Header image for news printout

3rd Congress of Human Rights organised by the Polish Human Rights Commissioner and his office

Third Congress of Human Rights

Warsaw, 13 December 2019

Opening remarks

Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)

Dear M. Bodnar


Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning,


It is a great honour for me to return to the Polish Human Rights Congress. I remember, when I was here three years ago, there were doubts about how many people would actually show up for the first Polish Human Rights Congress. We were all overwhelmed by the impressive turnout, which has only grown since. Congratulations!

This demonstrates the great work of the Human Rights Commissioner and his office, but not only that. The sheer turnout fills me with hope, because it is an indication of the strong attachment of the Polish people to human rights. Just a few days ago, on International Human Rights Day, our UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said: “We can, and must, uphold the painstakingly developed universal human rights principles that sustain peace, justice and sustainable development. A world with diminished human rights is a world that is stepping backwards into a darker past, when the powerful could prey on the powerless with little or no moral or legal restraint”. 

When considering the future of human rights, many potential challenges come to mind: illiberal trends, growing authoritarianism, inequality and climate change. Many of these threats are linked in complex ways. For example, climate change affects in the first place the most vulnerable. Growing inequality within and among countries has caused a sense of loss, fear and insecurity throughout Europe. This has left many with a feeling that they are losing control. Legitimate grievances must be listened to and addressed. At the same time, we should be weary of those who exploit fears for political gain and pretext State sovereignty to undermine the rule of law or restrict media freedom. 

The UN Charter starts with the words “We, the peoples.” These two words make clear that political power does not derive from governments or institutions, but from the people themselves. Coupled with this we have Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

Our human rights are not a favour or a gift from government. They are our natural birth rights. If we truly believe that all human beings are entitled to dignity and rights, then it naturally follows that countries, international and regional organizations and national institutions can openly discuss with governments the responsibility of upholding human rights, and crucially raise alarm when human rights are not being upheld. 

Yet, we currently observe a worrying trend of shrinking civic space around the world. Freedom of expression is being curtailed. Human rights defenders and sometimes even staff of national human rights institutions become victims of smear campaigns. Judges face disciplinary proceedings for executing their duties in line with European and national laws. New challenges also arise from the digital age, especially as regards data protection and the use of artificial intelligence. 

This is exactly why national human rights institutions are vital: they are bridges to the international human rights protection system. Not only do they provide information to the UN treaty bodies, Special Procedures, and the Universal Periodic Review, -- under which all countries in the world are periodically reviewed and receive recommendations from other States --, they play a key role in independently monitoring the implementation of recommendations from these mechanisms. 

As Mr. Bodnar said, when he presented the annual report to the Parliament in September this year, “international recommendations should not be treated as acts hostile to the State, but as good advice, a will of positive cooperation and improvement of the citizens’ situation; as an outward look of a friend, an expression of concern and care.” 

The challenges of today, cannot be addressed by any one country alone. Cooperation, however challenging, is necessary in an increasingly globalized world, including when it comes to protecting and fulfilling human rights. Cooperation should be accompanied by participation. 

All human beings have a right to participate in decisions that have an impact on their lives. This ensures more effective decision-making. Democracy is about more than elections. It is about allowing spaces for a continuous and ongoing dialogue with civil society.

That’s why I am happy to see so many of you here today. Your commitment to protecting and promoting human rights here in Poland, whether performed at the local, regional or national level, in NGOs or by individual acts of standing up for justice, is truly inspiring. I would also like to pay tribute to Mr. Bodnar who is an example for national human rights institutions and human rights defenders all around the world.

Last week Olga Tokarczuk during her Nobel Lecture said: “Today our problem lies, it seems, in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world.” More than ever, we need human rights to inform laws, policies, and programmes, to right the wrongs of our era and bend history towards greater freedom, equality and justice for all. Thank you.