Statements Multiple Mechanisms
Oral Update on global human rights developments and the activities of the UN Human Rights Office
13 June 2022
UN High Commissioner's Oral Update on global human rights developments to the 50th Human Rights Council session
Colleagues and friends,
It is an honour to address you today, in what continue to be challenging times for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Since we last gathered, the war in Ukraine continues to destroy the lives of many, causing havoc and destruction. The horrors inflicted on the civilian population will leave their indelible mark, including on generations to come.
Its social, economic and political ramifications ripple across the region and globally, with no end in sight.
A global food, fuel and finance crisis now risks plunging millions into food insecurity and poverty. 1.2 billion people live in countries that are severely exposed and vulnerable to all three dimensions of finance, food, and energy, simultaneously.
The World Food Programme estimates that the number of severely food insecure people is expected to grow from 276 million at the start of 2022 to 323 million in the course of the year.
According to the UN Global Crisis and Response Group the combination of higher food and energy prices, growing inflation, export restrictions, and tightening financial conditions will be devastating, in particular on the most vulnerable.
Inequalities between and within countries are skyrocketing, threatening COVID-19 recoveries, undermining progress in the implementation of the SDGs and slowing down climate action.
In the face of these multiple and intersecting challenges and rising global tensions, many people I meet are questioning not only their own futures, but the future of their societies, and of our globe.
I understand and share their concerns.
It is tempting to slip back into emergency mode and focus on putting out the first fires we see.
Yes, stronger, immediate action is needed to address the worst impacts and to limit human suffering.
But this is not sufficient.
We need to invest in addressing the conditions that provoke these crises.
I urge us, at precisely this moment of grave and profound threat, to pursue the path we had committed to in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We gathered in multilateral fora, in high level debates and donor meetings and spoke of global solutions and of putting people at the centre of our efforts. We committed ourselves to learning the lessons of the pandemic, and to recover better.
Eager to avoid the devastating consequences of the austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis, the international community agreed to change course: building – together - transformative societies and towards greener economies that will be more resilient to crises.
We are now facing a vital test of that commitment. And we need to meet it.
The 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement must remain our blueprint for this ambition.
Within the eight years that remain we must take bold and urgent action to generate the transformative change that is needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
That recognition has inspired Our Common Agenda and the Call to Action for human rights, in which the Secretary-General calls for a more networked and inclusive multilateralism, with actors joining forces to take on the global and interconnected challenges facing humanity.
In that spirit, and by drawing on the work of my office, allow me to highlight four areas of intervention that I hope can give us some direction in the face of the current crises.
First, we need to tackle inequality and discrimination.
We live in a world of staggering inequality, with one study estimating that global inequalities are about as great today as they were in the early 20th century.
The World Bank had projected 198 million more people living in extreme poverty during 2022 due to COVID-19. Global food prices alone are now estimated to add a further 65 million more people to that total.
While people across all income groups experienced losses during the pandemic, the poorest 20 percent experienced the steepest decline in incomes. And the poorest 40 percent haven’t started to recover their income losses.
And as the climate crisis continues to worsen for us all, it is again the poorest and most vulnerable who are bearing the harshest brunt.
People’s capacity to withstand yet another crisis is shrinking even further.
So we must further commit to redressing inequalities and discrimination. Today we know that greater equality can be an even more powerful engine than growth in reducing extreme poverty - a key goal of the 2030 Agenda.
My Office continues to expand its work to tackle inequality and discrimination, including by contributing to efforts to develop metrics beyond GDP, covering a range of inequalities, to measure progress. In a number of countries in Europe and the Americas, we have provided guidance and delivered training on anti-discrimination, minority and indigenous peoples rights to national authorities and UN entities.
We supported several countries to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities including Georgia, Malawi, Mozambique and North Macedonia.
Real progress also depends on investigating and seeking justice for victims of discrimination. OHCHR has provided technical advice to enhance investigation protocols for gender-related killings of women, for instance in Chile and Honduras.
My Office has also contributed to the development of UN system-wide operational guidance to United Nations country level work on Leave No One Behind.
In Guinea-Bissau, together with the UN country team and the Government, we supported country-wide consultations, including with most disadvantaged groups, to ensure a human rights based approach, in the country’s first voluntary national review. My Office also supported the government of Serbia to mainstream the pledge to Leave No One Behind in Government policy and law making. The development of an Action Plan for the National Anti-Discrimination Strategy will draw on these efforts.
This brings me to the issue of disaggregated data. We cannot fix what we cannot see. Disaggregated data – critical to fighting inequalities, particularly in the current context - remains largely unavailable, especially regarding multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
There is an urgent need to strengthen statistical capacities of countries, including through increased international support. To that end, together with UNDP, my Office launched a joint project to strengthen UN country teams’ and NHRIs’ capacities on SDGs and prevention, including on disaggregated indicators and data on marginalized and vulnerable groups.
Second, national budgets should integrate human rights
If national budgets integrate States’ human rights obligations and are designed and implemented through a human rights-based approach, they can be a powerful lever for SDG progress. If they allocate sufficient resources to cover at least minimum essential levels of economic and social rights, we can deliver better development results.
Increasing national spending in social sectors, with a focus on accessibility, affordability, and quality of services and non-discrimination, particularly in the current context, will strengthen countries’ capacity to withstand shocks.
In this regard, my office is assisting countries to analyse their budgets, mobilise resources and create more fiscal space through a human rights lens.
For instance, through the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, we helped assess the human rights compliance of a Government social protection cash transfer scheme. By drawing on UPR recommendations and inclusive consultations, proposals were made on mobilising domestic resources and through debt relief, with a view to leave no one behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the stabilising force of social protection.
States adopted and financed innovative measures during the pandemic: they expanded coverage to informal workers, undocumented migrants and specific vulnerable populations; some integrated gender-responsive elements; some increased social protection benefits; and enacted laws to support employees and the self-employed.
These measures helped mitigate the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.
And yet, today, over 4 billion people – more than half of the world`s population – still do not have access to any social protection. The UN Global Crisis and Response Group notes that developing countries miss $1.2 trillion per year to fill the social protection gap. The Group warns that unless social protection systems are adequately extended, people will be forced to make choices with severe impact on health, education and livelihoods.
Investing in social protection systems pays off in the short-term – by mitigating crisis – and in the long term, by nurturing human development and economic productivity, and fostering resilient institutions.
My Office has also supported States in their efforts in this regard.
In Timor Leste, together with the Government and ILO, we are exploring strategies to extend social protection coverage to women informal workers who are disproportionately affected by poverty.
My office also engaged with the South Africa Development Community in preparing its Model Law on Public Finance Management. We provided guidance on human rights-based social sector investment, and made recommendations on domestic resource mobilization options, including progressive taxation. This law can, we hope, serve as a benchmark for national Parliaments to reinforce their domestic legal framework on public financial management.
Countries have different capacities to invest in social protection. Therefore, more than ever we see the need for universal, comprehensive, and sustainable social protection systems as called for by human rights and by ILO recommendation 202.
Real progress can only occur if bold initiatives such as the proposed Global Fund for Social Protection can get off the ground.
Third, greater international cooperation and solidarity – including for debt relief - is needed now.
Without a significant boost in financial resources, we will not be able to achieve the SDGs.
The financing gap to achieve the SDGs has widened by over 70 per cent to an annual amount of $4.3 trillion.
This gap requires countries to mobilise public and private resources both domestically and internationally. Yet, spiralling debt and uncertain prospects of economic outlook – which will be further exacerbated in the current context - are holding many developing countries back. In 2022, it is estimated that these countries will require $311 billion to service public external debt, amounting to 13.6 per cent of government revenues.
Strengthening fiscal systems can certainly help raise additional domestic resources in all countries.
But for many countries at various levels of development, support is crucial.
Against this backdrop, I urge countries to remember our commitment to build forward better. This is the time to redouble efforts towards the O.7 per cent ODA target, armed with the knowledge that social spending today yields better societal outcomes tomorrow.
Lurking behind these finance concerns is a looming debt crisis, as the Secretary-General has warned .
So early and coordinated action of all, in particular international financial institutions, but also public and private creditors, is urgently needed.
International financing mechanisms to support strong national fiscal responses need to be fully funded and operationalised to meet the SDGs.
We also need to improve regulation of private sector actors such as ratings agencies. The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights can serve as a robust guide for better aligning private investment with human rights and development objectives.
Finally, in order to shift towards a system with coordinated, comprehensive and sustainable debt solutions we need a reform of the international financial architecture.
And the role of international financial institutions is critical in supporting indebted countries. International human rights law provides the framework for this support, including how to mitigate retrogression in the fulfilment of rights. This involves ensuring that measures adopted do not result in discriminatory outcomes, in particular for the most marginalised.
And finally – civic space. I wish to conclude on what I think is the most crucial – and valuable – element of building resilience in times of crisis.
These are times for greater – not less - transparency and broader space for civic engagement and participation if we are serious about our commitments to build transformative and greener societies. A vibrant civic space is a lever of a stable, secure society. Yet, we continue documenting attacks against defenders and journalists, off-line and online, worldwide.
We cannot separate progress on economic goals, such as reducing poverty, from the rights of those who are the intended beneficiaries of those developments – including the right of those people to be heard.
I know and have seen that a life in dignity means securing the rights to work, to housing, to food, to water and sanitation.
I have also experienced, first-hand, that these rights can only be protected and fulfilled if people have the space to express their views and to demand the change they wish to see.
Together, these rights are the life blood of a vibrant, just and peaceful society.
By contrast, arresting those who protest peacefully, shutting down independent media, detaining lawyers - these are measures that not only violate rights, they eat away at the foundations of our prosperity and security.
The lessons here are clear, and are visible in the most powerful countries in the world, West and East. When we adopt laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, take shortcuts by profiling groups, give broad license to law enforcement without sufficient independent oversight, we damage not only our credibility but our stability. Terrorism is a scourge that unites us all in horror and commitment to combat it. But there can only be success in countering terrorism if, in doing so, we fully live up to the values we are defending.
I am proud to lead United Nations efforts, under the Secretary-General’s Call to Action, to make civil society participation more inclusive and safer. My Office led efforts to develop the UN system guidance note on civic space, and has supported human rights defenders networks in the Pacific and the Americas as well as the Women Human Rights Defenders networks in Ethiopia, Tanzania and elsewhere in East Africa.
State responses to our growing challenges make or break the lived reality of human beings everywhere. Free and fair elections are critical, but people will measure the success of democracy by the extent to which they feel tangible differences in their lives.
Human rights reaffirm what economists are telling us – that progress on human rights and development make economic sense and deliver better outcomes in the medium and longer term.
Human rights are the tool to respond to political pressures for a quick fix.
And they are the tools that bring people together.
This is not a pretty path: open societies can be chaotic, with their flaws visible to all, and their results not immediate.
But it is a steady one. I hope we can unite on this path.
Since I last updated you, I have undertaken two country visits – first to Afghanistan and most recently China. I will update you separately on Afghanistan on Wednesday.
During my visit to China I engaged in dialogue with the most senior leaders and officials at national level, and met with key representatives at regional level in Guangdong and Xinjiang.
We had discussions on specific human rights concerns, including human rights violations in the context of China’s policies for countering terrorism and safeguarding national security, protection of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, judicial and legal protection including for women, human rights in the digital space, and business and human rights. I also raised concerns regarding the human rights situation of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, including broad arbitrary detention and patterns of abuse, both in the VETC system and in other detention facilities. My Office’s assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang is being updated. It will be shared with the Government for factual comments before publication.
In addition, I raised human rights concerns in the Tibet and Hong Kong regions and discussed possible follow up actions with my Office.
I am also grateful for the informative and frank exchanges my team and I had with survivors and their family members and with civil society representatives, including outside of the country, whose information and perspectives are vital.
I have always emphasized the importance of dialogue in my engagement with all Member States, even on the most difficult issues. Going forward, we have agreed with the Government of China to hold an annual senior meeting on human rights and to continue exchanges on the abovementioned topics and specific human rights issues of concern. We are now elaborating concrete steps to put the agreements into action.
I now wish to update you on a few critical situations that call for urgent action. I will not touch on those situations that are the subject of separate discussions during this session: being, alongside Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.
I remain concerned about persistent impunity for violations of human rights.
In Haiti, impunity for corruption and human rights violations and abuses is a structural and longstanding challenge and one of the root causes of violence. The rapid deterioration of the human rights situation particularly in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, results from violent clashes between heavy armed gangs rapidly expanding their control over the capital. Killings, kidnappings, sexual violence, including against children, are used to instil fear and displace the local population. Urgent, comprehensive action by the international community to tackle sexual violence and strengthen accountability mechanisms is necessary.
On her recent trip to South Sudan, while acknowledging some progress in the area of transitional justice, my Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights called on the authorities to fight impunity, hold perpetrators of human rights violations to account and encouraged compensation to victims. The institutional vacuum in Abyei, impeding justice and accountability for violations, including those linked with killings of civilians in the context of intercommunal violence, continues to be worrying.
In Kazakhstan, I welcome investigations related to events that took place earlier this year, and call for ensuring that they are conducted thoroughly and independently, ensuring accountability.
I call on the Israeli authorities to open a criminal investigation into the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, to promptly make conclusions and findings public, and to hold perpetrators accountable. Under international human rights law, Israel should investigate and ensure appropriate accountability for every case of death and serious injury inflicted by Israeli Forces. The prevailing climate of impunity is fuelling further violations and violence - the now chronically high levels of killings and injuries of Palestinians, including children, by Israeli Forces in the occupied Palestinian territory have continued in the first six months of 2022.
I continue to have concerns with threats to the rule of law in several countries.
In Türkiye, the trials and prison sentences of activists and political opponents such as Osman Kavala, his seven co-defendants and Canan Kaftancıoğlu are of concern, as they appear to be targeted for their dissenting views. In the run-up to the elections, I urge special attention be paid to fundamental freedoms, political participation, due process, gender equality and addressing the rise in violence and anti-refugee sentiment.
I am worried about plans in the United Kingdom to replace one of the most important pieces of its human rights legislation – the Human Rights Act – with more limited legislation. I have concerns that repeal of key elements of the Human Rights Act would risk undermining access to justice and the right to effective remedies, introduce legal uncertainty, and increase costs.
In Guatemala, we observe, over a sustained period of time, a pattern of attacks against justice officials for their work involving emblematic cases of serious human rights violations, corruption and impunity. The state must guarantee the independence of judicial institutions and protection of justice officials.
In Mexico, I encourage the strengthening of civil institutions to establish an orderly plan to withdraw the military from public security tasks.
In Singapore, I am also concerned about the recent executions of two persons for drug related offences. More than 60 defendants are estimated to be on death row. With over 50 people facing this irreversible penalty for drug related offences, the vast majority of whom have exhausted appeals, I urge the Government to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, especially for non-violent, drug related crimes.
I commend the announcement of steps taken to abolish the death penalty in its entirety in the Central African Republic and to remove the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia, as well as the pledge made by the President of Zambia to abolish the death penalty. I urge all States that have not abolished it yet to join the global trend towards universal abolition, and to fully respect the right to life.
While recognising a State’s duty to address increasing criminality and ensure security I urge authorities to ensure measures are implemented in line with international human rights law.
For example, in El Salvador, the measures adopted under the state of emergency to fight gang violence together with subsequent criminal law amendments increase the risk of arbitrary detention and torture of detainees. More than 38,000 people have been arrested in the context of the state of emergency, raising concerns about respect for due process guarantees. Of particular concern are the at least 21 deaths in custody reported by official sources.
In Colombia, I welcome the peaceful and democratic character of the first round of the presidential elections, and trust a similar spirit will govern the run off, guaranteeing political rights. I urge effective implementation of the peace agreement, particularly the dismantling of groups responsible for the increase in violence. I welcome the significant transitional justice developments, including acknowledgement by military officials of responsibility for killings of civilians falsely presented as killed in combat. I call on the State to ensure independent transitional justice mechanisms and guarantee the protection of participating witnesses and victims.
Since the recent unconstitutional changes of power in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali, we await reasonable transition roadmaps and election calendars to yield power to civilian-led Governments with democratic legitimacy. I urge inclusive transitions that address the wider grievances of the populations and build democratic societies grounded in accountability and rule of law.
In the Central African Republic and Mali my field offices have recorded a worsening human rights situation as state military operations have increased, including with the reported deployment of private military actors. In Burkina Faso, civilians are victims of attacks and threats posed by extremist armed group, as well as of national military and security operations with the support of the Volontaires pour la Defense de la Patrie, a pro-Government militia.
Regional partnerships and collective responses to security challenges and terrorism-related threats in the Sahel are crucial. I regret the paralysis of the G5 Sahel Joint Force stemming from Mali’s decision to withdraw from all G5 Sahel organs. My Office remains committed to support national and regional actors to protect civilians in the Sahel region and ensure accountability.
In addition to renewed escalations in human rights violations and abuses as part of the conflict in northern Ethiopia, I am concerned about reports of human rights violations and abuses in the Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia regions, including attacks against civilians, arbitrary detentions and destruction of properties. Growing religious tensions in various cities signal the need to tackle the underlying issues.
In Yemen, in the context of grave food insecurity, the fragile truce which began on 2 April 2022 continues to hold and I call on all parties to agree to its extension and to work with the UN Special Envoy on implementing all its provisions. This was followed by a transfer of executive power to a Presidential Leadership Council which, regrettably, includes not a single woman. I urge this Council to also prioritise a peaceful end to the judiciary strike which has negatively affected due process safeguards
I also wish to draw attention to the impact of the war in Ukraine on those caught up in protracted conflicts in the region, including parts of the South Caucasus region, the Western Balkans as well as the Transnistria region in Moldova. I encourage stepped up engagement through existing negotiations to contribute to prevention, confidence-building and protection in the region.
And we observe worrying consequences on human rights as a result of economic and other crises in some countries.
For instance, in Sri Lanka, I urge the Government to ensure immediate relief for the most marginalized and vulnerable groups and to prioritise social protection as it negotiates a recovery plan. I hope efforts will focus on deeper institutional reforms to ensure greater transparency and accountability in governance, reduce inequalities and advance reconciliation and justice for all communities.
The growing poverty, inequality, food insecurity and reduced access to health care and other essential services in Lebanon are troubling. Following the recent elections, I call for the urgent formation of a new Government that can enact human rights-based reforms. I also call upon the authorities to urgently enable the resumption of the investigation into the Beirut port explosion – which took place almost two years ago - with a view to ensuring accountability.
I remain concerned by the likely human rights impact of the reported outbreak of COVID-19 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the absence of any vaccination rollout, the limited healthcare infrastructure and the precarious food situation, the impact, particularly on vulnerable populations, is likely to be severe. Once again, I urge the international community to relax sanctions to enable urgent humanitarian and COVID-related assistance and encourage the DPRK to open channels for humanitarian support, including the presence of UN staff.
For Angola and Kenya, I join the UN system in expressing hope for peaceful and inclusive elections, where Angolans and Kenyans can freely and safely exercise their rights and fundamental freedoms, without discrimination, as guaranteed by their Constitutions.
I am increasingly alarmed by significant setbacks relating to women’s rights, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Restrictive abortion laws and practical barriers pose a threat to human rights, with disproportionate impact on women with limited resources. Unsafe abortions are a leading – but preventable - cause of maternal morbidity and many times mortality. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are critical for women’s well-being and for development. I welcome the decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court in February to decriminalize abortion, following positive developments globally, including most recently in Argentina and Mexico regarding these rights.
This is a time for progress, not further restrictions on these essential rights, as is under consideration in the United States of America.
In my update to this Council in March, I stressed the disturbing trend of reduction of civic space, including attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, and undue restrictions on freedom of expression and of the media. These trends continue.
In Brazil, I am alarmed by threats against environmental human rights defenders and indigenous people, including exposure to contamination by illegal gold mining. Recent cases of police violence and structural racism are of concern, as are attacks against legislators and candidates, particularly those of African descent, women and LGBTI+ people, ahead of the general elections in October. I call on authorities to ensure respect for fundamental rights and independent institutions.
In the Russian Federation, the arbitrary arrest of a large number of anti-war protesters is worrying. New criminal law restrictions were introduced, including general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous notions, including “false news” or “non-objective information”. I also regret the increase in censorship and restrictions on independent media.
In Tajikistan, due process standards must be respected in cases of alleged human rights violations against activists, journalists and bloggers. I encourage the government to seek constructive communication with all communities, secure freedom of expression for all and observe its international human rights commitments.
It was once assumed that increased globalisation, which brought with it converging economic and technological interests, could shield us from division.
But we are experiencing the opposite.
We are witnessing deeper polarization, with global events and behaviour driving States further apart, with some even more emboldened in their positions, and others caught in the crossfire.
In such an environment dialogue stagnates.
The dialogue that is needed for real change to happen can only occur when challenges are pursued with a common purpose, focusing on what unites, rather than what divides us.
I urge us to marshal a greater sense of collective responsibility and ambition that puts people, their protection, and their rights first.
We can then move closer together, certain in our course of securing a life of dignity for all.
As my term as High Commissioner draws to a close, this Council’s milestone fiftieth session will be the last which I brief. This Council, for all of the differences of its members, remains central to protecting and promoting the human rights that lie at the heart of our common humanity. It has proven its ability to do that, and I therefore encourage you all to continue to seek dialogue, to be willing to hear the other, to understand respective points of view and to actively work towards identifying common ground, as prerequisites to achieving durable solutions to the challenges that threaten us all.
This Council’s work is also the richer for the voices and involvement of civil society in all its diversity. I encourage the Council to preserve and enhance their unique contribution and participation in this forum.
I thank you.
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