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Briefing General Assembly, Secretary-General Spotlights Progress in Implementing Call to Human Rights Action, Stressing ‘We Must All Join Forces to Deliver’

Following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ briefing to the General Assembly on the call to action for human rights, today:

Exactly one year ago, I launched a Call to Action to reaffirm the centrality of human rights to our mission and to place human dignity at the core of our work.

Echoing the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Call to Action affirmed fundamental freedoms as the “highest aspiration for the common people”.  It recognized human rights are the ultimate tool to help societies develop in full respect of fundamental freedoms, where all members of the human family “shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  To prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world.  To ensure equality for women and girls.  To counter racism and discrimination.  To protect minorities, indigenous peoples, journalists and human rights defenders.  To make peace with climate and nature.  To provide a compass in the digital world.

The Call to Action was launched last year in a context of a wholesale assault on human rights around the globe.  From glaring infringements to creeping transgressions, we saw human rights being violated and under attack.  Since the launch, our world has confronted the biggest international crisis in generations.  The devastation and suffering brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has touched all our societies.  The health crisis quickly turned into an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and a human rights crisis. 

The pandemic has hammered economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights in every region, revealing yet again how they are all connected.  Rights and protection systems have been tested, weakened, and in some places, shattered.  Women, minorities, older persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and others have suffered disproportionately.  Using the pandemic as a pretext, we have also seen the rise of heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalize basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and strangle civic space.

Inequalities and patterns of discrimination have been laid bare:  inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities, including deep setbacks in gender equality; environmental degradation; the climate crisis.  In building forward together, we have a unique and historic opportunity to forge a world where every person is afforded dignity; where every society can withstand crises; where everyone’s future is built upon a foundation of inalienable rights.

The Call to Action for Human Rights injects a rights perspective to the most urgent and fundamental challenges we face — challenges that require more and better of our collective efforts.

In particular, the Call to Action guides the way with a focus on seven thematic areas:  rights at the core of sustainable development; rights in times of crisis; gender equality and equal rights for women; public participation and civic space; the rights of future generations, including to a safe, clean and healthy environment; ensuring a safe digital world; and finally, collective action, all of us pitching in together to make this a reality.

Last year, to mark our seventy-fifth anniversary, we conducted a global survey asking people around the world to identify a top priority for the United Nations going forward.  A vast number replied with two words:  human rights.  They want strengthened national human rights instruments to address systemic racism, address political and religious persecution, ensure equal rights for women, and protect indigenous peoples and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community.  They want to end discrimination and harassment, once and for all.  And they want corporate accountability and human rights protections that respond to the rapid advances of our digital world.

With your support over the last year, the Call to Action is making important progress.  The United Nations family is working together to ensure that human rights are at the heart of COVID-19 socioeconomic response plans.  In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we rapidly issued a number of policy briefs focusing the global spotlight on pathways for action in vital areas, including rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities; older persons; women; children; refugees and migrants; and indigenous peoples — always in a human rights perspective-minded.  Other policy briefs thoroughly explored pressing issues such as the full scope of human rights challenges in the COVID-era, as well as the importance of food security and nutrition.

We accelerated our work to help Member States implement the Global Compacts on Refugees and for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration — a central human rights question.  We are leading an initiative to help Governments dismantle outdated discriminatory laws against women and reinvigorating the use of temporary special measures to accelerate gender parity.  We adopted the first-ever system-wide guidance to help protect and promote civic space, both offline and online.

We are strengthening United Nations leadership on human rights on the ground and have already seen a concrete impact with our country teams engaging with Governments and societies on a wide range of human rights issues — and with success.  For instance, Resident Coordinators in a number of countries have established dialogues to bring in the voices and views of civil society in discussions over new measures that might risk civic space and create undue burdens on non-governmental organizations.

We are engaging more and more young people and children in the global human rights conversation and decision-making, including on climate action — so crucial it is to advancing intergenerational justice.  Building on the youth climate movement, I launched my Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to amplify youth voices and draw on the energy and ideas of young people as we work to raise ambition and accelerate action to tackle the climate emergency.

We are developing a plan of action to protect environmental human rights defenders, who have sadly often been victims of violence and abuse.  We are making headway for an Agenda for Protection to help ensure a rapid coordinated United Nations effort to support those at risk.  We will soon launch the system-wide guidance on human rights due diligence for the development and use of technology, informed by a broad spectrum of actors.  We are advancing our efforts to implement the Plan of Action on Hate Speech and the Initiative to Safeguard Religious Sites.

We are focusing our peacebuilding work on the nexus between peacebuilding and human rights, including through initiatives that protect women and youth peacebuilders and human rights defenders.  We will launch a first-of-its-kind “One Stop Digital Shop,” bringing together a wealth of resources on implementing human rights in the digital space.  And we issued new guidance to our country teams to further support Member States throughout the universal periodic review process, including in implementing recommendations.  This is just the beginning.

Our enduring challenge is to transform the promise of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into real-world change on the ground.  It is to look at our contemporary challenges with a human rights lens.

And this is why my Call to Action extends beyond the United Nations family.  It is also a call to all Member States, to parliamentarians, to the business community, to civil society and to people everywhere.  We shoulder a collective responsibility.  Transformative change will take the full commitment and support of us all.  And, of course, it will take resources.

While our budget proposals for human rights activities have grown in recent years, across the board budget cuts approved by Member States have reduced the final resource levels for human rights action.  Additionally, like with other areas of our work, the financial crisis has impacted our ability to fully implement our mandates and affected our support to the treaty body mechanisms.

I appeal to all Member States to ensure that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the treaty body mechanisms and other critical human rights activities have the necessary resources to carry on this mandate and to fulfil our shared promise to protect and advance human rights.

Much like COVID-19 vaccines, human rights will not lead to a healthier world if they are only available to the privileged few.  We need renewed, concerted, global determination to ensure the protection of human rights of all people, everywhere and in all situations.  We must all join forces to deliver.  Only by working together can we forge a new social contract that reflects respect and protection for all people and is rooted in universal human rights.

As we enter the second year of the Call to Action, I look forward to working closely with all of you to fulfil the highest aspirations of the people of the world — human rights and dignity for all.


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