GENEVA, May 26 (IPS) — In December last year, I launched our year-long commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have since issued a series of initiatives calling on States and all others to make pledges, and to take clear steps to fulfil the promises of the Universal Declaration.
The Human Rights 75 programme will culminate in a high-level event on 11 and 12 December – convened by my Office here in Geneva, linked up with Bangkok, Nairobi and Panama City.
This year, we also celebrate 30 years since the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna created the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That is an important milestone for us.
It was in June 1993 at this conference that – after a difficult process fraught with geopolitical divisions – the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted. The Declaration was a strong and clear endorsement — by consensus of all UN Member States – of all the rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Over the past 30 years, the work of this Office has contributed to greater recognition of the centrality of human rights in making and sustaining peace, in preventing and halting violations, in fostering accountability, in sustainable development, in humanitarian response and, of late, in economic policy and the work of international financial institutions.
We have been at the forefront of addressing issues of global importance as they emerge, including the human rights impacts of climate change, artificial intelligence, and digital technology.
My Office is now present in more places than ever. We have gone from just two field presences when we started to 94 presences around the world today.
And I would like to see this expanded further – there should be a UN Human Rights Office everywhere. For all States can and should do better on human rights. I have been advocating for this in my meetings with all UN Member States and in my missions.
I have also been speaking about how underfunded and under-resourced my Office remains. We need to double our budget. I call on donors – State, corporate and private – to help us make this happen. A strong UN Human Rights Office and a healthy, well-resourced human rights ecosystem are of global interest.
Our work and the human rights mechanisms that we support have helped advance the human rights cause, identify drivers of conflict and crisis and barriers to development, and offer solutions as well as pathways to remedy and accountability.
We work with State institutions, national human rights bodies and civil society on the ground, to help reform laws, to train officials. We also help open the space for civil society organisations and journalists to do their work, and we are often serving as a bridge between civil society and institutions of the State.
We call out violations and set off alarm bells when attacks on, neglect of, or disdain for human rights could set off crises.
Our work on accountability and transitional justice has helped ensure that perpetrators of serious human rights violations end up in prison, and our work on protection of civic space and human rights defenders has secured the release of people who are detained in violation of their rights.
We provide a reality check. We help set the facts straight, we ground our analysis in human rights laws and standards, we dig into the root causes of human suffering, and we offer systemic, sustainable solutions.
Nowhere is the devastating impact of human rights violations more stark than in the midst of armed conflict and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Cyclone Mocha, which cut a swathe of destruction through Rakhine, Chin and Kachin States, as well as Sagaing and Magway, in Myanmar on 14 May is the latest, deeply painful manifestation of a man-made disaster resulting from a climate event.
For decades, the authorities in Myanmar have deprived the Rohingya of their rights and freedoms and relentlessly attacked other ethnic groups, eroding their capacity to survive. Displaced communities have subsisted in temporary bamboo structures, some since 2012, with Myanmar’s military repeatedly denying requests of humanitarian agencies to build more sustainable living conditions in areas less prone to flooding. I saw this myself on my many trips to Myanmar, especially to the east. They have also consistently prevented the Rohingya from moving freely, including in the days before the cyclone.
The damage and loss of life was both foreseeable and avoidable – and is clearly linked with the systematic denial of human rights. It is imperative that the military lift the blockages on travel, allow for needs assessments to happen, and ensure access to and delivery of lifesaving aid and services.
The desperate situation of the people of Sudan – who fought so courageously against repression of their rights – is heartbreaking. In spite of successive ceasefires, civilians continue to be exposed to serious risk of death and injury – overnight we have had reports of fighter jets across Khartoum and clashes in some areas of the city, as well as gunfire heard in Khartoum-North and Omdurman.
My Designated Expert on Sudan, Radhouane Nouicer, has been meeting remotely with civil society still in the country and with those who have fled – and the testimony is terrifying. Many civilians are virtually besieged in areas where fighting has been relentless.
With State institutions not functioning in Khartoum, civil society actors are risking their lives to fill the gaps. Many human rights defenders, particularly women, have reported receiving threats – but they are undeterred; they continue their crucial work.
Several reports are emerging of sexual violence in Khartoum and Darfur – we are aware of at least 25 cases, but such violations are often the most difficult to document, so I fear the real number of cases to be much higher.
General al-Burhan, General Dagalo, you must issue clear instructions – in no uncertain terms – to all those under your command, that there is zero tolerance for sexual violence, and that perpetrators of all violations will be held accountable. Civilians must be spared. And you must stop this senseless violence now.
It is the near-total impunity for gross violations that is at the root of this new, brazen grab for power in Sudan. Efforts to bring this conflict to an end must have human rights and accountability at their core – for any peace to be sustained.
Elsewhere, I am deeply troubled by the growing phenomenon of anti-rights movements that have been active against migrants and refugees, against women, against people belonging to certain faiths, religious and racial groups, as well as against LGBTIQ people, among others.
We need to push back on such anti-rights movements that are fed and stoked by peddlers of lies and disinformation – including by so-called political and religious leaders and “influencers”. These are people who use populism, repression and even vilification of segments of society – to the detriment of society as a whole – as a short-cut to power and influence.
Following such hateful, discredited narratives, we are seeing a further worsening of laws criminalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including in Uganda. These laws violate a host of human rights, they lead to violence, and they drive people against one another.
They leave people behind and undermine development. Many of these laws are actually colonial relics that have imported 200-year-old stigma and discrimination into the 21st Century.
Hate speech and harmful narratives against migrants and refugees also continue to proliferate; they are accompanied, worryingly, by laws and policies that are anti-migrant, and they risk undermining the basic foundations of international human rights law and refugee law.
Developments that are unfolding in various countries, including the UK, the US, Italy, Greece, and Lebanon are particularly concerning as some of them appear designed to hinder people’s ability to seek asylum and other forms of protection, to penalise those who seek to help them – or to return them in unlawful, undignified, unsustainable ways.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration is clear on everyone’s right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. We need solidarity – to ensure that all people in vulnerable situations are treated with humanity and respect for their rights.
In a number of situations, we see the consequences when different groups incite and stoke hatred and division between communities. The recent violence in Manipur, Northeast India, revealed the underlying tensions between different ethnic and indigenous groups.
I urge the authorities to respond to the situation quickly, including by investigating and addressing root causes of the violence in line with their international human rights obligations.
It will be three years to the day that George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in the US. The small measure of justice achieved in this case remains exceptional – in the US and globally. I remain deeply concerned by regular reports of deaths and injuries of people of African descent during or after interactions with law enforcement in a number of countries. There needs to be firm and prompt action by authorities to ensure justice in each case.
It is clear that we won’t solve the problem of police brutality against people of African descent until we deal with the broader manifestations of systemic racism that permeate every aspect of their lives.
The racial abuse faced – once again – by Real Madrid football player Vinícius Júnior in Spain just this past Sunday is a stark reminder of the prevalence of racism in sport. I call on those who organise sporting events to have strategies in place to prevent and counter racism.
Much more needs to be done to eradicate racial discrimination – and it needs to start with listening to people of African descent, meaningfully involving them and taking genuine steps to act upon their concerns.
I also continue to be concerned about the shrinking of civic space, including in China, where there has been a spate of sentences against human rights defenders based on laws that are at variance with international human rights law.
Also deeply worrying are crackdowns on women’s rights – a tool for men in power to exercise dominance over and enfeeble entire societies. Misogyny is a disease. In combination with violence, it is cancerous.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban continue, aggressively, to seek to erase half of the population from everyday life. Such a system of gender apartheid ruins the development potential of the country.
I will never understand how anyone can trample so cruelly upon the spirit of girls and women, chipping away at their potential and driving one’s country deeper and deeper into abject poverty and despair. It is crucial – for the sake of the people of Afghanistan, the future of the country and the wider region – that repressive policies against women and girls are immediately overturned.
In Iran, while the street protests have diminished, the harassment of women – including for what they do or don’t wear, appears to have actually intensified. Women and girls face increasingly stringent legal, social, and economic measures in the authorities’ enforcement of discriminatory compulsory veiling laws.
I urge the Government to heed Iranians’ calls for reform, and to begin by repealing regulations that criminalise non-compliance with mandatory dress codes. The onus is on the State to introduce laws and policies to protect the human rights of women and girls, including their right to participate in public life without fear of retribution or discrimination.
I am also appalled by the continued use of the death penalty in significant numbers. I urge them to halt executions immediately.
One more situation that is of deep concern to me is that in Pakistan – where hard-earned gains and the rule of law are at serious risk. I am alarmed by the recent escalation of violence, and by reports of mass arrests carried out under problematic laws – arrests that may amount to arbitrary detention.
Particularly disturbing are reports that Pakistan intends to revive the use of military courts to try civilians – which would contravene its international human rights law obligations.
I call on the authorities to ensure prompt, impartial, transparent investigations into deaths and injuries that occurred during the 9 May protests. The only path to a safe, secure, prosperous Pakistan is one that is paved with respect for human rights, democratic processes, and the rule of law, with the meaningful and free participation of all sectors of society.
Beyond individual country situations, of broader concern for me are recent rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence – particularly generative AI. The opportunities are immense – but so are the risks. Human rights need to be baked into AI throughout its entire lifecycle and both governments and companies need to do more to ensure that guardrails are in place. My Office is carefully following and studying these issues.
Allow me to end with an appeal to all of you to help push back against the disinformation and manipulation that feeds anti-rights movements, and to help protect the space for people to defend their rights. Human rights are universal. The dignity and worth of every human being should not be – cannot be – a questionable, sensitive concept.
It is my fervent hope that this 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will provide the space and inspiration for all of us to go back to the basics – to find the roots of human rights values in each of our cultures, histories, and faiths, uniting us in pushing back against the instrumentalization and politicization of human rights within and between countries.
This article is based on the opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk at his press conference in Geneva on May 24.
IPS UN Bureau