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Report for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting April 2018: Towards a Common Future

Contribution by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Seventy years ago, out of the devastation of the two most horrific wars our planet has known, states took a step towards a new kind of world. They did so in the knowledge of what global destruction and massive suffering can mean on this planet we share. They built the United Nations, because the search for common solutions and agreements is essential to our survival. And they drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a guide to how to do it.

It begins with human equality and dignity, the expression of values which draw on every culture, from every geography. And it tells us that it is by upholding human rights that we will ward off the scourge of war.

The UN’s search for collective solutions has warded off the spectre of global, nuclear warfare. Many conflicts have been resolved or prevented by mediation, intervention or adjudication. National independence has been assisted and promoted. Unprecedented advances in health, in wealth, in education, and in the ability to make decisive personal choices have immensely improved the lives of vast numbers of people who previously suffered discrimination.

"Leaving no-one behind" is the core of the Sustainable Development Agenda because including everyone in policy creates better outcomes. Economies and societies that are inclusive and participative, and where government is accountable, are stronger. I want to emphasise this point: human rights are not destructive of security; they build stronger societies, more resilient and better able to withstand shocks.

This is as true for social outcomes as it is for climate-related disasters. Today’s meeting of Heads of Government takes place in London because extreme weather related to climate change cancelled the planned rendezvous in Vanuatu last year. At a time when science offers us powerful forms of clean energy, entire countries and coastal cities face destruction by flooding. And effective common action to diminish the damage and loss of life involved in extreme weather events is being slowed by a nearsighted failure to ensure climate justice.

Both internationally and in terms of its impact on communities, human rights based action in this regard makes better policy. Nationally, informing policy through a human rights lens can reduce the vulnerability to extreme weather events of marginalized and poor communities living in inadequate conditions. And internationally, unholding international law and international human rights law – especially for small states, and for developing states – is a bedrock, existential necessity, just as respect for human rights is essential to human well-being.

Recently the United Nations Secretary General issued a “red alert” about the state of the world. He warned of the increasing polarisation of societies, the destructive power of nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Walls are going up, and the essential laws and institutions and principles set up to maintain global order are being eroded. These challenges threaten the rights of our fellow human beings in every region. They damage our hopes of achieving peace, a safe environment, and sustainable development.

If rights are not universal – if some people deserve more rights than others do, by accident of skin color, or gender, or geography – that is the road to violence, a road of grievance and scarred societies. Humanity has traveled that road often, in national and international history, and it leads to conflict so deep that nobody wins.

Conversely, human rights measures build sound societies. The constitute commitments that every government has made to its people, by treaty and by law. And these are principles that the Commonwealth, with its diversity of systems and cultures, should have at its core.

The Commonwealth exists to promote the common weal: the well-being of all its peoples. In seeking a common future, upholding human rights is the essential core. By building justice, and therefore peace and development, human rights underpin sound societies, stable and resilient, bound together in the common good.