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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
26 June 2023
Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening about the important role Geneva plays as an international hub – a centre for a wide range of people working on humanitarian affairs and human rights, including labour rights and the right to health.
You have the privilege of studying in a city that prospered by offering refuge to people fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century. And where, in 1864, Henry Dunant founded the Red Cross, laying the groundwork for the modern conception of this city as an international champion of humanitarianism and human rights.
In addition to the many UN agencies and humanitarian organisations that are based here, Geneva is an important place for ideas to come together. I think particularly of the very innovative initiative on the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, which you may know as GESDA.
It uses the sharp end of some of our generation's most interesting technological advances to tackle fundamental questions and to look into the future. Who are we, as humans, at a time of so much bio-engineered change and so many artificially intelligent devices? How can we all live together? How can we use technology, not competitively but to ensure the well-being of humankind and the sustainable future of our planet?
We can reach for a better future when we have come to truly understand the challenges and lessons of the past, and this is really the theme I want to discuss.
Because as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I feel this deeply.
My Office is headquartered in the historic Palais Wilson, in the Pâquis neighbourhood. It was once the seat of the League of Nations, the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation, set up after World War I to maintain world peace.
The League of Nations is unfortunately not always held in high regard these days, but it may at least stand as a lesson in the value of perseverance.
After it failed to live up to hopes – after a second global war and the massive crimes of the Holocaust – massive human rights violations and massive displacement – States redoubled their efforts, and created the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And alongside the UN Charter, they drafted a simple, rather short document, 30 articles, that set out the lessons they had drawn from the destruction, murder and chaos of the first part of the 20th century. These were the steps that would walk the world out of mayhem and towards greater prosperity, justice and peace.
That is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the most translated document in history, and among the most powerful.
This year, we are celebrating 75 years of the that visionary and rather beautiful document. For those who have not read it, or not read it recently, I encourage you to do so. It is worth reading it often.
Especially those of you are who students and young professionals starting your summer studies.
When I read it for the first time I was about 15 years old and it grabbed my attention. It is a text that has inspired me enormously, and it grounded my lifelong commitment to human rights.
Human rights are a common language of humanity, a unifying force at the heart of which lies human dignity and the consequent duty of care for other human beings, irrespective of circumstances.
We believe that this language of human rights can overcome the division and polarisation which have tragically gained the upper hand recently. This language can make peace with nature, our planet and point the way to sustainable development for future generations.
Let us not forget that human rights is not a Western construct as some people would like that we believe. It has roots in many traditions, including the Haitian revolution, and it was drafted as a result of advocacy primarily by non-Western Member States.
Let me refer also to another anniversary: the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action that led to establishment of my Office, the UN Human Rights Office, 30 years ago. After decolonisation, after the apartheid régime fell, after the end of the Cold War, it reaffirmed the vital and unifying importance of human rights.
It tells us that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated" and that they must be fulfilled "in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis... it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
This comprehensive view of human rights — civil, political, economic, social, cultural rights, the right to development and the right to a safe and healthy, sustainable environment — stem from wisdom that is derived from all cultures, and all continents.
And I believe that in these universal human rights we find the potential for solutions to our greatest challenges.
For these are many — from peace and security threats that International Geneva has tackled in the past, to rising inequalities, to backlash against equality for racial and ethnic minorities, on the rights of women and girls, and LGBTIQ+ people.
Today I want to focus on two challenges that most likely are uppermost in your minds – catastrophic climate change and the profound issues raised by generative Artificial Intelligence, or AI, and new technologies more broadly.
Let’s look at what International Geneva — and particularly young Geneva — can do to meet these challenges.
The catastrophic impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are omnipresent. No country is spared from the increasing suffering and chaos they create. The human rights impacts of these environmental threats are already massive – and they will grow worse.
Human rights must also be part of the solution.
As the Member States of the UN General Assembly have recently agreed, everyone, regardless of where they live, has a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, amid thriving biodiversity and ecosystems.
But to protect the environment, we need to end impunity for attacks against environmental human rights defenders, including notably those who are members of indigenous peoples.
We need to encourage, not beat back, the vital work of climate activists, many of whom are young people.
We also need to stop the massive financing and subsidization of environmentally destructive industries and get serious about investing in sustainable development.
My Office will continue to advocate a rapid and equitable phase out of fossil fuels, and remedies for people harmed by climate change.
COP28 at the end of the year must be successful. We need action to keep the target of 1.5 degree warming a possibility, to avoid even greater losses and damages; and work together to advance a just transition to an economy that works for people and the planet.
I also follow with interest the increase in climate litigation cases by people and communities around the world, in national courts as well as international tribunals.
Earlier this year, to cite just one example, a dozen children filed a lawsuit in the Austrian Constitutional Court alleging that Austria’s climate laws failed to protect their rights and those of future generations.
Their claim mirrors action being taken by children all around the world to demand higher climate ambition from States.
The European Court of Human Rights recently held hearings in its Grand Chamber – assigned to the most important cases coming to the Court – on two cases in which applicants sued the Governments of France and Switzerland, respectively, for inadequate action to protect their human rights from climate change. Other climate cases are also advancing in this Court.
I am encouraged by these examples because international law, and national law, must be driving factors in the solutions we find to address the triple planetary crisis. Because we need to make sure our responses are grounded in our values and the rule of law, which are part of our heritage of human rights.
We also face mounting questions and challenges in the digital space. Artificial Intelligence, deep fakes, and bio-engineering are moving so quickly that Government regulations are often hard pressed to keep up.
Of course it is important to say that this technology, if used properly, has enormous potential to benefit humanity.
But if we do not manage to use it well, the implications for our human rights are enormous.
When we cannot be sure what is true, none of us can feel secure. It seems likely that trust will be profoundly eroded -- trust in our institutions, and trust in each other.
Many communities suffer the real-life impacts of AI now. Just think of policing through facial recognition without sufficient regard for its human rights consequences.
We need to make AI works for everyone, and to fight against applications that reinforce discrimination and exclusion.
The only way we will achieve this is if we seek out and listen to the voices of those most affected by tech and its biases — people in the Global South, those living in poverty, marginalized communities, LGBTIQ+, women, and others. It is vital to take into account unintended consequences.
Regulation of AI and emerging technologies generally needs great care and thoughtfulness. And we must put people at the centre of any solution.
More broadly, my Office has called on tech companies to ensure privacy and freedom. To provide an open and safe space for individuals and communities to have open debates and store their private information. They must take all lawful measures to resists attempts to disrupt or censor communications on grounds that are incompatible with human rights.
Regulation, management design and use of these technologies must include human rights, seamlessly.
From the conception phase of technology, safeguards must be in place to protect human rights — throughout its entire life cycle.
These guardrails are a sine qua non for technology that serves humanity and advances the common good.
The cure must not be worse than the disease. We have already seen some governments use crackdowns on so-called hate speech or disinformation as cover for censoring or targeting journalists and human rights defenders. Or to restrict freedom and privacy online. Or even to shut down access to the Internet entirely.
We need very careful regulation that is grounded in human rights.
In addressing the challenges before us, we must pay particular attention to how our actions today can protect and advance the fundamental rights of young people and future generations.
Let’s be frank — my generation and the ones that came before are handing your generation a planet threatened by catastrophic global warming and ever-increasing natural disasters.
When we look at what we have done in the past to the environment — whether out of greed or simply ignorance — we realise that we need to be good ancestors to future generations.
In the face of these dramatic challenges, it might be tempting simply to assign blame, become cynical or give up in despair.
I’m here to encourage you, as young people, not to go down that road.
I particularly want to inspire you to political action. So many of the rights and freedoms we all enjoy today — women’s right to vote, labour rights — were born of social movements. Social movements are the drivers of change that we depend on for human progress.
Please do not give up on politics. Register to vote. Then vote. Hold your elected officials to account. Learn about change in societies. Join the debate on issues you care about. And be creative.
We need your fresh eyes focusing on the world’s longstanding problems.
I also call on you — in this city where President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev dared to try to bridge their nations’ differences for the good of the entire world — to reject a binary approach.
Seeing the world in binary terms closes off routes to progress. It cannot be East versus West, Global North or Global South. Men or women.
Issues today are very complex and need to be able to engage with everyone who can contribute. We need many voices in the debate. Your voices.
I am glad to be speaking to a university audience. At an institute of learning, I trust we all agree, debate must be based on facts.
We may come to different conclusions, and hotly debate them, but we have to agree on the facts. We must categorically reject the ridiculous concept of “alternative facts,” a phrase that entered public discourse just a few years ago.
To navigate the present, we also need to learn the lessons of the past, and learn from history.
If we ignore history, we cannot live in a decent present or build a better future.
But this means, first of all, that you must know your history.
In many places around the world today we see a concerted effort to exploit people’s ignorance of history — and even to deliberately to keep children, students, and electorates ignorant.
The lack of historical knowledge, and the manufacture of grievances that stem from biased versions of history, are dangerous.
We need institutions like this one to foster open debate from which the best ideas can emerge. I particularly want to encourage young people like you who will lead the struggle for universal human rights in the coming decades.
I also hope we may count on your individual and collective engagement in and contributions to the Human Rights 75 Initiative being led by my Office this year.
Its purpose is to revitalize the Universal Declaration’s promises of equality, justice and human rights for all. It will culminate in a high-level event here in Geneva in December where we look forward to visionary ideas and pledges for human rights in the future.
When you look at the state of our world, it is easy to feel cynical or hopeless.
But I prefer the attitude of Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States, who — in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust — played such an instrumental role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I leave you with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”