Two trends moving in opposite directions appear to be taking us further and further away from global solutions to global problems, says Michelle Bachelet.
It has now been a year since I took up the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – although it certainly feels like much longer!
When I sat down for an informal chat with many of you in September last year, I mentioned that there are a lot of expectations of me – people desperate for me to succeed in being an effective high commissioner; others waiting for me to fail. I had pledged to engage with, listen to and advise states, as well as NGOs globally and in local contexts.
I have indeed endeavoured to do this. Over the past year, I have been able to engage in meaningful conversations with many states, civil society organisations and others, to really listen to their concerns with an open mind.
I believe my past experiences and the multiple perspectives they give me have served me well in this job, and in the office’s attempts to open up spaces for dialogue between states and civil society.
And of course, when needed, I speak publicly to highlight human rights violations in a bid to prevent the situation from worsening or to advocate for the rights of those who are not being heard.
I’ve managed to visit countries in every region of the world – some in greater depth than others. I’ve been able to see first-hand the tremendous work our colleagues do on the ground, in reinforcing the universality of human rights, providing advice and assistance to the authorities on human rights matters, working with civil society and advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable.
I had no illusions about this being an easy job, but here I’d like to share some of my greatest frustrations and fears about the state of human rights in our world today. I fear that we are moving further away from global solutions to global problems due to two clear trends that are taking us in opposite directions.
The world has never been more interconnected.
The impact of human rights violations in one part of the world can have serious regional and international repercussions on another.
We have seen this with large numbers of people fleeing their countries due to armed conflicts, insecurity, political oppression, climate crises and failure to protect economic, social and cultural rights.
We see also this with the fires that are raging in the Amazon, and with the ice caps melting in Greenland and elsewhere.
We see this in the ease with which the fires of hate speech, racist and xenophobic rhetoric can spread through the darkest webs of the internet and openly on social media.
Human rights violations are everybody’s business because they can affect us all at a very fundamental level: our peace and security, our economies, our very lungs depend on the promotion and protection of human rights in places far from our homes, no matter where we live.
Unfortunately, the other trend is taking us in the opposite direction.
More than ever before, sovereignty and national borders are being invoked to prevent human rights issues from being raised and tackled in a concerted way. The international community – ourselves included – is warned not to interfere in internal matters by states around the world. This is a global concern and an increasing trend.
These two trends moving in opposite directions appear to be taking us further and further away from global solutions to global problems.
I urge all states to come together to work on these critical human rights issues in a concerted, multilateral fashion. International agreements such as the Paris climate agreement, the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees provide solid, pragmatic advice. And of course the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and relevant human rights treaties chart the way.
Similarly, at the national level, I have repeatedly stressed the need for inclusive, meaningful dialogue to build trust, resolve seemingly intractable issues and prevent unrest and conflict.
Today, in places with very different circumstances, levels of development and political situations, we are seeing an outpouring of popular discontent and mass protests – or their suppression with the firm hand of the state.
In every region: in Hong Kong, in Russia, in Indonesian Papua, in Indian-administered Kashmir, in Honduras and in Zimbabwe – and of course Yemen and Syria, we see the desperate need for dialogue.
Much of the grievances can be traced back to inequalities and power imbalances. When people from all walks of life are allowed a seat at the table, to openly discuss their access to social, economic, civil, political and cultural rights – in a safe space, without fear of repression – only then can we hope to guarantee stability.
Everyone has the right to have an opinion and to express it in a peaceful way. Blunt measures such as blanket internet shutdowns, sometimes for prolonged periods, contravene international law.
The use of unnecessary and disproportionate force against people holding dissenting views and arrests of individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly can only exacerbate tensions, seriously undermining the space for dialogue.
There are too many recent examples of human rights defenders and journalists being targeted through prosecution, harassment – online and offline, including trolling – or even physical violence and targeted killings. Their work is fundamental to safeguarding our human rights, and their protection from reprisals is a litmus test of the state of human rights in their countries.
In relation to the unrest we are seeing in so many parts of the world, I issue a global call today for all sides to renounce the use of violence, to exercise restraint and to prioritise open and inclusive dialogue.
I would like here to expand on one of the worst crises we have seen over the past eight years: Syria – one that began with the government’s abject failure to allow a safe space for dialogue.
In just the past four months, since the escalation of hostilities on areas in the demilitarised zone of Idlib and its surroundings from 29 April to 29 August, my office has managed to verify that 1,089 civilians have been killed by parties to the conflict – that is 572 men, 213 women, and 304 children.
A total of 1,031 of these civilian deaths are reportedly attributable to the air strikes and ground-based strikes carried out by government forces and their allies on Idlib and Hama governorates. Non-state armed groups also carried out attacks on populated government-controlled territories and are reportedly responsible for the other 58 civilian deaths.
Also since 29 April, we have recorded that 51 medical facilities – such as hospitals, ambulance points and clinics – have been damaged as a result of attacks.
I should not need to emphasise that these figures are appalling, shameful and deeply tragic.
In a bid to take control of territories, there appears to be little concern about taking civilian lives. Any further escalation will only result in further loss of life and displacement of civilians who have already been forced to repeatedly flee, in situations of dire humanitarian conditions.
I appeal to all parties to the conflict and to those – many, powerful – states with influence to put aside political differences and halt the carnage.
I thank you for your attention and for all you do to spread the word on human rights issues globally. On my part, I am very much looking forward to building on everything I have seen and learned this first year, during the next three years of my mandate as high commissioner for human rights.