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A call to action for human rights

24 February 2020

Distinguished President of the Human Rights Council, Madame High Commissioner,
Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,

I would like to start by expressing my appreciation and admiration for the work being carried out by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and her Office.

Her personal history… her understanding of what it means for a society and an individual to suffer human rights violations… and her experience in advancing human rights as a world leader…

All of this gives her a unique and vital voice. Excellencies,
I have come to the Human Rights Council -- the fulcrum for international dialogue and cooperation to advance all human rights – to launch a Call for Action.

And I decided to do it now – during the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations – because of the centrality of human rights in all UN does, and because human rights are under assault.

I want to begin where human rights begin -- with a core understanding. Human rights are about the dignity and worth of the human person.
They expand the horizons of hope, enlarge the boundaries of the possible, and unleash the best of ourselves and our world.

Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom. To ensure equality for women and girls. To advance sustainable development. To prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world.

As Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, human rights are “humanity’s highest aspiration”.

Progress in one corner of the globe nourishes progress in another.

I have seen it.

And I have lived it.

I grew up under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal and did not experience democracy until I was twenty-four years old.

I saw the dictatorship oppress not only its own citizens, but also people under colonial rule in Africa.

But it was the human rights struggles and successes of others around the world that inspired us.

Over the decades, the efforts of many have ushered in massive human rights gains on all continents.

Colonial rule and apartheid were overcome. Dictatorships have fallen. Democracy has spread.

Landmark covenants spell out the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

A robust treaty-based system is in place, along with special procedures and accountability mechanisms.

One billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a generation.

And we have seen big advances from the access to drinking water – to big declines in child mortality.

All our societies have benefitted from human rights movements led by women, young people, minorities, indigenous peoples and others.

Yet, human rights today face growing challenges. And no country is immune.
We see civilians trapped in war-torn enclaves, starved and bombarded in clear violation of international law.

Human trafficking affecting every region in the world, preying on vulnerability and despair.

Women and girls enslaved, exploited and abused, denied the opportunity to make the most of their potential.

Civil society activists tossed in jail, and religious and ethnic minorities persecuted, under overly broad definitions of national security.

Journalists killed or harassed for seeking only to do their jobs.

Minorities, indigenous people, migrants, refugees, the LGBTI community vilified as the “other” and tormented by acts of hate.

We also see global hunger on the rise and youth unemployment at alarming levels.

A new set of challenges is arising from megatrends such as the climate crisis, demographic change, rapid urbanization and the march of technology.

People are being left behind. Fears are growing. Divisions are widening.

And some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to the breaking point. A perverse political arithmetic has taken hold: divide people to multiply votes.

The rule of law is being eroded.


In so many places, people are rising up against political systems that fail to take them into account and economic systems that fail to deliver prosperity for all.


In the face of these tensions and tests, there is an answer: Human rights.

Human rights are the birthright of every person and in the interests of every country. They ensure stability. They build solidarity. They promote inclusion and growth.

They must never be a vehicle for double standards or a means to pursue hidden agendas.


Sovereignty remains a bedrock principle of international relations. But national sovereignty cannot be a pretext for violating human rights. We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and national sovereignty go hand in hand. The promotion of human rights strengthens States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty.

Our enduring challenge is to transform the ambitions of the Universal Declaration into real- world change on the ground.

And this is why my Call to Action is to the UN family itself, to Member States, to parliamentarians, to the business community, to civil society and to people everywhere.

We have to fully mobilize the diverse capacities of the United Nations.

And let me also underscore a fundamental point: just as we must not discriminate between people, we cannot pick and choose among human rights.

It would be a mistake to diminish economic, social and cultural rights. But it would be equally misguided to think that those rights are sufficient to answer people’s yearning for freedom.

For our part, as a United Nations family, a culture of human rights must permeate all we do.

Indeed, when we push for a surge of diplomacy, we are reducing human suffering and promoting human rights.

When we press for climate action, we are advancing intergenerational justice and promoting human rights.

When we call out the rise of racism, white supremacy and other forms of extremism and issue the first-ever UN system-wide plan of action to combat hate speech, we are upholding human rights.

Human rights are part of the very identity of the United Nations.

And that means we must deploy a diverse toolbox of actions depending on situation and context.

At times we will work hand-in-hand with Governments and other stakeholders, providing technical support to build national human rights institutions and guide the national application of international norms and standards.

At other times we will speak out, identifying both violations and violators. At still other times we will work behind the scenes.

There is a place for each of these approaches, and often all three at once.


And the ultimate test is not the headlines we generate or the catharsis of public critique. Success must be measured by the yardstick of meaningful change in people’s lives.


Our Call to Action singles out seven areas where concerted effort can achieve a quantum leap in progress or avert the risk of backsliding.


Allow me to briefly outline each.

First, rights at the core of sustainable development.

Human rights permeate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The vast majority of the goals and targets correspond to legally binding human rights commitments made by every Member State. When we help lift people out of abject poverty – when we ensure education for all, notably girls – when we guarantee universal health care -- when everyone has equal access to opportunity and choice, we are enabling people to claim their rights and upholding the core pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.

This promise obliges us to tackle all forms of inequality and eliminate all forms of discrimination.

Nobody’s prospects in life should be determined because of age, gender, how they look, where they live, how they worship or who they love.

We also must focus on the needs and experiences of young people, people living with disabilities, minorities, indigenous communities, refugees, migrants and other groups facing specific challenges.

A human rights-based approach, oriented around peaceful and just societies and respect for the rule of law, delivers development that is more lasting and inclusive.

And today I call on all countries to put human rights principles and mechanisms front and centre in implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – including by creating wide avenues for civil society participation.

Second, rights in time of crisis.

Human rights face few greater tests than when conflicts erupt, terrorists attack or disaster strikes.

International human rights, refugee and humanitarian law can restore a measure of humanity in even the darkest moments.

Let me also underscore that even necessary efforts to combat terrorism must not compromise human rights. Otherwise, counter-terror actions will be counter-productive.

This Call to Action recognizes that respect for human rights is an essential crisis prevention mechanism.

But when prevention falls short and violence is rampant, people need protection.

To ensure the effectiveness and coherence of UN action, we will draw on extensive work in the field and develop a common agenda for protection that will apply to the United Nations family.


This agenda will take full account of differences in age, gender and diversity among the people we serve.

It will further focus on the protection of minorities and the rights of indigenous peoples.

And it will build on important initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front– enhancing human rights analysis and the expanding the presence of Human Rights Advisors within UN Country Teams.

Meanwhile, we will continue to engage with the Security Council and other UN bodies to raise awareness, prevent crises, protect people and ensure accountability, including through international criminal courts and other mechanisms for global justice. These are also vital instruments in the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes.

Third, gender equality and equal rights for women.

Human rights will never be realized without the human rights of women.

Yet in this year in which we mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform of Action, we see a pushback against women’s rights, alarming levels of femicide, attacks on women human rights defenders, and the persistence of laws and policies that perpetuate subjugation and exclusion.

Violence against women and girls is the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse.

We also continue to see chronic stagnation in women’s participation in political leadership roles, peace processes and economic inclusion.

The gaps may vary but the roots and reasons are the same: power.

For millennia, women have been systematically silenced, marginalized and ignored.

Policies and laws have been shaped largely through the experiences of only half of humanity.

We need a shift in our way of thinking, so that we consciously build socio-economic, governance and security systems that work for all.

As one noted expert wrote: “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine rather than women.”

That work starts within. On January 1st — for the first time in UN history — we achieved gender parity across our senior-most ranks of full-time Under- and Assistant-Secretaries-General

– 90 women and 90 men.


We pledge to reach gender parity throughout the UN system at all levels by 2028, apply a gender perspective to everything the United Nations does, strengthen our push for gender equality across the board, and better track and set benchmarks on funding for gender equality.

Quatrièmement, la participation citoyenne et l’espace civique.

Autour du monde, l’espace civique se réduit. Et à mesure qu’il se réduit, les droits humains se réduisent aussi.

Les lois répressives se multiplient, avec des restrictions de plus en plus grandes pour les libertés d’expression, de religion, de participation, de réunion et d’association.

Les journalistes, les défenseurs des droits humains et les militants écologistes – tout particulièrement les femmes – font l’objet de menaces croissantes, au moment même où leur engagement est indispensable à l’exercice de la justice.

Les nouvelles technologies ont certes permis à la société civile de mieux s’organiser, mais elles ont également donné aux autorités des moyens inédits pour contrôler les allées et venues de chacun et restreindre les libertés.

L’ONU ne pourrait tout simplement pas accomplir sa mission sans l’engagement actif de la société civile.

Nous redoublons d’efforts pour que les voix de la société civile puissent se faire à chaque fois entendre dans les organes et entités de l’ONU, avec une attention particulière aux organisations de défense des droits des femmes et aux jeunes.

Nous entendons aussi élaborer une stratégie à l’échelle du système visant à promouvoir et protéger l’espace civique et à renforcer les moyens d’action de la société civile.

Cinquièmement, les droits des générations futures.

La crise climatique est la plus grande menace pour la survie de notre espèce et met d’ores et déjà en danger les droits humains aux quatre coins de la planète.

Cette crise mondiale montre combien il est nécessaire de prendre pleinement en compte les droits des générations futures dans les décisions prises aujourd’hui.

Elle menace l’existence même de certains États Membres, en particulier les petits États insulaires en développement.

Si nous n’agissons pas, nos enfants et petits-enfants ne pourront jouir de tous leurs droits fondamentaux, loin de là. Nous entendons ces craintes à travers les voix des jeunes qui, courageusement, prennent la parole aujourd’hui.

Notre Appel à l’action s’appuiera sur le Sommet pour le climat de septembre – y compris le Sommet de la jeunesse pour le climat – pour plaider en faveur de l’action climatique et du droit à un environnement sûr, propre, sain et durable.

Nous entendons créer un espace où les jeunes pourront non seulement s’exprimer mais surtout participer et contribuer aux décisions qui façonneront leur avenir.

Sixièmement, l’action collective.

Mon Appel à l’action s’inscrit dans un cadre où les droits humains sont au cœur de l’action collective dont nous avons besoin pour faire face aux crises actuelles.

Le multilatéralisme doit être plus inclusif, s’inscrire davantage en réseaux et s’articuler autour des droits humains.

Nous allons saisir chaque occasion pour dialoguer avec les différentes parties prenantes, en particulier les États Membres, sur les questions des droits humains et les enjeux humanitaires, y compris le soutien accru aux institutions de défense des droits humains.

Nous renforcerons nos actions pour développer les capacités et soutenir les institutions étatiques et la société civile.

Nous continuerons d’entretenir un dialogue franc au sein du Conseil de sécurité, de l’Assemblée générale et du Conseil des droits de l’homme, ainsi qu’aux niveaux bilatéral comme régional.

L’Examen périodique universel est un outil essentiel de notre travail dans les pays. Nous avons ainsi recueilli un grand nombre de bonnes pratiques et d’expériences réussies, y compris dans les circonstances les plus difficiles. Et nous nous engageons aujourd’hui à accentuer nos efforts.

Je publierai bientôt de nouvelles orientations pratiques à l’intention de chaque représentant des Nations Unies dans les pays afin de renforcer nos plateformes de coopération et répondre aux défis des droits humains en utilisant la puissance et le potentiel de l’Examen périodique universel.

Dans tout ce que nous faisons, nous nous engageons à renforcer l’appui que nous apportons aux États Membres afin qu’ils mettent en place leurs propres institutions de défense des droits humains et utilisent pleinement les outils de l’ONU pour relever les défis d’aujourd’hui et de demain.

Septièmement, enfin, de nouvelles perspectives pour les droits humains.

L’ère numérique présente de nouvelles possibilités pour l’humanité en matière de bien-être, de connaissance et de découvertes.

Pourtant, les nouvelles technologies sont trop souvent utilisées pour enfreindre les droits et le respect de la vie privée, par le biais de la surveillance, de la répression ou du harcèlement et de la haine en ligne. Elles sont également utilisées par les organisations terroristes et les trafiquants d’êtres humains.

Des avancées telles que les logiciels de reconnaissance faciale, la robotique, l’identification numérique et la biotechnologie, ne doivent pas servir à saper les droits fondamentaux, creuser les inégalités ou aggraver les discriminations existantes.

Le Groupe indépendant de haut niveau sur la coopération numérique a montré la voie à suivre pour bâtir un monde dans lequel chacun profite des avancées numériques et des nouvelles perspectives qu’elles offrent.

En ce sens, nous plaiderons pour que les droits humains s’appliquent en ligne et pour que les données soient bien protégées, en particulier s’agissant des données personnelles et de santé.

La collaboration avec le secteur privé sera cruciale.

Nous nous emploierons également à renforcer les organes mondiaux essentiels comme le Forum sur la gouvernance de l’internet.

Enfin, nous devons veiller à ce que les machines autonomes ne puissent jamais tuer hors du contrôle ou sans l’aval d’un être humain.

Je réitère mon appel en faveur d’une interdiction mondiale des systèmes d’armes létales autonomes.

Excellences, Mesdames et Messieurs,

Je suis déterminé à mettre toute mon énergie et celle de l’Organisation derrière l’Appel à l’action que nous lançons aujourd’hui, et j’apporte tout mon soutien au travail indispensable de la Haute-

Commissaire aux droits de l’homme. Nous allons également renforcer davantage encore la collaboration étroite entre mon bureau et le Haut-Commissariat afin que nous soyons à la hauteur des engagements pris.

Je vous demande à toutes et tous de vous joindre à nous pour répondre à cet Appel – en faveur des hommes et des femmes et de la planète.

Les gens du monde entier veulent savoir que nous sommes de leur côté.

Qu'ils soient privés de leur dignité par la guerre, la répression ou la pauvreté, ou qu'ils rêvent simplement d'un avenir meilleur, ils invoquent leurs droits irréductibles - et ils comptent sur notre aide pour les faire respecter.

Les droits humains – qu’ils soient civils, culturels, économiques, politiques ou sociaux - sont à la fois le but et le chemin.

Œuvrons ensemble à la réalisation de la plus haute aspiration de l’humanité : que chacun et chacune puisse jouir de ses droits humains.

Je vous remercie.