Press Release

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

25 June 2021

  • 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Item 2: Human rights update by the High Commissioner
    Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Caption: Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Photo: © UN Photo

Distinguished President of the Council,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

It is an honour to address this Council on the occasion of its 15th anniversary – sadly, a time of grave setbacks in human rights.

Extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice are rising. Democratic and civic space is being eroded. Navigating a clear way out of the complex COVID-19 crisis, and towards an inclusive, green, sustainable and resilient future, will be the work of this generation of world leaders – or their downfall.

The Secretary-General's Call to Action on Human Rights is a blueprint that  connects, more closely than ever before, the UN pillars of development, peace and security, and human rights.

It places support for the full spectrum of all human rights at the heart of every society's capacity to recover from the pandemic emergency – and at the core of the work of all UN bodies and teams.

The Secretary-General has also outlined the need for a New Social Contract, underpinned by a New Global Deal of solidarity, which more fairly shares power, resources and opportunities. In September he will deliver to the General Assembly a plan for a UN-wide Common Agenda.

These are bold steps that place unprecedented emphasis on the power of human rights to ensure sound and inclusive development, sustainable peace, and societies grounded in trust.

I take this opportunity to update the Council on the analysis and work of my Office to give effect to these initiatives, and to ensure that they work together to deliver strong impact for people around the world.

In doing so, I want to emphasise two themes:

Firstly, the Call to Action creates unprecedented leverage to deploy the force of partnerships across the United Nations. I am committed to ensuring that this leads to broader, better integrated and firmly evidence-based country analysis; unified advocacy; and field-based programming that is better targeted, and more effective, because of its strong grounding in human rights.

Secondly, the Call to Action underscores the need to approach civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as a compelling and mutually reinforcing synergy. Economic and social rights, and the right to development, are universal rights. They are not ordinary services with a market-set price-tag, but essential factors in building more peaceful and equal societies. And civil and political rights are equally crucial to building inclusive, participative societies. Together – regardless of the country's wealth or stage of development – steps to uphold these rights create a powerful movement of public trust.

As I pointed out at this Council earlier in my mandate, policies that build social justice also help to develop stronger economies. They drive more inclusive political systems. They deepen trust. They build hope. Policies which support the rights of every individual to make their own choices advance the 2030 Agenda; they are good for communities and nations. Space for civil society and independent media to critique and debate promotes transparency and innovation.  Systems that deliver justice for victims mean that grievances are recognised, and make it easier to build or rebuild security and peace.

The Call to Action asks us to advance that vision of the entire United Nations working to uphold all human rights.

It will be challenging – and absolutely vital.

Madam President,

I am convinced that the Call to Action will be an unprecedentedly powerful human rights mainstreaming instrument, creating momentum and leverage for much stronger human rights integration across the work of the entire UN – particularly at country level.

Already, in a number of countries we are seeing better analysis of the impacts of national laws and policies on people facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including women and girls; more targeted UN programming; and stronger and more unified advocacy, with leadership that is empowered to speak out about rights.

In Cambodia, for instance, poverty has doubled during the pandemic, and now affects an estimated 17.6 per cent of the population. Two years ago, the poverty rate was 10%. Our human rights staff, in tandem with the entire United Nations system in Cambodia, have jointly advocated for a well-designed and human rights-based social protection system; and the prioritisation of healthcare budgets; and a broader civic space. A new Country Team Human Rights Strategy will ensure support for rights-based development and pandemic-recovery work.

In Serbia, as the pandemic gathered pace, our human rights advisor partnered with UN colleagues, Government agencies and civil society to undertake urgent outreach to the mainly Roma residents of sub-standard informal settlements across the country. An unprecedented effort to map the most urgent needs ultimately reached more than 700 settlements. It indicated key areas where inadequate access to safe water, electricity, sanitation and basic income pointed to both long-standing neglect, and an imminent threat to public health. The exercise – which could only have been achieved with work from the entire Country Team – led to immediate targeted responses by the authorities, with follow-up planning to overcome systemic neglect and social exclusion.

In Argentina, the UN Country Team was quickly mobilised to respond to critical human rights concerns in north-eastern Formosa province as the pandemic took hold. The UN Resident Coordinator led a virtual assessment mission with participation by UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO/PAHO and OHCHR. He then initiated consultations with the authorities on a potential UN joint strategic programme to respond to the health emergency in the province in line with international human rights standards, including tackling a number of structural problems, with special focus on indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations. 

The Call to Action has been instrumental in unlocking significant shifts. It will be of critical assistance as we work to meet the ambition of the new generation of Common Country Analysis and Sustainable Development Cooperation Frameworks. We need to ensure that all UN actors understand who are the most marginalized and why; that we jointly identify human rights setbacks; and that we act together where the UN's collective support can help States to address key human rights challenges, including structural inequalities.

Excellencies,

Our Surge Initiative, set up in September 2019, played a key role in upgrading the economic expertise of our field teams at a crucial moment. As the pandemic progressed, we have been able to count on a team of field-facing economists to work with UN economic and development personnel on advice for country recovery strategies and the use of appropriate fiscal policies to maximise the resources available to States.

This work very much builds on the targeted expert recommendations issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, other Treaty Bodies, and numerous Special Procedures mandate-holders.

In Guinea, for example, this technical and financial support meant our field presence was able to undertake an assessment of the impact of the mining sector on human rights, particularly economic and social rights. Mining is among Guinea's main sources of revenue – and therefore a key potential accelerator for sustainable development and better fulfilment of economic and social rights. But wildcat or artisanal mining, in particular, is associated with serious human rights abuses, including forced displacement and environmental degradation.

Our assessment met with strong cooperation from the UN Country Team in Guinea and very positive work by key Government officials, the national human rights institution and mining companies themselves, as well as affected communities and civil society groups. This has led to ongoing policy reforms, including legislative changes and governance reforms in the mining sector and management of natural resources. Capacity-building, and work to strengthen legal frameworks, are planned, and a joint pilot project on the right to development between OHCHR and the Government is also underway.

No recovery programme in any country can hope to be fully effective if discrimination continues to hold back half the population. Across ten countries in West and Central Africa – Benin, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo – we have partnered with UNICEF and UN Women to set up surveys on the specific impacts of the pandemic on women and girls. This work, which will run through to the end of July, is guided by CEDAW recommendations on collecting accurate age- and sex-disaggregated data. By addressing the very widespread lack of primary data on gender, it is likely to provide new insights into intersecting forms of discrimination faced by women – and may suggest new ways to solve them. It is also in line with the need that has been expressed by a number of Governments for support for evidence-based responses to the pandemic. And it will  contribute key information to the UN's programmatic responses to COVID-19.

The Call to Action provides a key framework for stronger work to address the interlocking impacts of climate change, pollution and nature loss on rights. Together with UNEP and UNDP, we are leading interagency efforts to advance the human right to a healthy environment by developing UN-wide guidance on protection of environmental human rights defenders; emphasising participation by children and youth in environmental decision-making; and supporting Country Teams and national human rights institutions' work in these areas.

In the Pacific, our Regional Office and UNEP have provided capacity-building training for environmental human rights defenders. They are also jointly advocating broader enabling environments that empower human rights networks and other agents of positive change.

Excellencies,

Establishing a New Social Contract is about rebuilding public trust through stronger support for fundamental rights. It is vital to establishing societies in which policy-makers place a priority on combatting inequalities and promoting rights to social protection, to health, education, and more. Those public investments in the legal commitments made by every State can be underpinned by macroeconomic policies that seek to maximize available resources, including through progressive taxation and curtailing illicit financial flows.  A human rights economy requires transparency, accountability and a broad space for social dialogue, scrutiny and participation. 

According to the World Bank, between January and September 2020, more than 200 countries put in place over 1,000 social protection measures involving an average expenditure of $243 per capita. Cash transfer programs alone reached 1.3 billion people, or 17 percent of the world population. While it may not always be possible or desirable to sustain exactly the same programmes over the longer term, this unprecedented recognition of the role that social protections play in supporting a functioning economy, and sustaining society, does create a window for realization of the universal right to social protection – to reduce exclusion, prevent vulnerability, and strengthen resilience. The evidence is conclusive: countries that had invested in social protection have been better able to weather the crisis.

In Ukraine, the Human Rights Monitoring Mission developed detailed recommendations for the Government to remedy weak access to social protections – particularly for the poorest and socially excluded – and it liaised with the UN Country Team to better integrate social protection in COVID response and recovery. A Country Team-wide policy paper, which was launched at a high-level event in April, aims to contribute to the Government's ongoing reforms of the pension system by ensuring a human rights and gender-based approach. Our staff are currently implementing a human rights-based budgeting project that focuses specifically on social protection at the local level in ten localities. They also contributed to the Country Team's advocacy with both the IMF and the World Bank regarding measures that could place disproportionate burden on vulnerable people.

In Madagascar, with the national Mining Code and related mining taxation processes undergoing revision in Parliament, our Human Rights Advisor produced policy recommendations to raise additional revenues from mining companies to combat extreme poverty and contribute to sustainable development, including of local communities. A number of other proposed measures aimed to advance the rights of affected communities, including mandatory human rights impact assessments when mining permits are requested or renewed. The project's findings have contributed to the Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, which integrated a dedicated pillar on sustainable, inclusive and resilient management of the environment. 

Last month, a workshop we organised with ILO, the UN Development Coordination Office and UN Women looked at how we can jointly work to help countries expand their fiscal space in order to scale up social spending. As a former Government official, I am very aware that many countries are facing the simultaneous impacts of collapsing global trade, falling remittances, turmoil in commodities prices and debt burdens. This undermines their ability to deliver on economic and social rights. Reallocating public expenditure, using proven techniques to combat corruption and illicit financial flows, deploying progressive fiscal policies and increasing budget transparency, participation and accountability can assist to free up fiscal space. Again, our internal discussions placed emphasis on practical work in countries, and on partnerships across all UN entities, to embed human rights assessments and human rights-based approaches into development work.

It is essential that the entire UN Country Team work with the international financial institutions to ensure that they fully uphold human rights in their financing and conditionalities. We need the support and advocacy of strong global partnerships, in the true spirit of SDG 17. We need to make sure development financing aligns with international norms; addresses discrimination and other root causes of inequalities; and integrates both participation and accountability. I appreciate my exchanges with the IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva and the World Bank's President David Malpass, and I look forward to seeing their human rights convictions reflected throughout the operations of their organizations.

In Lebanon, our Office has worked closely with the Country Team and national partners to raise concern about the impact of the economic crisis, pandemic and Beirut Port explosion on people's ability to meet basic needs. Skyrocketing prices, including for food, are reaching critical levels, with lives and a fragile social stability hanging in the balance. In cooperation with  partners, our field team  prepared a UN Country Team Position to the IMF which proposed reform proposals through a strong human rights lens, insisting on the rights and needs of people in situations of vulnerability.

Madam President,

To recover from the most wide-reaching and severe cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes, we need a life-changing vision – and concerted action to follow up. We need a human rights economy; human rights-based development; and societies that, in all their diversity, share bedrock commitments to reduce inequalities and advance all human rights. We need to anchor our States in the sound foundation of justice – knowing that this effort will build the resilience and deep public trust all Governments seek to inspire.

The Call to Action is a collective and substantive endeavour, and support from all States, as well as civil society and other stakeholders, is crucial. Your voices and support for human rights – national, regionally and globally – will be key to the success of this effort.

At OHCHR, and across many of our partners in the UN family, work is underway – and with better funding, and greater support from Member States, we aspire to take it much further. I trust that this Council will also follow through with efforts that can bring to life the vision of the Call to Action for Human Rights across the world.

Madam President,

In my global update to the Council in February this year, I outlined aspects of the human rights situation in Algeria; Brazil  and other countries of the Amazon and Pantanal regions; Cambodia; Chile; China; Comoros; Ecuador; Egypt; Ethiopia; Guinea; Haiti; India; Indonesia; Iran; Iraq; Jordan; Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control; Kazakhstan; Lao PDR;  Libya; Malawi; Mali; the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone; Pakistan; Peru; the Philippines; the Russian Federation; Saudi Arabia; Somalia; Sudan; Syria; Tanzania; Thailand; Turkey; Uganda; the United States of America; Vietnam;  and Yemen, as well as my concerns on action taken against organisations that protect migrants' rights in several European countries, notably Hungary and Croatia.

In the interactive dialogue, I will be glad to respond to any queries in follow-up to my February statement. In addition, I would like to further update the Council on a few recent issues of significant concern, noting also that the situations in Georgia, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Ukraine and Venezuela will be further addressed during this session, and that the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was recently discussed in a special session.

In Afghanistan, I am alarmed by the sharp increase in violence and civilian harm. The recent attack on a school in a Hazara area of Kabul – which killed 85 children, most of them girls – was especially shocking, even after so many decades of horrific attacks against Afghan families.  In the six months since talks began between the Government and the Taliban, civilian casualties increased by 41 per cent compared to the same period one year previously. The withdrawal of international forces, which is expected to be completed by September, is creating fear for the future – particularly among women, minority communities, human rights defenders and journalists – with deep concern about the risks of losing gains hard-won over the last twenty years. I urge all parties to resume the stalled peace talks and to urgently implement a ceasefire to protect civilians. The independent role of the courageous Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission must be protected. Given the rapid deterioration of this situation, I encourage the Council to increase its monitoring and to consider mechanisms for an effective prevention response.

The situation in Belarus also continues to deteriorate, with severe restrictions on civic space, including the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association; raids against civil society and independent media; and the judicial persecution of human rights activists and journalists. We continue to receive numerous allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment.  Our examination of the situation in Belarus, pursuant to Resolution 46/20, is underway. I regret that, for its part, the Government has chosen to discontinue the presence of our Senior Human Rights Adviser in Minsk, a position which provided a significant point of engagement and a window for cooperation.

In both Chad and Mali, I have been deeply concerned by recent non-democratic and unconstitutional changes in government, which inevitably represent a significant challenge to human rights, and which have weakened the institutional protection of democratic freedoms. However, I note that transitional governments in both countries have affirmed their continued commitments to upholding international legal obligations, including with regard to human rights. I join other international actors in calling for strengthened work to fight impunity; fully participatory and inclusive democratic transition processes, including the holding of free and fair elections; and a swift and full return to constitutional order in both Chad and Mali.

Regarding China, it has now been a year since adoption of the National Security Law in Hong Kong SAR, on which my Office has expressed serious concerns. We have been closely monitoring its application and the chilling impact it has had on the civic and democratic space, as well as independent media.  Since 1 July 2020, 107 people have been arrested under the National Security Law and 57 have been formally charged, with the first case coming to trial later this week. This will be an important test of independence for Hong Kong’s judiciary in its willingness to uphold Hong Kong’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in accordance with the Basic Law. Separately, I continue to discuss with China modalities for a visit, including meaningful access, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and hope this can be achieved this year, particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge.

In Colombia, nationwide protests have been ongoing since 28 April, against a background of a pre-existing economic crisis and deep social inequalities aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. My Office has expressed deep concern at allegations of serious human rights violations by State security forces.  While most demonstrations have been peaceful, several instances of violence have been recorded. My Office condemns all forms of violence, calls for full respect for the right to peaceful assembly, and encourages dialogue to resolve the crisis. From 28 April to 16 June we registered allegations of 56 deaths, including 54 civilians and two police officers, in the context of the protests – mainly in the city of Cali – as well as 49 alleged victims of sexual violence. My Office is also documenting human rights abuses by non-State actors and the effects of sustained roadblocks on human rights. I welcome the President’s announcement of a zero tolerance policy for abuses by security forces and urge the authorities to ensure prompt, effective and independent investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and abuses committed since 28 April – and that those responsible are held accountable. The full implementation of the Peace Agreement, including support for the historical transitional justice process, remains key in response to the current unrest. Fulfilling these vital promises to the people of Colombia will contribute to addressing root causes and increasing public trust in the authorities.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict, including extrajudicial executions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; sexual violence against children as well as adults; and forced displacement. Credible reports indicate that Eritrean soldiers are still operating in Tigray and continue to perpetrate violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The humanitarian situation is dire, with reports of denial of humanitarian access in some localities, and looting of aid supplies by soldiers. An estimated 350,000 people are threatened by famine. The investigation we are jointly conducting in Tigray with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is underway, with teams on the ground since 16 May. We expect this work to conclude in August, and the findings and recommendations will be made public. In many other parts of Ethiopia, alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement are linked to increasing polarization about longstanding grievances. The ongoing deployment of military forces is not a durable solution, and I encourage comprehensive and multidimensional dialogue throughout the country to address the real grievances held.

In Haiti, political turmoil continues, linked in part to disagreement about the organization of a referendum on a new Constitution, and the organization of elections in September. The authorities should guarantee the right to vote under secure conditions. In this context I am acutely concerned about high levels of insecurity and the Government's apparent difficulties in tackling this trend. The police reportedly did not intervene during a number of recent clashes between criminal groups in Port-au-Prince. Such incidents have led to at least 50 deaths, the displacement of more than 13,000* people, and have aggravated already very limited access to basic services. I strongly condemn violent attacks against the Haitian National Police, with the deaths of 26*police officers since January.* I urge the authorities to take all possible efforts to ensure the protection of all Haitians and tackle the root causes of violence.

Mexico held its largest ever elections earlier this month amid numerous challenges.  I was alarmed by the high level of political violence in the electoral context.  At least 91 politicians and members of political parties – among them 36 election candidates – were killed during the electoral period which began in September 2020. There were also a number of other life-threatening attacks and threats against politicians, their supporters, and civil servants engaged in election work.  Political parties across the spectrum were affected, and women faced gender-based violence including sexual violence and smear campaigns. It is vital to ensure accountability for these acts and to guarantee their non-repetition. Moving forward, I also encourage authorities to refrain from using language that undermines those expressing dissenting opinions, or which in any way puts in question the independence of autonomous bodies, including electoral institutions. I welcome the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Mexico accepting urgent action recommendations of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances as legally binding on the authorities.

In Mozambique, I am alarmed by the growing conflict in the North, with grave abuses of human rights by armed groups including the brutal killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, child abductions and exploitation. Women and girls are reportedly particularly targeted. I note also reports of serious human rights violations by State security forces, supported by private security companies. Almost 800,000 people, including 364,000 children, have been forced to flee their homes by the violence, and face growing food insecurity. I am concerned about the lack of effective mechanisms for oversight and accountability. It is important that all alleged violations, whether by private or public actors, be investigated, prosecuted, and that measures be adopted to put an end to such acts. Restrictions on the rights to freedom of information, expression and press freedoms are a serious issue, together with killings and harassment of human rights defenders, and discrimination against women and girls. I am encouraged that the President of Mozambique has recently welcomed the opportunity to strengthen our collaboration and engagement and has pledged to address the human rights situation.  

In the Russian Federation, I am dismayed by recent measures that further undermine people's right to express critical views, and their ability to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled in September. Earlier this month, following closed hearings, a court in Moscow ruled that the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by the imprisoned opposition figure Aleksei Navalny was an "extremist organization". It also ruled that the associated Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, and Navalny’s nation-wide network of political offices, are "extremist", based on vaguely defined allegations of attempting to change the foundations of constitutional order. Earlier, a law was passed prohibiting people involved in the activities of outlawed “extremist organizations” from running in any election. 

I call on Russia to uphold civil and political rights. Legislation restricting the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association should be brought in line with international human rights norms and standards. I further urge the authorities to end the arbitrary practice of labelling ordinary individuals, journalists, and non-governmental organizations as “extremists”, “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”.  

In Sri Lanka, I am concerned by further Government measures perceived as targeting Muslims, and by the harassment of Tamils, including in the context of commemoration events for those who died at the end of the war. I am concerned that recent appointments to the Office of Missing Persons and Office for Reparations, and steps to discourage investigations into past crimes, are further undermining victims' trust. Recent counter-terrorism regulations – which include the listing and/or prohibition of more than 300 Tamil and Muslim groups and individuals for alleged support of terrorism – will also not advance reconciliation. Regulations now permit the arbitrary administrative detention of people for up to two years, without trial for the purposes of de-radicalisation. I also note a continuing series of deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged criminal gangs. A thorough, prompt and independent investigation should be conducted. We will continue to engage with the Government, and I will update the Council further at the September session, including on progress in implementing the new accountability mandate.

I am also pleased to report that we are close to finalising the UN Joint Programme on human rights with the Government of the Philippines. I note steps taken by the Government in its internal review of alleged police killings. It is important that re-investigation of cases produces meaningful results, as accountability for human rights violations remains a long-standing concern in the Philippines. I again emphasise the importance of protecting and ensuring the full participation of civil society and the independent national human rights institution. I will update the Council further on this situation in September.

Thank you Madam President.

* Corrected from the version delivered orally which, due to a technical issue, contained out-of-date numbers.

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Victor Radivinovski

Victor Radivinovski

Advocacy and Communications Officer

UN entities involved in this initiative

OHCHR
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
RCO
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office
UNDGC
United Nations Department of Global Communications

Goals we are supporting through this initiative