Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
2021 Humanitarian Affairs Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council Strengthening humanitarian assistance to face the challenges of 2021 and beyond: mobilizing respect for international humanitarian law, inclusion, gender, innovation and partnership
23 June 2021
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
23 June 2021
Secretary of State Livia Leu,
Mr Rajasingham, Excellencies,
Thank you for this invitation to address a very important topic. To strengthen humanitarian assistance so that it can face the challenges of today, and beyond, we do indeed need to mobilize much greater respect – for international human rights and humanitarian law; for the imperative of inclusion, including with respect to sex and gender; and for the principles of innovation and partnership.
Above all, the world's leaders need to come to grips with the need to address root causes.
Humanitarian assistance is vital and life-saving. But – and I speak as a doctor, here – it can only hope to treat the symptoms of a much deeper pathology. Humanitarian aid cannot deal with the deep causes of conflict, suffering and displacement.
To stem those trends, and significantly reduce the risks and vulnerabilities that are being faced by millions of people, we need human rights principles to be front and centre in our analysis and our policy action with respect to all crises.
The twin disasters of the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing climate change, are exacerbating conflicts and crises around the world.
The virus has exposed the world's weak spots – many of them longstanding zones of suffering and risk created by patterns of human rights violations, discrimination and protection gaps. And it has expanded them.
It has deepened inequalities; shattered systems for health-care and education; reversed progress on women's equality; and thrown millions of people into poverty and hunger. In many countries, the pandemic has also heightened the repression of fundamental freedoms, as the authorities harass, attack or detain journalists, demonstrators and many others for criticizing the government’s response to COVID-19.
Situations of violence, armed conflicts, natural hazards and public health emergencies are overlapping and fuelling each other – a recipe for disaster.
We can do better.
Advancing human rights-based solutions needs to be central to all responses to such crises. This is the central message of the Secretary-General's Call to Action on Human Rights, which places support for the full spectrum of all human rights at the core of the work of all UN teams.
The Call to Action underscores the power of human rights to ensure sound and inclusive development, sustainable peace, and societies that are grounded in justice and trust. Powering the triple nexus of humanitarian, development and peace assistance, human rights work also drives concrete investment in long-term resilience and local capacities to address protracted crises.
Humanitarian action should not be divorced from the deeper political and human rights context, and it needs to be accompanied by work to tackle root causes.
In Yemen, despite persistent funding issues and an overall calamitous human rights situation, human rights monitoring work complements and informs humanitarian assistance. My Office documents violations, as well as civilian deaths, with a view to future accountability and prevention, since consistent advocacy with all parties regarding their obligations under international law is important to deterrence.
Our monitoring includes both violations of civil and political rights – such as enforced disappearances, arbitrary killings and so on – but also access to food, education, healthcare and other economic, social and cultural rights. This assists our humanitarian partners to frame a more comprehensive response which focuses on the specific situations of the most vulnerable groups. For example, the conflict in Yemen disproportionately affects women and girls, who face increased prevalence of gender-based violence and other obstacles to their access to life-saving services. It is vital to ensure that the needs of women, members of minority communities, people with disabilities and others who suffer systemic discrimination are prioritized in humanitarian interventions.
Indeed, the long-standing marginalization of certain groups in Yemen – including minorities, internally displaced people and youth – is among the root causes of the current conflict. Exclusion and patronage-based politics, as well as inequitable development and basic service provision across Yemen – have nourished grievances. Our continued work to promote the dignity and rights of all Yemenis is vital to efforts to resolve the conflict.
In Myanmar, the coup in February has sparked an acute human rights crisis, involving serious violations of human rights by the military leadership seeking to consolidate its control. Our Office has received credible reports of nearly 900 deaths, with more than 5000 people either arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared. Civilians caught in the violence have been forced to flee into forest areas in Chin, Kayah, Kachin, Kayin and Shan states, where they have little access to food, water, medical assistance or other critical services. In numerous localities, we are seeing very serious humanitarian crisis. And the situation for Rohingya refugees and IDPs – and their prospects for return – have further deteriorated.
This is a clear demonstration of the interconnectedness of human rights violations and humanitarian calamity. Unless the international community can address the human rights and political root causes of these humanitarian emergencies, humanitarian action will not lead to durable and sustainable solutions – and humanitarian needs will only expand.
The conflict in Tigray, in Ethiopia, is another urgent example. Our Office continues to document violations of international law, including against refugees and internally displaced people, by all parties to the conflict. Monitoring of the conflict's impact on access to food, water, healthcare and other economic, social and cultural rights also continues to be critical to inform humanitarian action. We are also engaged in joint advocacy with humanitarian partners for full access for both humanitarian and human rights actors.
Our joint investigation work with the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission enables us to build national capacity to address impunity for violations of international law. More broadly, it is clear that only inclusive dialogue and reconciliation processes can address the root causes of ethnic conflicts. Our Office stands ready to support such work.
It is in times of crisis that humanity can demonstrate the strength of principle, and the value of cooperation.
The COVID-19 crisis and other recent events have reinforced the need for better coordination between humanitarian, development and peace actors.
Our office joined the inter-agency efforts to fight and respond to COVID-19’s impact. Our contributions aimed at raising awareness on people left behind. We have also mainstreamed a human rights based approach to policy guidance, advocacy message and to the global humanitarian response. To cite one, we co-drafted with WHO the guidance on people deprived of liberty, which was used globally to encourage state to find alternative non-custodial measures. Our involvement continue in the monitoring of the vaccine roll-out working with the Global Health Cluster, WHO and UNICEF.
Putting human rights at the centre means tackling systemic inequalities, including by strengthening universal health coverage, social protection and education, as well as everyone's fundamental right to participate in public affairs. When voices are silenced, grievances fester; polarization and segregation deepen; and violence becomes more likely. As with all human rights, participation and inclusion help to unlock prevention.
The time for us to implement these principles is now.