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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Lecture at Institute of Human Rights, Guangzhou University: Human rights in the world: the role of multilateralism

25 May 2022

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends an event at the United Nations in Geneva, 3 November 2021 © Reuters

Delivered by

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


Guangzhou, China

A broadcast quality video available at

Good morning.

Thank you to the Institute for Human Rights of Guangzhou University for welcoming me.

I am pleased to address you all today.

I greatly value my exchanges with students. Even though I do have a long career behind me, and I am also a grandmother - I like to define myself not as old but as a person with accumulated youth.

An accumulation of parcels of passion and energy, of possibility and hope.

Your generation has experienced dramatic changes.

Some of them good, some of them more challenging.

Major demographic transformations both within your country and globally, growing economic interconnectedness, rapid digital advances, a global health pandemic and its socio-economic consequences, climate change.

And finding your place within those changes is one of the greatest challenges of all.

This is why the commitment to human rights education is so crucial.

Human rights education invites all of us to participate in a dialogue about how human rights can be translated into our own social, economic, cultural and political reality.

It provides concrete solutions to the challenges people face.  It empowers individuals to identify their – and others’ – human rights, and to claim and defend them. As such, it is a strong investment in building a just, peaceful and equitable future for everyone.

We are living in a time of uncertainty and unpredictability, with the intersection of multiple global crises. Climate change, growing socio-economic inequalities across the globe, conflict and tensions in countries across the world are pushing millions from the safety of their homes and putting dignity and human life at grave risk.

The fall-out on employment, health and housing from the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. The World Bank had projected 198 million more extreme poor during 2022 due to COVID-19. Global food prices alone are now estimated to add a further 65 million more people to that total.

The impacts are, as always, the hardest on the most marginalised and excluded. Women, minorities, persons with disabilities, children, migrants.

But amidst all these challenges, we are also seeing beacons of hope.

We are witnessing the tremendous power of youth.

Over the course of the past few years, I have been inspired by the movements and actions of young people challenging discrimination, injustice and inequalities.

We have seen powerful demonstrations of youth commitment to equality, climate action and human rights.

Young people are influencing debates of national and international importance and prompting social change - including by demanding a seat at the table and holding governments and businesses to account for their inaction.

Their intelligence, creativity and courage is a testament to the unique value of youth in shaping not only our future but also our present.

A fundamental ingredient for youth to be able to play that role is an open civic space where they can voice their opinions and seek change.

In his Call to Action for Human Rights and in Our Common Agenda, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed how young people need space to participate in the decisions that will shape their future – which is crucial for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

So how can we make sure that the gains we have achieved don’t slip away?

My experience has shown me – has proven to me – that no country can face global challenges alone.

We need each other.

All of us – not only governments, but also individuals – must dare to embark on that dialogue and engagement.

While there is no magic answer to eradicate the various crises we face, we do have the tools at our disposal to emerge stronger from them.

Multilateralism creates a space for us for dialogue, both regionally and globally, in order to reach realistic agreements. It is key to advancing human rights and sustainable development for all.

When grounded in human rights – be they the civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights that are inherent to us all as human beings - I am convinced that such action can allow us to make tremendous leaps forward.

Today, I wish to focus on three of the many human rights issues facing our world.

As a Permanent Member of the Security Council, the second largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and a major troop contributing country, China can play an important role in multilateral discussions to help bring about meaningful progress in these areas.

Let me begin with the area of peace and security.

Peace is the central promise of the Charter of the United Nations and one of the principal global public goods the United Nations was established to deliver.

Yet, in all regions, we witness inter-ethnic tensions, violent coups, protracted conflicts, all exacerbated by rapidly evolving weapons technologies. The recent frontal assault on the most fundamental directive of the UN Charter should concern us all.

The past decade has seen a disturbing trend towards conflict, with the laws of war and international human rights law being flouted around the world, including in Syria, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen and Myanmar to name a few.

Hospitals are attacked; indiscriminate weapons that make no distinction between soldiers and civilians, including children, are used.  

Millions of people are pushed from the safety of their homes, their right to life threatened, children are deprived of access to health or education, and societies held back from safety and the ability to develop.

As I expressed to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, it is precisely at time of crisis when investment in multilateral and human rights-based action brings effective solutions.

Independent monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, with a rigorous methodology, is a decisive and unbiased way of gathering accurate information on conflicts, and their impact on people. It is through such methods that we can establish the truth and take steps towards accountability.

Prevention of future conflict also depends heavily on concrete, targeted action to protect human rights. This involves addressing systemic denials of human rights, such as long-standing discriminatory laws and practices or violations of access to economic, social or cultural rights.

The international human rights framework, and its mechanisms for implementation, are the tools we have to help States identify these gaps, and how to best address them. In addition, SDG 16 captures well the connections between peace, justice, inclusive institutions, and sustainable development.

Most crucially, an inclusive and open civic space assists States in identifying gaps and solutions on how to protect human rights to sustain peace and development.

This leads me to the second issue I wish to address today -  Sustainable Development. The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the core of the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. States have committed to 'leave no one behind' and “reach those furthest behind first” and pay special attention to marginalized groups.

The Agenda’s major strength is that it brings all countries of the world together, calling on each to expand their inclusive forces, so they can transform together to meet our shared challenges. However, the planetary crisis, COVID-19 and ongoing conflicts have set us back in achieving all the goals.

I am convinced that fast-tracking equality can quickly get us back on the right path.

This means ensuring we have an economy that works for everyone, especially the hardest hit: the excluded and discriminated. Those with no voice and little bargaining power.

This means budgets that work for those who have been left furthest behind, to ensure access to essential levels of health care, social protection and education for all.

This means greater transparency in budget decisions and spending, for corporations paying their fair share; for greater progressive taxation; and for structural reforms that reduce economic and political power inequalities.

Above all, this involves tackling the underlying discrimination on the basis of peoples’ racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic origin, or other ground. It requires the revision and amendment of laws, policies and practices that discriminate on these bases; it means investigating and preventing violations of their rights; and ensuring inclusive participation in decision-making in full respect of cultural, religious or other traditions.

Women living in poverty are also far removed from public life, weighed down by restrictions on their access to economic resources, mobility, information. Promoting their participation in decision-making must be a priority. Earlier this year, on a visit to Afghanistan, I insisted that the grave humanitarian crisis in the country could only be adequately addressed if women have a seat at the table.

Development is only sustainable if we integrate human rights and environmental protections in development policy and plans with the participation of those affected.

China’s role here is crucial – for instance, when it comes to infrastructure-related SDGs, together with development finance institutions.

According to the World Bank, developing countries need to invest around 4.5 per cent of GDP in order to achieve infrastructure-related SDGs and meet global climate change targets.

However, even in the best of times, getting infrastructure right is not simple.

In many countries, my Office has documented various human rights problems associated with transport, energy and other infrastructure projects globally.

We have observed some projects with limited transparency; or that have involved little consultation with local communities or forced evictions loss of indigenous peoples' culture and livelihoods, suppression of civil society voices, gender-based violence, gender-blind project design, unaffordable user fees, forced and child labour, and negative fiscal impacts.

In 2018 I had called upon G20 finance ministers to better integrate human rights considerations in infrastructure development. The following year, the G20 issued a set of Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment which ask that “Design, delivery, and management of infrastructure should respect human rights.” (Principle 5.2)

For infrastructure investment to be sustainable and resilient, we need high social and environmental standards, and human rights due diligence. So it is encouraging that development finance institutions are increasingly integrating human rights within their operational policies.

I note the important commitment in the Human Rights Action Plan of China, that the government will encourage Chinese businesses to “abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in their foreign trade and investment, conduct due diligence on human rights, and fulfill their social responsibility to respect and promote human rights.”  

The Chinese Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Mineral Supply Chains are explicitly based upon the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and contain robust guidance on risk-based due diligence, building on the strength of international standards. These Guidelines offer an excellent model for adaptation in infrastructure sectors.

Finally, this provides a natural transition to the next issue I wish to raise this morning: climate change.

An estimated one in six premature deaths are caused by pollution. Tens of millions of people are displaced each year by climate change. Biodiversity loss threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that we are heading towards catastrophe.

The alarm bell rang a long time ago.

As with the other issues discussed today, climate change disproportionately impacts those who are already in vulnerable situations, such as women, youth, minorities and persons with disabilities. Many environmental human rights defenders are themselves indigenous peoples or members of local communities, or they represent them.

Protecting the environment goes hand-in-hand with protecting the rights of those who defend it. Their voices must be heard - and protected. Resolution 40/11 of the Human Rights Council has highlighted that the work of environmental human rights defenders is linked to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development.

The UN Human Rights Council recently recognized – in its resolution 48/13 - that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right. The resolution recognized environmental degradation and climate change as interconnected human rights crises and invites governments to further consider the matter at the UN General Assembly.

Over 150 countries already recognize and protect the right to a healthy environment. I hope China will join this group. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, indeed, our health, wellbeing and survival all depend on a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

The international community must act with single-minded purpose and solidarity to deploy every possible resource to protect and fulfil the human right to a healthy environment.

Dear all,

One of the most important ways to meaningfully put people and their rights at the centre of our action - is by ensuring the right to participate and by opening space for dialogue.

Here, I welcome the fact that the right to political participation is one of the areas of special interest of this Institute.

Why is participation so important?

When various sectors of society are brought into discussions, are included in debate, it allows for a deeper understanding of the issues. With different voices at the table, States can better identify gaps in laws and policies, to make sure they are more just.

So that laws and policies better reflect the situation of the people they are meant to serve and that conflicting interests are better balanced.

So problems can be quickly reported and solutions can be found that work for everyone and meet our equality goals.

When decisions are more informed and sustainable, public institutions are more effective, accountable and transparent.

I encourage you to read the UN Guidelines for States on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs, which are a set of recommendations for States on how to make this right a reality.

You may be familiar with the three pillars of the United Nations. They are Peace and Security; Development; and Human Rights.

If we examine events around the world - as I hope I have inspired you today to do – it seems to me that we can better achieve our objectives if we understand the connections between these three pillars. Through human rights, including development we can have sustainable peace. Human rights, equality and the rule of law are the levers that deliver development and peace.

I know the world is better when we work together in this way – men and women; old and young; people from across societies, and between societies and countries across the world.

My Office is committed to continue its critical role in shaping human rights multilateralism and encouraging constructive engagement.

Your contribution is crucial: we need your creativity and determination to find solutions grounded in the basic understanding that all of us are equally deserving of dignity, respect and justice.

To foster a sense of our common humanity while embracing and valuing our diversities.

I look forward to having a discussion with you.

Thank you.