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UN75 Human Rights Dialogue: A Vision for the Next Decade

Presentation by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe

at the London International Model United Nations


28 August 2020


Good afternoon,

I thank the London International Model United Nations for inviting me to participate in today’s dialogue. 

I also want to pay tribute to my distinguished co-panellists, Ambassador Eliasson and Dr Mahmoud for their service and contribution to making our world a better place.

75 years ago, in 1945, a determination to build a common future brought together world leaders to sign the Charter of the United Nations. Rising from the ashes of WWII, the creation of the UN brought hope. Hope that it inaugurated the end of tyranny and war. Hope that with the opening sentence “We, the peoples of the United Nations” we would create a new world, inspired by the principles of human rights, equality, social progress, and a rules-based international order.

Three years later, in 1948, these aspirations of the UN Charter were spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which all members of the United Nations have accepted, and it is important to remember that. The Universal Declaration is not itself legally binding, but because it is so broadly accepted, it is by now considered customary law.

Over time the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration have been further refined in nine core international human rights treaties, monitored by independent treaty bodies, and numerous human rights standards.

It was only several decades after the adoption of the UN Charter that institutions like the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which I represent, were created with the mandate to protect and promote human rights around the world.

We would need more time to dress the balance of what has been achieved in the area of human rights since the adoption of the UN Charter 75 years ago. I would say that we have come a long way. The wave of decolonization, which changed the face of the planet, represents the UN's first great success. As a result of decolonization, many countries became independent. The UN also played a vital role in dismantling apartheid in South Africa as the struggle against racism has always been a primary preoccupation for the organization.

The UN has also supported the development of regional human rights mechanisms and institutions. At national level, we have seen how over the past decades many countries have adopted human rights laws and created their own national human rights institutions, many of which today have a watchdog function and can receive human rights complaints from individuals. We have seen countries make radical improvements on human rights. In many countries, public buildings are now accessible for persons with disabilities. The prevalence of child marriage is decreasing year after year as more girls enjoy their right to education. And these are just a few examples.

But what strikes me is that the language of human rights has become increasingly popular and popularised. We see how movements around the world use human rights language to articulate their demands and aspirations - like the movement for the rights of indigenous peoples, the Arab spring, the Human Rights Cities movement, or Black Lives Matter. The international human rights and criminal law regimes have also become a liability for individuals and States who deliberately chose to disregard or violate human rights. And so human rights have given us a vocabulary to call out injustice, a standard by which to hold violators accountable, and a roadmap for what a better future should look like.

New technologies like social media play a key role as amplifiers of the human rights message, allowing the smallest grass-root organization to potentially mobilize thousands of people and to advocate for its cause well beyond its borders. The internet has also pushed institutions and organizations towards greater transparency. But the ‘digital divide’ threatens to leave many behind. And, the digital sphere has also brought new human rights challenges like misinformation, hate speech, cyber-bullying, surveillance, and privacy concerns – to name but a few.  

No country is free from human rights violations and all countries without exception can and must still make progress. Yet, today, human rights are being questioned and, in some places, rolled back. So much so, that it has become commonplace to talk about the backlash against human rights. Yet, when you look at the debates in the third Committee of the General Assembly, you see that it is often those States that are criticized for gross human rights violations that are most vocal in their criticism of the human rights regime.

Indeed, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations comes at a turbulent time. We are facing an increasingly polarised political context in many parts of the world. It is paradoxical that exactly when the challenges the world is facing are most interconnected, more countries are turning away from international cooperation. We are witnessing a retreat from multilateralism, a renewed arms race, a lack of trust in international institutions, and a growing inequality both within and among nations. 

The world faces an unprecedented threat from Covid-19. This is the most challenging crisis the world has faced since the Second World War. It is more than a health crisis – it is an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a security crisis, and a human rights crisis.

Spreading quickly to all corners of the world, we realized too late that our health systems are only as strong as their weakest link. The fight against poverty is likely to stall – or even be reversed –, while economic recession, deprivation, and insecurity risk sparking social tensions, civil unrest – and even violence.

It will remain forever a theoretical question if the damage inflicted by Covid-19 would have been so great had the Millenium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Agenda been better implemented and no one left behind. We have seen how those in a situation of vulnerability before the crisis have been hardest hit. Older persons, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities and migrants are among those who have paid the highest price. 75% of frontline workers are women, making them far more likely to be exposed to the virus. In Europe, the over-reliance on care homes for older individuals as opposed to community-based alternatives mandated by human rights law, have been a major contributor to the high death toll among the elderly. Our High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, has also reported on how some States have abused their emergency powers to unduly restrict freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

So, what is the vision for the next Decade and beyond? The world can get through this crisis, but only if we act together. The Secretary-General has called for an immediate ceasefire in all corners of the world. Coming out of this crisis requires a whole-of-society, whole-of-government, and whole-of-the-world approach driven by international solidarity.

This crisis provides a watershed moment and we must ensure that the right lessons are learned. The response to the pandemic, and to the widespread discontent that preceded it, must be based on a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal for strengthened and renewed multilateralism.

We need people-centred leadership that genuinely embraces the spirit of ‘We, the peoples’ as mentioned in the Charter, because the UN is not only an intergovernmental body made up of States, it represents all of you.

The international human rights treaties and the Sustainable Development Agenda should be our compass for building back better. And when I say human rights, I mean all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as the right to development. Policies should be conceived and implemented following a rights-based approach, which means that they should place human dignity at their core, be transparent, participatory, inclusive, measurable, and advance accountability.

States and business actors must not revert to business as usual, but forge a new normal: where no one is left behind, where crushing debt on low and middle-income countries is alleviated, where the interdependent concepts of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are taken seriously, where corruption - which prevents the dedication of maximum available resources to the realization of economic and social rights as prescribed by international law - is effectively tackled, and where the private sector applies the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

We must pursue a recovery that guarantees social and labor rights protection and addresses unpaid care work. We must include mental health in universal health coverage, and make sure that everyone, everywhere, has someone to turn to for psychological support. We must transform tourism into a sustainable and responsible travel experience that is equitable and safe for host communities and workers. Covid-19 is a wake-up call to do things differently and mount a recovery based on economic and social justice.

Recovery needs to go hand in hand with climate action. Coal should have no place in any rational Covid-19 recovery plan, as our Secretary-General said earlier this week. We need to stop wasting money on fossil fuel subsidies. And, we cannot postpone climate action, because climate change is not on hold.

Climate change comes with serious human rights implications for the right to life, the right to health, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate housing, the right to food, the right to water and the right to education. It is a major cause of internal displacement and a driver of international migration. In fact, the impact of climate change risks being even more disruptive than the Covid-crisis. Unfortunately, the world is not coming together to address environmental degradation and climate change effectively, as young people have highlighted.

Still, I remain optimistic. Why? Because you are here today. Never before have so many young people stood up for human rights; never have they been so actively engaged in the future of our world and our planet. Your participation in public life is critical. We need to hear your voice. Never underestimate the power of one individual.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary, the Secretary-General has called for a global discussion on the future we want. I encourage you all to take the UN survey on the UN75 website. Use it as an opportunity for further reflection and discussion and let us know what you think the priorities of the UN should be.

Half a million people have already been surveyed and guess what? Respondents overwhelmingly rank human rights as a top priority. In fact, the preliminary findings show that around the world support for human rights in public opinion has never been as high as it is today.

This in turn begs the question of the funding for the UN’s human rights work, which currently receives a meagre 4% of the UN regular budget. There are those who would rather see a UN without the human rights office.

Now, human rights have never progressed in a linear manner and the setbacks that we are seeing today do not undo the tremendous emancipation that human rights have brought for people and groups around the world. It is always one step forward, two steps back.

It is clear that we are at cross-roads and we need you to speak about human rights. To say that human rights are important. We need your commitment for the survival of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I say this with a sense of urgency.

But I want to close by saying that you do not need to be a UN official, a lawyer or a politician to advocate for human rights. Think about human rights as a philosophy of life. As Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration, said: “Human rights start in small places, close to home.” We must go back to the basics. Think about what you can do, in your home, your community, your university, your workplace, your city, or your country. Thank you.