This is a pivotal day.
We are here to rebuild a foundation of hope. Hope that we need now, perhaps more than ever, at this sombre moment in history.
Disorder and division. Complex and bitter geopolitics. Deepening inequalities. And fear.
Unbearably, in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel – yet again; as well as in Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar and far too many other places, conflict, intractable and brutal, is inflicting terrible suffering on civilians, without remorse.
Trust – in each other, and in the institutions that guide us – is in free fall.
We are backtracking on the crucial ambitions set out in the sustainable development agenda.
Civic space is being strangled, silencing the voices that can power the change we actually need.
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The climate crisis is burning up our world.
These and other crises are the consequences of failure to uphold human rights.
They are not the failure of human rights: they bear witness to the damage that is done when human rights are ignored and violated.
On 11 December communities from every region called urgently for change, proposed transformative ideas and made commitments.
And over 155 States announced their own pledges on a wide range of human rights issues.
From advancing women’s rights, and children’s rights, to tangible commitments on climate change. From empowering people with disabilities to ensuring legislative reforms that promise lasting impact on people’s lives.
I am very grateful for this surge of transformative promises.
Today, I am asking you to shift from the specifics of your national or individual perspectives to four key discussion areas about how we can make human rights central to all policymaking and all action, now and in the future.
Human rights is a global public good – and as leaders, you are entrusted with the duty of advancing it.
First, peace and security. Every individual has the right to live in peace. And all human rights measures ultimately contribute to preventing tensions and conflict.
War polarises. It divides. It dehumanises the other; it impels us to take positions for and against – a binary view: human versus inhuman.
But human rights cut through these divisions. Radically, they value each and every human being – regardless of which side they stand on.
I ask you, as leaders, to contribute to a deep reflection of how we can move human rights back to the centre of decision-making, to prevent the scourge of war.
Second, digital transformation. We are all aware of the immense potential benefits.
But let us be honest: from artificial intelligence to neuro-technology, cyber-crime, surveillance and bioweapons, we are faced with a world where the fundament of humanity – human dignity and human agency – is at risk.
This is the question we need to address: how to protect our humanity and our rights in this new universe?
Third, our economies. I am absolutely convinced that our economic systems, at all levels, will need to be infused with human rights, and this, too, will require a radical transformation – not least, in light of the green and social transition under way, as well as the massive global inequalities we face. But how do we go about this?
Fourth, human rights are part of the ecosystem that ensures humanity can survive and thrive. Our planet is in profound crisis because we have ignored the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for much too long.
What will it take to place human rights – not business interests – at the centre of all national and global policy?
Human rights conversations can be sensitive, difficult and uncomfortable, speaking truth to power. They are often meant to flip orthodoxies and can therefore be radical. But they must always take place in a spirit of respectful and constructive engagement in the search for a better world.
I’m asking you to come together, transcending different societies and systems, to seek out areas of agreement and ensure meaningful change.
Seventy-five years ago, our forebears took on this role. They overcame their differences, and they set out the steps that would create the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
It is our turn now to take on this profound and visionary task of ensuring that human rights become both the overarching goal and the guardrails, and that we strive for solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time.
Human rights principles are our best solution to this fraught and frightened world. I entreat you to rekindle the spirit, impulse and vitality that led to the Universal Declaration 75 years ago.
Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered this statement to heads of state in Geneva on 12 December 2023