society -- all men and women.

I especially commend Tunisia for the adoption of ground-breaking legislation in 2017 which criminalizes violence against women . Another recent decree has enabled greater access to social protections for marginalised women in rural areas. And you, Mr. President, have proposed that equality in matters pertaining to inheritance be signed into law, which is currently being debated by parliament.

Many of these reforms have roots in the work of civil society groups and activists, including for labour rights and women's equality. I vividly recall the vigour, courage and clarity of mind with which women’s rights defenders in this city have reacted to proposals that might suggest a reduction of women’s rights to make their own choices, and take part fully in society. Allow me to extend my warm regards to them, and to many other human rights defenders, women and men, in this room.

It is not easy to emerge from an oppressive régime and build strong institutions for democracy and justice. I have seen this in my own country. And like many in the international community, I applaud the perseverance and dignity with which this country has advanced. Accountability, transitional justice, rule of law and constitutional reforms are essential – and among these core measures to enable social progress, we must also count the freedoms of expression, opinion and belief.

In a region where this is very much the exception, I am particularly impressed by the careful and principled work of the Independent High Authority for Audio-visual Communications in monitoring hate speech, while assuring the freedom of expression.

The Tunisian revolution also inspires us another fundamental lesson that I believe could benefit from much greater attention from many countries. The people's demand for realisation of their economic and social rights is as fundamental, as important a priority as their demand for civil and political rights. Fair societies, enduring peace and sustainable development can only be achieved when the structural inequalities in societies are dismantled, when essential services are accessible by all, and when governance is accountable and fair.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

The manipulation of religion to accentuate divisions and drive hatred is a force for great misery in the world. Working with multiple actors from this country, as well as many others, my Office has sought to open a space for new and cross-disciplinary reflection and action on the links between religions and human rights. This led two years ago to the adoption of the Beirut Declaration and its corresponding 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights” – a framework laying out the human rights responsibilities of faith-based actors.

For example, religious leaders can have very positive impact if they speak out firmly and promptly against hate speech. The 18 commitments also include a pledge to revisit the religious understandings and interpretations that appear to perpetuate gender inequality and harmful stereotypes, or condone gender-based violence.

These and other issues were discussed during youth training workshops which my Office organized last year in Tunis and Marrakech. Our Country Office in Tunisia has also recently started a joint project with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and other actors, focusing on the rights and responsibilities of Imams in advancing human rights, peace and security in Tunisia.

This is work which I think we can all agree could be of vital importance to our hope for a future of greater harmony and well-being for the people of this country. Preserving its cultural, ethnic and religious diversity – which developed only thanks to long traditions of mutual respect and tolerance – is the only option which can lead to durable development, in peaceful societies.

I would like to conclude with a quote from an outstanding Tunisian expert, the late Abdelfattah Amor, who served as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. In his 2002 study on the status of women in the light of religion and traditions, Abdelfattah Amor noted that some religious texts have been interpreted as limiting the worth of female testimony when giving evidence, but he stressed that in modern Muslim countries, including in Tunisia, the testimony of a woman has the same value as that of a man. In the words of Abdelfattah Amor, “This shows that religious texts are not closed texts and that cultural practices, even at the State level, can be reshaped according to the requirements of modern life”.

Mr President,

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a mighty achievement: a signpost to the path to a better future. It is the fruit of many long histories of struggle and achievement – histories that stretch back much further than the last seventy years. Humanity can be grateful to all the women and men who participated in those struggles – among them, the people of Tunisia.

Thank you.