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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

International Political Science Association conferenceThe Voice of Political Science around the World, Celebrating 70 Years

22 November 2019

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Paris, 22 November 2019

Madam Kneuer, President of the IPSA,
Professor Haddad, President of the Université Paris Un,
Colleagues, Friends,

Thank you for giving me this chance to speak to you today. As you are all aware, the International Political Science Association was founded at a time of immense global turbulence, in order to promote academic and intellectual exchange and heighten our understanding of the social, political and economic challenges faced by societies around the world.

It takes clarity to devise the most effective solutions, and it takes courage to implement them.

When this Association was created, more than half the world was under colonialism, and economies, societies and people were just emerging from the most devastating conflict our planet had ever known.

Progress was not constant, universal, or easy, but when I look back across those decades, I can see the advances made towards greater social justice, economic empowerment, self-determination and civil and political freedoms.

There has been unprecedented, and almost universal, progress in health, education, housing, food and other basic rights. In the last few decades, women, Afro-descendants, LGBT people and others suffering discrimination -- on the basis of ethnicity, caste, indigenous status, disability – have been able to lift that discrimination and make their own choices, in greater freedom.  Many people – though not all – have been able to obtain justice for wrongs, and national and international protection for their rights.

Across these seven decades, empowered by the universal recognition that every human being has inalienable civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, women and men have come together to build progress. They have demanded an end to discrimination, tyranny and exploitation, and affirmed their rights to autonomy, to fair access to justice, fundamental services and economic opportunities.

Today they are marching once more.

This year, street protests have erupted across a large number of countries, in every continent, representing diverse political systems, economies, governance models, and resource capacities.
“To demonstrate,” in English, has an interesting double meaning. It means to protest, and demand, but it also means to show. In French and Spanish, we share this sense: “manifester”, “manifestar”: to protest and to show.

Today’s marchers are clearly protesting a number of perceived or fundamental failings in contemporary politics and economics.

I think they are also showing us the way to solutions.  Solutions that demonstrably build resilient and confident societies: more prosperous, because they are more inclusive; more stable, because they are more respectful; more harmonious, because they are fairer.

Let me begin my remarks today with a topic that is the headline in today’s global press: inequalities.

Inequalities in opportunities, in political power, in access to justice and other fundamental services and resources. They are a result of poor governance, corruption, failures in the rule of law and discrimination. They cause alienation, grievances, exclusion, social tensions and conflict. They are the product of violations of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. They lead to insecurity and extremism. They increase the vulnerability of many and they widen the gap between those with access to technology and those left behind.  And they undermine the development of countries.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all nations, is a human rights agenda, one that recognizing inequalities and sets a path for overcoming them.  Every step in the other direction tugs our societies down, towards greater suffering, misery, injustice, grievance and conflict.

Despite this commitment to address what is evidently a profound and far-reaching problem, economic inequalities have actually accelerated in the SDG era.  While, each of the mass protests takes place in its own context, for its own reasons, inequalities are a factor in most, and perhaps all, of these situations.

Dissatisfaction with and deep mistrust in leadership is another factor in today’s protests.  The common cry heard is that the people’s well-being is not the highest priority of the State. Corruption, nepotism and deteriorating and mismanaged public services fuel anger at authorities

Can we dig a little deeper, and identify some of the roots of the alienation felt by many on the streets? This is, of course, your role, as academics and analysts. But I have a sense that people drawn to the divisive rage of nationalism feel that they have lost something. They feel that élites, perhaps urban élites, look down on them. They feel they have lost social status; a central and productive economic role; decisive cultural influence. These are issues, which cannot be addressed with a quick fix. But they can, I think, be addressed – with attentive respect.  

A third factor is the conviction among young people that they are being robbed of their right to operate on a level playing field – politically, socially and economically – and also, robbed of hope.  “Playing by the rules”, working hard, paying your dues is no longer seen as enough to succeed, and there is rising fear that today's children and successive generations will inherit a much harsher and more brutal world.

nother factor common to most protests, is that the initial response by many governments has been to focus on law enforcement.  And in many cases, this has involved allegations of excessive and sometimes lethal use of force by police – with video evidence amplifying public outrage.

It is relevant to note, here, the very widespread and underlying trend towards increasing restrictions on the civic space and fundamental freedoms. Across every world region, States in recent years have adopted laws, which affect the rights of their peoples to come together and act for their rights.

Alongside these attacks on civil society groups and NGOs, many States have also taken action to restrict and interfere with academic freedoms. This is a crucial point, because universities are a tremendous force for clarity and depth: they exist to question, advance and disseminate the knowledge on which social, economic and political progress depends.

These restrictions on academic freedom and the civic space do not make anyone safer. In fact, by shutting down people’s voices, they leave injustices unheeded, generate rising social tension, and essentially force people into the street.

At the beginning of this speech I suggested that today’s protestors are “manifesting” a path towards solutions.

Let me emphasise three points here.

Point one: In drawing attention to deep seated, and often justifiable grievances, today’s demonstrators also point to the human rights approach to policy -- which has a proven track record in shaping positive, sustainable and effective economic, social and political change. We can measure the power and the value of its achievements, in terms of health, education, empowerment and inclusion. We have detailed and globally coordinated roadmaps to achieve many key human rights goals. I have listed one of them, the 2030 Agenda, but I would also add the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the great body of international human rights law.

And this bring me to point two. Many of the demands we’re seeing in these recent protests relate to economic and social inequalities and rights. To the extent that those economic and social rights cannot be claimed without the ability to speak, assemble and protest, they are, intrinsically, about civil and political rights too. So this is my second point: Many of today’s protests have been triggered by economic measures; but they are bridging traditional sectarian and political divides because they resonate with issues across the entire spectrum of the human rights agenda. People feel they are suffering economic injustice because their voice is dismissed and disrespected – or, in some cases, punished and denied.

We should be viewing civil and political rights, together with economic and social rights, as a comprehensive and integrated picture. And within this context, policymakers need to take economic, social and cultural rights seriously, as rights. As many of you know very well, States are bound to maximize available resources to measurably improve the lives of all individuals living in their country.

My third point must be the need to carefully create a smooth and upward-moving exit lane out of every protest situation.  My own experience, as well as decades of experience by other policymakers, demonstrates this: both the triggers of protest, and potentially many layers of underlying grievances, must be addressed, peacefully and respectfully. This can only take place in the course of the broadest possible dialogue -- dialogue that is inclusive and free.

Above all -- the most important issue in responding to protests and dissent is for the authorities to avoid hasty responses based on violent repression. If Governments and security forces treat their people as enemies, enemies is what they may become. All persons employing violence need to be held accountable for their acts – and in this, I include not only protestors, but also members of security forces who have resorted to the disproportionate and excessive use of force. The excessive use of force breaks bones, breaks lives, and it also breaks trust – in institutions; in leaders; in the rule of law.

A government that is based on fear and force is inherently unstable -- because the foundation of legitimate government rests on its promotion of the human rights of its people.

In contrast, a State based on the rule of law is resilient and reliable: those in power may not harm people’s rights, in small or major ways, to uphold their rule. This is not some minor, technical widget: it is a deeply valuable conception of how people live together in a society. And it can be lost.

I have mentioned nationalism in the context of people’s alienation from their institutions. This is a very damaging force, and it heightens the urgency of addressing the perception that the State and its institutions do not hear, and do not care, about people’s ordinary lives.

Policymakers need to invest in dialogue, and in social cohesion – before it is too late. Because divisive hatred is shattering the values that bind our societies together. I am particularly concerned about the way that fear of foreigners is being stirred up, in order to harvest headlines and votes.

Migrants are being treated like criminals, arbitrarily detained, and sometimes even separated from their children. Walls and barriers are built, based on the idea that this will deter them from leaving their homes. Yet, women, men and children seeking safety and dignity are largely moving because they have no other choice.

Although no State is obliged to accept every person who arrives at its borders, every person arriving at a border deserves, at least, a fair opportunity to make their own case and have a considered decision by a responsible, and neutral, State official.

The Global Compact for Migration, adopted by an overwhelming majority of UN member states in 2018, reminds us that all migrants have inalienable rights as human beings. It calls for greater international cooperation to address the global inequalities, environmental degradation, and other root causes, which compel people to leave their homes.

But nationalists reject this Compact – as they reject many, and perhaps all, coordinated, global solutions to global challenges.

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has spoken about the need to “preserve a global system: a universal economy with respect for international law; a multipolar world with solid multilateral institutions.” As he noted here in Paris, just two weeks ago, “What country is capable of bridging these fault lines in isolation, separately from the rest of the world? None! We need a universal system that respects international law and is organized around strong multilateral institutions. We need more international solidarity -- more multilateralism.”

We need a multilateralism which expresses people’s needs, and which protects and advances their human rights. They are the values that bind us together as human beings. They have proven to be essential to the maintenance of our mutual peace, prosperity, and sustainable development. And they can guide policy makers to more effective and more sustainable policies as we jointly navigate the challenges which lie ahead.

In this context, I want also to say a few words about digital technology. Technology is playing a central role in facilitating access to information and mobilizing and bringing together people – and these are very positive outcomes. The capacity people have today to share and receive information and converge around a cause has increased. Naturally this creates pressure for more transparent and accountable governance.

But information technologies also contribute to organized misinformation and incitement to hatred and violence on a completely new scale. And this is having immensely disturbing impact on our societies, our discourse, and our lives. Digital tools have also already enabled unprecedented forms of surveillance by States – both targeted surveillance of critics and human rights defenders and mass surveillance, which has the potential effect of instilling fear in everyone.

Misuse of Big Data and the deployment of artificial intelligence systems to assess and categorise people, as well as many more uses, require much more effective governance. These troubling aspects of the digital landscape are growing in impact and scope.

Developing appropriate responses to these trends is difficult, but we do have a suitable tool to address these issues: international human rights law is a framework that is universal and precisely defined.

Friends and colleagues,

I have touched on a number of challenges in this discussion. Each of them can be viewed as a separate issue, but recognizing that they are interconnected, creates multiple points where human rights-based policies can open new spaces for dialogue and right the wrongs that are being suffered.

As I pointed out earlier, this is not only about justice – it is about self-interest. It is about shaping societies, which can survive and thrive in the turbulence of a very challenging era.

So let me return to this idea of the double messages of today’s protests: that they express both an outcry against fundamental injustices, and a demonstration, a manifestation, of the solutions our societies need.

The right to equal protection of the law. The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, to healthcare, food, shelter and social security. The right to be free from any form of discrimination. The right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The right to due process and fair trial. The right to be free from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention.

How can we apply these vital, living principles to today’s mass demonstrations?

Here, I want to circle back to the clarity and depth which I believe associations and academics like you can bring to this situation.

We need your vision and your comprehension, to devise solutions that can be useful and true to lived realities.

Our challenges are immense. We will not fix these problems unless we can see them clearly. We will fix them best with solutions that have been firmly grounded in reality – in the often difficult circumstances of people who may be living far from the spotlight, ground down by generations of deprivation and discrimination, silenced by despair.

I ask you to move into the next 70 years of this association by helping us to give them their rightful voice -- and their rightful, central role in decision-making.

Thank you.