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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

Türk: Human rights are antidote to prevailing politics of distraction, deception, indifference and repression

11 September 2023

HC Volker Türk Global Update speech to the 54th Human Rights Council. © OHCHR

Delivered by

Volker Türk, Haut-Commissaire des Nations Unies aux droits de l’homme


54th Session of the Human Rights Council


Geneva, Palais des Nations, Room XX

Distinguished President,
Distinguished delegates,

In my work with the United Nations over the years, it has become clear to me that development issues underlie almost every challenge we face.

People everywhere want – and have a right to – a decent standard of living. Food on the table, and access to affordable medical care when they need it. Education and equal opportunities for themselves and their children. Good economic prospects, with a fair share of resources. A clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The freedom to make their own choices. Objective information, not propaganda. Justice and police systems that uphold their rights.

And to ensure all of this, they want active and meaningful participation in decisions, and governments that serve their needs – not elites whose needs they have to serve.

But time and again, I see people deprived of these rights, and crushed by development that is neither respectful nor fair. Injustice, poverty, exploitation and repression are the cause of grievances that drive tensions, conflicts, displacement and further misery – on and on.

Mr President,

Last month, in Iraq, the cradle of so many civilisations, I witnessed a small piece of the environmental horror that is our global planetary crisis. In Basra – where 30 years ago, I was told, date palms lined lush canals – drought, searing heat, extreme pollution and fast-depleting supplies of fresh water are creating barren landscapes of rubble and dust.

This spiralling damage is a human rights emergency for Iraq – and many other countries. Climate change is pushing millions of people into famine. It is destroying hopes, opportunities, homes and lives. In recent months, urgent warnings have become lethal realities again and again all around the world.

We do not need more warnings. The dystopian future is already here.

We need urgent action, now.

And we know what to do.

The real question is: what stops us.

Mr President,

Instead of unity of purpose, and decisive, cooperative leadership, we’re seeing the politics of division and distraction – for instance, through the fabrication of artificial disputes over gender, migration or imagining a "clash" of civilisations.

The repugnant series of some 30 incidents of burning the Quran recently is the latest manifestation of this urge to polarise and fragment – to create divisions, within societies, and between countries. I will discuss this in detail on 6 October, in line with resolution 53/1.

We're also seeing the politics of indifference, the numbing of our mind and soul – an effort to deflect our innermost feature, compassion, by simply negating the humanity of victims and people vulnerable to harm.

I am shocked by the nonchalance that becomes apparent in the face of more than 2,300 people reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean this year, including the loss of more than 600 lives in a single shipwreck off Greece in June. It is evident that far more migrants and refugees are dying, unnoticed, in the seas around Europe, including the Channel; in the Bay of Bengal, and in the Caribbean, where people seeking protection are constantly pushed back and deported to situations of grave danger; or along the US-Mexican border, where deportations and expedited removal processes raise serious issues; or at the border of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where my Office is seeking urgent clarification about allegations of killings and mistreatment.

We're seeing the politics of deception, of throwing sand in people's eyes. Helped by new technologies, lies and disinformation are mass-produced to sow chaos, to confuse, and ultimately to deny reality and ensure no action will be taken that could endanger entrenched elites. The most apparent case of this is climate change.

And we're seeing the old, blunt, brutal politics of repression. We so badly need a flowering of critical, innovative and constructive views to build better policies and systems, but what we increasingly get are military coups, authoritarianism and the crushing of dissent – in short, the fist.

Antidotes exist to each of these.

We need to insist on evidence and truth.

We need to be mindful of our interconnectedness and shared values.

We need to cultivate humanity's natural reflexes of empathy, justice and compassion.

We need to nourish the critical thinking and creativity that can only stem from broad, free participation and open debates.

And we need to stand firm on the promise of human rights, which is a promise of solutions.

Just as injustices crash into each other and generate multiple, towering crises, so joined-up steps towards more justice, respect and inclusion will anchor resilience, and liberate the power of contributions from every member of society.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 – on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – encapsulates our way out and forward from the turbulence that we are experiencing.

Its emphasis on this interlocking relationship between good governance and development represents the linchpin that holds the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development together. Every development goal is grounded in equality and human dignity. They all require accountable institutions, an impartial, independent rule of law, and vibrant civil society.

SDG16 makes clear that to advance development, States have the responsibility to guarantee and protect civic space and fundamental rights.

"Leaving no-one behind" is not an empty slogan. It is a human rights action plan that reaches across the whole spectrum of human rights.

Freedom is both the goal of development, and its source.

Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, the right to development and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment all build on each other. This is the meaning of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. Moving forward together, they can contribute to real solutions to our most pressing challenges.

The separation between two distinct sets of rights – civil and political on the one hand; economic, social and cultural on the other – is an artefact of ideologies, not borne out by reality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes no such separation or hierarchy – and 75 years after its adoption, we badly need to return to that core.

Human rights are, and must be, politically neutral.

All States have accepted their responsibility to realise all rights.

And my mandate and ambition are to help every country advance and uphold the full range of human rights – without distinction as to their political system, alliances or stage of development.

Mr President,

It is against this backdrop, and also in light of the upcoming SDG Summit next week, that I will focus this address on development and human rights.

The world is betraying our promise to end hunger by 2030. Despite financial resources, technological innovation and land sufficient to provide adequate food for all, we have returned to hunger levels not seen since 2005 – and to their toll of stunted children and  painfully abbreviated lives.

The FAO's 2023 global report projects that almost 600 million people will be chronically undernourished at the end of this decade. Causal factors include climate change, the consequences of the pandemic, and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

A year and a half of horrific warfare has ravaged Ukraine, with heart-wrenching toll on its people, and damage to vast areas of agricultural land. The Russian Federation's withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July, and attacks on grain facilities in Odesa and elsewhere, have again forced prices sky-high in many developing countries – taking the right to food far out of reach for many people. 

In Somalia, years of drought, extremist violence and failed governance led to an estimated 43,000 excess deaths last year— roughly half of them children under five years old. Some 1.8 million children are likely to be acutely malnourished through 2023, a tragedy of inhuman proportions in a country that has so deeply been affected by conflict. Somalia's long dependence on wheat imports from Ukraine and the Russian Federation means that the breakdown of the Black Sea Grain Initiative was particularly damaging.

Hunger and food insecurity are also deeply concerning in the Caribbean. The May 2023 WFP-CARICOM survey found that 3.7 million people – or 52% of the population of CARICOM countries – were food insecure.

In Haiti, extreme gang violence, fuelled by decades of poor governance, is making an already bad food situation worse. Nearly half the population, 4.9 million people, experiences acute food insecurity. Yet in some parts of the country, it is possible and safe to produce food, and these local initiatives must be better supported. The report on Haiti that will be presented to the Council during this session indicates clearly that poverty, inequalities, and violations of economic, social and cultural rights have been the breeding ground of the unbearable violence and wide-ranging crisis the country faces today.

Across 111 countries, 1.2 billion people, nearly half of them children, now live in acute, multidimensional poverty. They represent almost 20% of those countries' populations – and according to the World Bank, many millions more will be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of climate change. This is a terrible collective human rights failure.

Across the Sahel, most people struggle for daily survival, with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger ­among the eight least developed countries in the world. These countries are severely affected by environmental degradation and climate change – a crisis to which they have contributed almost nothing. Resources required for survival, such as fertile land and water, are diminishing, resulting in conflict between communities. The adaptation measures that they so urgently need are far too costly – and the financial support that is regularly promised at international conferences trickles in too slowly. 2022 was the deadliest year since the beginning of the Sahel crisis a decade ago, and the constant threat of violence by armed groups is now expanding towards coastal States.

None of the challenges faced by these countries can be addressed in isolation: they are interlinked. Climate change, including related droughts and extreme weather events; failure to invest adequately in education, healthcare, sanitation, social protections, impartial justice and other human rights; decades of weak governance, and a lack of transparent and accountable decision-making are the sources that violent extremism draws from.

The unconstitutional changes in government that we have seen in the Sahel are not the solution. We need instead an urgent reversal to civilian governance, and open spaces where people can participate, influence, accompany and criticise government actions – or lack of action.

Mr President,

Ours is an age of massive concentration of wealth, and unprecedented inequalities. Global wealth has never been greater. But in 2021, the richest 10% owned 76% of total wealth; the poorest half owned just 2%. And nearly half the world's people live in countries where governments must spend more on debt repayment than they are able to do on education or health.

The abyss between rich and poor harms everyone. Nationally and internationally, it destroys trust and weakens efforts to find solutions. It is in the interest of every State to ensure that all international institutions and multilateral discussions reflect the needs of every participant – and that they work to close the widening inequalities between countries.

One important step must be the reform of the international financial architecture, including fairer deals on debt relief and development finance. Often, unwarranted conditionalities in investment and loan agreements have obstructed States’ fulfilment of their human rights obligations – as if the latter obligations didn't exist. Human rights are central to development impact and a just transition, and must be integrated, clearly and comprehensively, in the policies and operations of international financial institutions.

I also strongly encourage States to endorse the UN's appeal for an SDG Stimulus, and I welcome the current international discussions on reinforcing international tax cooperation. When multinational businesses and wealthy individuals shift their profits and financial reporting to low- or no-tax jurisdictions, this undercuts the ability of countries to mobilize revenues to fulfil human rights. The 2023 State of Tax Justice report estimates that countries will lose nearly US$5 trillion over the next ten years to tax havens. We need to combat tax avoidance, tax evasion and illicit financial flows. I commend the leadership of the African group for bringing this topic to the fore at the General Assembly, and I

welcome the initiative led by Colombia, Chile and Brazil to promote progressive taxation and greater cooperation across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Taking decisive steps to end corruption and illicit financial flows is a powerful tool for raising revenue, as studies have found. Both phenomena also undermine the rule of law, taking away resources needed for public investments and the common good, and destroying public confidence. Studies indicate that up to 25% of spending on public contracts is stolen by corruption, globally. This deeply corrosive impact on sustainable development is why SDG16.5 makes a strong promise to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.”

With the planetary crisis gaining pace, there is also a vital need for a shift to human rights economies that promote green solutions. I cannot emphasise too strongly the need for a rapid, equitable phase-out of fossil fuels, and effectively financed human rights-based climate action­ – notably for adaptation, and to address loss and damage.

I am also attentive to the need to counter the impunity of people and businesses who severely plunder our environment. An international crime of ecocide has been proposed for inclusion in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court by a number of States and civil society groups. I welcome consideration of this and other measures to expand accountability for environmental damage, both at the national and international level.

Mr President,

The rights to affordable and quality food, water and sanitation, housing, education, healthcare and social security impose obligations on all States. Like all other human rights, they need to be embedded in law and upheld, everywhere.

But in many countries, housing, for example, is treated as a commodity for speculative investment: a plaything of financial markets, rather than a fundamental right.

A crisis of affordable housing squeezes family incomes; deepens inequalities; harms the health of children; impoverishes young people; and drives a growing crisis of homelessness. This has become especially evident across much of the industrialized world, and I am highlighting this issue because I am convinced that it goes to the heart of the social contract.

The apparent indifference of elected officials to the plight of young people and others contributes to their disillusionment – eroding their trust in political systems.

In many European countries, housing costs have risen far faster than incomes – putting stable, secure housing out of reach for large numbers of young people, and others with low or erratic incomes.

Across the European Union, a 2023 report based on official data indicates that nearly one million people are homeless – almost 30% higher than the already high level in 2021 – and it finds that young people are among the most impacted.

In the United States of America, more than half a million people were experiencing homelessness in January 2022, according to official figures – and over 40% of them were people of African descent, who make up 12% of the population.

By dint of concerted action, Finland has seen significant reductions in homelessness since 2010. This has included substantial housing allowances for people living on low incomes; targeted social support services; and proactive policies to develop the stock of rental housing.

In response to the situation within the EU, a European Platform on Combatting Homelessness was established in 2021 to help coordinate action by governments, cities and civil society. Similarly, in the USA, the new federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness is another signal of a new impetus to achieve corrective action.

Ending homelessness and ensuring affordable housing are firmly embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals. They are also a human rights imperative. States need to recognize homelessness as a violation of human rights that strips people of protections essential to dignity. I encourage all countries – particularly the most developed countries – to deploy maximum available resources to fulfil these rights, as required by international law.

Mr President,

Across the Middle East and North Africa, people are facing unprecedented water scarcity. An estimated 83% of the region’s population is exposed to extremely high water stress, and by 2030, average per capita available water will fall below the threshold of absolute scarcity. This will have dramatic negative impact on health and food security; it will drastically intensify poverty; and it appears likely to increase conflicts, instability, and displacement.

Serious governance issues, and failure to invest in the infrastructure for rights, helped cause this crisis, together with climate change, pollution and population growth. This is an almost textbook example of the interlocking relationship between inclusive institutions, good governance and fulfilment of – or failure to fulfill – development goals. Governance reforms – including much broader space for civil society and human rights defenders to work for the common good – can better equip societies to react, adapt and build resilience to decreasing water access.

Water is just one example of the need to ensure inclusive governance in the context of development.

China's drive for development has brought powerful achievements in alleviating poverty. But the country’s recent economic challenges highlight the need for a more participatory approach that upholds all human rights – including the rights of members of ethnic minorities; people in rural communities; internal migrant workers; older people; and people with disabilities. Opening the space for civil society participation and debate, including when this is critical of policies and advocates change, builds a more resilient and flexible society. As my Office highlighted a year ago, the concerns in Xinjiang UAR require strong remedial action by the authorities, as per our recommendations. I also remain troubled by the continued detention of human rights advocates.

In El Salvador, putting an end to decades of unbridled gang criminality is a complex challenge. Root causes of this security crisis include governance deficits, inequalities and lack of access to fundamental economic, social and cultural rights. Addressing these would contribute to better, more sustainable solutions. I am concerned about the excessive duration of the current state of emergency, and mass detentions which have occurred in this context, as well as unacceptable prison conditions, and restrictions of civic space and due process.

In Mexico, poverty rates have decreased notably, with over five million people moving out of poverty between 2018 and 2022 — an achievement worth celebrating. At the same time, recent data indicates an increase in the number of people who report a lack of access to healthcare services. This underlines the need for more sustainable progress towards full realization of economic, social, and cultural rights, anchored by institutions that are inclusive, transparent and accountable. A milestone decision by the Supreme Court last week found criminal penalties for abortion in the Federal Penal Code unconstitutional – another advance in Latin America regarding women’s rights. I encourage all countries to enable women to choose to terminate pregnancy safely.

I welcome last month's discussions by Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela towards a common vision for the Amazon rainforest, including effective participation by Indigenous Peoples. The announcement in June that Brazil will aim to end illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030, comes as a breath of fresh air. I also congratulate the people of Ecuador for their votes in favour of stopping oil and mineral extraction activities in Yasuní National Park, which is also home to Indigenous Peoples, and the Andean Chocó Biosphere Reserve.

In Australia, a referendum will take place next month on constitutional recognition of the First Peoples of Australia, by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “voice” to Parliament. This is a historic opportunity to lay a new foundation for the inclusion and participation of Indigenous Peoples, for the benefit of all Australians.

In India, my Office frequently receives information that marginalised minority communities are subjected to violence and discrimination. Muslims are often the target of such attacks, most recently in Haryana and Gurugram, in northern India. In Manipur, other communities have also been facing violence and insecurity since May. There is a clear need to redouble efforts to uphold the rights of all minorities, by dealing in a forthright manner with intolerance, hate speech, religious extremism and discrimination.

I remain profoundly shocked by the escalating violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as more Palestinians and Israelis – including children – continue to be killed and seriously injured. The use of airstrikes in the occupied West Bank is especially concerning. Violent attacks by settlers against Palestinians appear to be growing more common, and in some cases have taken place with the apparent acquiescence of Israeli forces. Illegal settlements are also expanding greatly. The Government’s purported application of sovereignty over the occupied West Bank, and the transfer of wide administrative powers from military authorities to Israeli civilian officials, are inconsistent with international humanitarian law. I am also concerned by continuing civic space restrictions by the Palestinian Authorities and de facto authorities in Gaza, including through arbitrary detention of those perceived to be voicing criticism. The Gaza de facto authorities continue to impose the death penalty, including against non-security personnel convicted by military courts. 

I reiterate my deep concerns regarding human rights developments in the Russian Federation. Civic space is being crushed by restrictions on fundamental rights and particularly severe oppression of the anti-war movement. The authorities continue to use the judicial system to silence critical voices, targeting human rights activists and groups for legitimate work. The sentences handed down to opposition politicians and independent journalists – such as the additional 19-year prison sentence for Alexei Navalny, and 25 years for Vladimir Kara-Murza – raise serious concerns, both for these individuals and for the rule of law. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities persist, as does the authorities’ unwillingness to investigate.

In Iran, a year after Mahsa Amini’s death, I am seriously concerned that a new bill currently under review imposes severe penalties on women and girls who do not obey the compulsory dress code, including travel bans and withdrawal of access to social services. It also enables the use of surveillance technology to monitor women's behaviour and dress. Reports of women facing legal action for dress code violations have multiplied, even before passage of the bill. In this context, I flag my concern regarding renewed deployment of the morality police, a force almost exclusively aimed at controlling women and girls. Accountability for Ms. Amini’s death, and for violations in the context of subsequent protests, has been inadequate. Use of the death penalty has risen sharply, notably against the Baloch and others from minority communities.

In Pakistan, I am concerned by the use of blasphemy allegations to incite violence against minority communities and instigate communal tensions. Last month, a mob of thousands of people burned down more than a dozen churches and looted homes of Christians in an area of Faisalabad. Draft amendments to the country's already severe blasphemy laws would sharply increase penalties. Passage of this legislation would constitute a major step away from the changes urged by international human rights bodies.

In Ethiopia's Amhara region, since the start of the crisis and the declaration of a State of Emergency at the beginning of August, over 1,000 people have reportedly been arrested, and more than 200 reportedly killed, in the context of clashes between Federal forces and Amhara Fano militia. In Oromia, clashes also reportedly continue to lead to killings and other violations and abuses. In Tigray, mass arrests and forced displacement are reported, mainly in areas where Eritrean and Amhara forces are still allegedly present. All these incidents must be investigated, and those responsible held to account. I note the progress that has been made in transitional justice consultations, and I urge continued dialogue with all stakeholders – including women. I also encourage transitional justice, and accountability.

In both Libya and Tunisia, I have been alarmed by reports that authorities have been carrying out mass arrests and collective expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers from south of the Sahara. As of 31 August, at least 28 migrants have reportedly died from heat and thirst in desert areas at the Libya-Tunisia border, after some 2,000 migrants and asylum-seekers, including women and children, were left there by Tunisian authorities – with no, or limited, access to food, water and shelter. In Tunisia, many more migrants remain at risk of expulsion. Over the past five months, security agencies in both west and east Libya have also conducted mass arrests of migrants and refugees, followed by expulsions. I urge the application of human rights guidance, which offers benefits to countries of origin, transit and destination.

In Lebanon, three years after the Beirut explosion which killed over 200 people and wounded more than 7,000 – including over 1,000 children – there has been no accountability. On the contrary: numerous concerns have been raised about interference into the investigation, against a backdrop of a severe economic and social crisis and weak governance. It may therefore be time to consider an international fact-finding mission to look into human rights violations related to this tragedy.

In Cameroon, six years of crisis in the North-West and South-West regions have claimed several thousand lives, displaced an estimated 725,000 people and left at least 1.7 million in need of humanitarian assistance. The impact on human rights and development has been massive. I acknowledge steps by the authorities towards a major national dialogue, including a national consultation on ending hate speech; establishment of a Public Independent conciliator in the North-West and the South-West regions; and creation of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. More measures should continue this path of empowering all Cameroonians to raise their voices and participate meaningfully in policy – particularly in communities that feel their cultural rights are not upheld.

In Peru, I am concerned by the opening of a parliamentary inquiry on all members of the National Justice Board, an independent institution in charge of appointing judges and prosecutors. The investigation could impact judicial independence and the separation of powers. Since January, my Office has documented 13 bills and five constitutional accusations by Congress that have raised concerns regarding interference into autonomous constitutional bodies, particularly the National Election Board and the National Justice Board. I call on Congress to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and to respect the balance of State powers.

Mr President,           

More than halfway through the 2030 Agenda, we are on target for it to become a tragic monument to the failure of our generation to erase extreme poverty and realise human rights.

At the SDG summit next week; at COP28, on climate change; and at the Summit of the Future, States need to pivot decisively towards fundamental changes.     

And as we approach our Human Rights 75 high-level event in December, I urge all Member States to make genuine commitments through transformative pledges.

The Declaration on the Right to Development sets out rights and duties on the part of States to forge development and related policies for the well-being of all. Operationalising this right is essential, and the draft International Covenant on the Right to Development has been submitted to the Council at this session for further action.

In conclusion, let me stress again that the human rights cause in all its facets has the potential to unify us, at a time when we urgently need to come together to confront the existential challenges that face humanity. This is ultimately about building trust and restoring hope, including through the work of this Council. All of us need to play our part.

Thank you, Mr President.


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