Opening statement and global update of human rights concerns by UN High Commissioner for Human Right


Mr. President,

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues and Friends,

As this is my last global update to the Human Rights Council in a regular session – and before I turn, once again, to the important matter of access and cooperation – I wish to draw on some final reflections.

I heard recently a UN official telling others there is really no such thing as universal human rights, musing that they were picked from a Western imagination. I remember thinking to myself that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most translated document in the world – was negotiated by the same political leaders who poured universal values into the Charter, creating the United Nations. Is the UN also then somehow not universal? Were its values sourced only from a Western tradition – unrepresentative of the rest of the world?

No. A clear rejection of this comes from a look at the negotiating record itself. The San Francisco Conference, which established the UN, was a circus of sound shaped from many tongues; its result was not a solo tune from a Western instrument. Had that been the case – had the countries that joined the organization believed they were being pinned to alien, Western values – why then did they not stream toward the exits? Why did they not withdraw from the UN?

But then why is the Universal Declaration, and the whole body of human rights law that followed it, the object of so much attack now –- not only from the violent extremists, like the Takfiris, but also from authoritarian leaders, populists, demagogues, cultural relativists, some Western academics, and even some UN officials?

I have spent most of my career at, and in, the UN. What I have learned is this: the UN is symptomatic of the wider global picture. It is only as great or as pathetic as the prevailing state of the international scene at the time. I also have come to understand how weak human memory is. That to many people history matters only in so far as it can be unsheathed and flung into political battle: they do not view it as a service to deeper human understanding.

There is a dangerous remove and superficiality to so many of our discussions, so much so that the deepest, core issue seems to have been lost on many.

Is it not the case, for example, that historically, the most destructive force to imperil the world has been chauvinistic nationalism – when raised to feral extremes by self-serving, callous leaders, and amplified by mass ideologies which themselves repress freedom. The UN was conceived in order to prevent its rebirth. Chauvinistic nationalism is the polar opposite of the UN, its very antonym and enemy. So why are we so submissive to its return? Why are we in the UN so silent?

The UN’s raison d’être is the protection of peace, rights, justice and social progress. Its operating principle is therefore equally clear: only by pursuing the opposite to nationalism – only when States all work for each other, for everyone, for all people, for the human rights of all people – can peace be attainable.

Why are we not doing this?

Those of us in the UN Secretariat, originating from all the 193 Member States, work collaboratively and we do not answer to any State. In contrast, too many governments represented at the UN will often pull in the opposing direction: feigning a commitment to the common effort, yet fighting for nothing more than their thinly-thought interests, taking out as much as they can from the UN, politically, while not investing in making it a true success. The more pronounced their sense of self-importance – the more they glory in nationalism – the more unvarnished is the assault by these governments on the overall common good: on universal rights, on universal law and universal institutions, such as this one.

And as the attack on the multilateral system and its rules, including most especially international human rights law, intensifies, so too will the risk increase of further mischief on a grander scale. The UN’s collective voice must therefore be principled and strong; not weak and whining, obsessed with endless wrangling over process, the small things, as it is the case today.

If my Office, of which I am very proud, and I, have gotten one thing right over the last few years, it is our understanding that only fearlessness is adequate to our task at this point in time. Not ducking for cover, or using excuses or resorting to euphemisms, but a fearlessness approaching that shown by human rights defenders around the world – for only by speaking out can we begin to combat the growing menace of chauvinistic nationalism that stalks our future.

I appeal to you to do more, to speak louder and work harder for the common purpose and for universal human rights law, to better our chances for a global peace.

This Council session will consider numerous essential issues. Among them, you have before you the report of my Office on Kashmir, and the coming report on Venezuela; you will also be informed of the findings of the Team of Experts on the Kasai regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And as I transition out of my position, the Office will continue its work on the database of business enterprises engaged in specific activities related to Israeli settlements, as called for by the Council, with an update possibly before September. At the September session, the Fact-Finding Mission report on Myanmar will be presented to the Council, alongside the report of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar; and you will also receive the report on Yemen prepared by the eminent international experts. In that context, I emphasize my grave worry regarding the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition's on-going attacks in Hodeida – which could result in enormous civilian casualties, and have a disastrous impact on life-saving humanitarian aid to millions of people which comes through the port.

Mr President,

Twice in the course of my mandate, I have reported on the troubling failure by a number of countries to grant access, and I will do so again today. These refusals of access constitute a serious affront to our work, and where there is sustained denial of access, and serious reasons to believe violations are occurring, we will consider the option of remote monitoring. The Office’s mandate to conduct such monitoring is unassailable, and if the Government concerned fears there may be inaccuracies it should permit us in to see the situation on the ground.

Mr President,

In Syria, the leadership’s contempt and disregard for human rights was what laid the ground for this conflict, and fuelled it for the first year at least. The horrific violations and abuses committed since then – principally by the government and its allies, but including also the violent extremists and their supporters – have destroyed much of the country along with many of its people. Both my Office and the Council's Commission of Inquiry have been refused access to all regions. The Government’s recent, selective acceptance of one Rapporteur’s visit, when so many other requests have been outstanding for an extended period, is in no way an adequate stand-in for compliance with this Council's resolutions S18-1 and 19/22, which call for full cooperation with my Office and the establishment of a field presence. Our extensive remote monitoring of human rights violations in Syria will continue.

In Myanmar, as the Council is aware, there are clear indications of well-organised, widespread and systematic attacks continuing to target the Rohingyas in Rakhine State as an ethnic group, amounting possibly to acts of genocide if so established by a court of law. In Kachin and northern Shan States, conflict has again escalated since October last year, and longstanding and widely reported human rights violations in the country include allegations of extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; torture and inhuman treatment; rape and other forms of sexual violence; forced labour; recruitment of children into armed forces; and indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks arising from conflicts between security forces and armed groups. Although Myanmar has stated that it will investigate allegations and prosecute alleged perpetrators, its actions to date have not met minimal standards of credibility or impartiality. Due to continuing refusals to permit access, OHCHR, the country Special Rapporteur and the Fact-Finding Mission have conducted remote monitoring. In the context of the MOU that the Government of Myanmar has established with UNDP and UNHCR for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, I reiterate that no repa