Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
13 October 2021
I am honoured to present the report of my Office, A/76/36, pursuant to General Assembly resolution 48/14. It outlines our human rights work, between 1 January and 30 June 2021, including the work conducted by our 95 field presences, in partnership with many stakeholders. I am pleased to say that, since the submission of the report, we now have 98 field presences.
We continue to learn how to adapt to the exceptional circumstances imposed by COVID-19. I am pleased to report that we are actively implementing our mandate, including by enhancing remote human rights monitoring, technical assistance and capacity-building support.
As the Secretary-General stressed in Our Common Agenda, “We are at an inflection point in history. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a wake-up call and with the climate crisis now looming, the world is experiencing its biggest shared test since the Second World War”.
I am convinced that we will only pass this test working together in solidarity, through “a more networked and inclusive multilateral system” and with all our efforts based on human rights.
The pandemic has exposed a world immersed in human rights gaps.
Gaps in the access to justice, health, education and social protection.
Gaps in the access to technology, employment opportunities and participation.
Gaps in the protection from violence and insecurity and in access to justice and protection.
Gaps in addressing the different impacts of crises on different people, from COVID-19 to climate change.
We must focus our work on narrowing these human rights gaps -- bringing people closer to their rights and closer together through trust, respect and solidarity.
In that spirit, please allow me to share some examples of the fast-responding, innovative and comprehensive work my Office has been doing this year.
PREVENTION, PEACE, SECURITY, JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY
My office continued to support countries to achieve accountability and justice for human rights violations and abuses.
In 2021, the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan has already carried out a total of 245 capacity building activities for more than 6 thousand people on a variety of issues, including, transitional justice, human rights in the administration of justice, protection of civic space, sexual and gender based violence and conflict related violence. Participants included National and State Government officials, political leaders, members of armed forces, the police and the judiciary, as well as civil society activists and community leaders.
In Mexico, we provided technical assistance to the Prosecutor Office and the Government in the investigation on the enforced disappearance of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural School. We continued accompanying the families in their quest for truth and justice.
In the Philippines, we have supported the development of a new UN Joint Programme on Human Rights, building on my comprehensive report to the Human Rights Council. The Programme aims to strengthen domestic investigative and accountability measures and to promote human rights-based approaches to counter-terrorism and drug control.
Working with governments, civil society and other UN entities, we provided concrete support to transitional justice processes, for example in the establishment and/or operationalization of Truth Commissions in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Mali and the Gambia. In addition, we have provided technical advice and capacity building to the Government and civil society in Sudan for an inclusive and participatory drafting process of the accountability legislation, including the establishment of a Transitional Justice Commission. We also supported the Provincial Truth Commission for the Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
OHCHR continued its critical support to the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel in implementing its human rights and international humanitarian law compliance framework and in developing a regional strategy for the protection of civilians.
We have also provided support to or advocated for transitional justice processes on missing persons and enforced disappearances, including in Lebanon, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, we continued engaging with actors within the security and justice sector to increase human rights protection, including through trainings. for Palestinian Attorney General’s Office and prosecutors of the Security Forces Justice Commission.
In Lebanon, we provided technical and advisory support to the Parliament in the draft law on the independence of the judiciary in the country.
My Office supported the launch of the Latin American Network for Gender-based Strategic Litigation in several countries in the region and we have promoted implementation of a model protocol for the investigation of gender-related killings of women. In Honduras, we provided technical assistance to the Attorney-General’s Office to strengthen investigation of femicides. We continued to provide support to the judiciary to overcome obstacles in access to justice for women caused by gender stereotyping in South Africa, Tunisia and Uruguay. In North Macedonia, we contributed to new legislation on gender-based and domestic violence.
Addressing attacks on women and girls for their human rights work remains a priority for my Office and we recently issued new guidance in that regard within the UN system, as part of broader efforts to promote and protect civic space.
In 2021, OHCHR continued to engage in protection working groups, protection clusters and humanitarian country teams and to assist humanitarian coordinators, for example in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mozambique, Somalia, South Sudan, Ukraine and in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Prevention is also a crucial part of our work. For that reason, we continued to dispatch emergency response teams, utilizing an internal rapid deployment roster and contingency fund. Teams have recently been sent to Chad and Ethiopia, East Sudan and Blue Nile, to assist in relation to monitoring of the crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and to Uganda in the context of the elections. Remote capacity has also been enhanced in relation to monitoring the post-coup situation in Myanmar. My Office has continued to contribute to the UN-wide prevention efforts, including through its active participation in the Regional Monthly Review meetings of the Secretary General’s Prevention agenda.
Upholding people’s right to live free from discrimination lies at the heart of our work.
In July, I presented to the Human Rights Council a comprehensive report inclusive of a four-point agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality aimed at dismantling systemic racism, ending impunity, ensuring people of African descent are heard, and confronting past legacies. Subsequently, the Council requested my Office to expand its work on racial justice and equality, and created a new international independent expert mechanism on systemic racism in law enforcement. I count on you to support my Office in implementing these important mandates.
These steps were followed by the historic establishment of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent and by the adoption of a political declaration on the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
My Office also continues to work to promote, protect and fulfill the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their status, with a particular focus on migrants in vulnerable situations and most at risk. In collaboration with the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, we have published a Trainer’s Guide on Human Rights at International Borders and are offering training courses for border officials and other relevant stakeholders that have already reached some 165 participants across nine countries.
This year we also released two reports on the human rights of migrants in Libya and in the neighboring region, which highlight the need to deploy sufficient search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea and ensure that migrants` human rights are respected in the context of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. We have also been assessing human rights situation of refugees and migrants from the Americas, and provided expertise to protection actors and civil society organizations, including in the context of the Interagency Platform on refugees and migrants from Venezuela (R4V). In host and transit countries, we have also carried out monitoring missions with UN agencies to border areas and provided analysis on legislative reforms.
We have also partnered with the International Organization for Migration and the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth to protect the human rights of LGBTIQ+ migrants and young people, especially through the United Nations Free & Equal campaign. We have also continued to provide support to Governments, the judiciary, business and civil society to advance positive changes in laws and attitudes towards LGBTIQ+ people in Albania, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Mongolia, Panama, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine and Vietnam.
We are painfully aware of how the COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on people and groups who were already in the most vulnerable situations. That includes persons with disabilities, and we have been working to ensure they have access to social protection and the support they need, including human support, assistive technologies, transportation, and housing. For example, together with UNFPA, we supported the adoption of a national plan for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Madagascar.
Together with the International Paralympic Committee and the International Disability Alliance, we launched a campaign entitled “We The 15” that raised awareness of how prevalent people with disabilities are, and drew attention to their stories. The campaign had an enormous scope, with 6.2 billion imprints, reaching an estimated 70 percent of the global population in some way.
We cannot address the grave challenge of discrimination without addressing its more pervasive form, affecting half of the world’s population: the overall discrimination against women and girls.
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 crisis on them has continued this year, with an increase in gender-based violence, reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services, greater burdens for care work, and loss of employment at rates significantly higher than men. My Office has responded by supporting stronger integration of gender and women’s rights into COVID-19 responses including in Western and Central Africa, by supporting access to justice and remedy, and strengthening the participation of women human rights defenders in the response to the pandemic in Asia Pacific and in the Middle East and North of Africa.
The pandemic has also laid bare how essential digital technology is, how crucial it is to close the digital divide, and how much more we need to do to address the human rights risks posed by digital technologies. Within my Office, we are taking on these challenges in a range of ways – and I will give you a few examples. At the recently concluded session of the Human Rights Council, we organized a panel discussion to exchange good practices on how the gender digital divide can better be taken into consideration in concrete crisis response and recovery measures.
We recently presented a report to the Human Rights Council on the impacts of artificial intelligence on privacy and other rights, particularly in areas that raise significant human rights risks, such as law enforcement. The report makes clear the need for greater transparency and regulation, providing guidance for States on steps needed to tackle these urgent concerns.
Our efforts to embed human rights standards in the work of tech companies and other stakeholders have also been a significant feature this year. Through our B-Tech project, we explored practical challenges and good practices concerning internal policies and human rights due diligence. Recently, we organized an event on access to remedy with the participation of some 200 experts and practitioners from around the world, representing States, business, civil society, intergovernmental institutions, and academia.
CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
In the midst of all these challenges, we must never lose sight of interlinked crises of pollution, climate change and biodiversity, which act as threat multipliers – amplifying conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and forcing people into increasingly vulnerable situations. These environmental threats will likely pose the single greatest challenge to human rights in our era and for future generations. And for that reason, human rights must be part of the solution.
In that spirit, I welcome the landmark resolution adopted at the 48th session of the Human Rights Council last week recognising that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right and calling upon all States to take urgent action to give it immediate effect.
My Office is also working to strengthen human right protection for environmental human rights defenders in the Pacific; to protect the rights and river basins of indigenous and afro-descendant communities in Colombia; to address human rights protection gaps in the context of climate change-related human mobility in the Sahel.
Overall, we will continue to advance climate justice, including at the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
We have also supported the ratification and implementation of the landmark Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement, which entered into force in April.
Together with the UN Brussels Team, OHCHR continued to share expertise and advocate to further strengthen the integration of human rights principles and norms in the EU Green Deal and related policy and legislative proposals. We will also continue to advocate for States to take a consistent approach to human rights in environmental action at the international level, including in the context of the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
Finally, I am pleased to say that next year, together with UN Environment Programme, we plan to launch a new Environmental Rights Programme to strengthen our capacity to support urgently needed rights-based environmental action around the world.
The Secretary-General has put trust at the core of Our Common Agenda. History shows – and few would dispute – that trust is a key-ingredient for resilient, well-functioning societies and thus, for sustainable development and peace.
So, it is fair to ask: where does trust come from? The answer is about human rights. Trust relies on people feeling that they are taken seriously, their dignity respected, and their voices heard.
There will be no sustainable progress without people’s inclusive and meaningful participation – no progress in relation to combating climate change, no progress in relation to addressing inequalities, no progress in relation to lasting peace or sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
Participation, if it involves real listening and honest dialogue; if it helps identify the common ground; is the most effective of bridge-builders. For that reason, it is at the core of our work.
Our efforts are towards ensuring civic space is safe, open and inclusive, and facilitates vibrant debate where the rights to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are respected.
Journalists play an indispensable role in our societies, yet they increasingly lack the safety and space essential for their important work. Working closely with UNESCO, we support national mechanisms that prevent attacks on media freedom and protect journalists. In this context, I welcome the Nobel Committee recognition of the critical contribution made by journalists to advancing world peace.
We also support human rights defenders networks in different regions, including women’s rights networks in the Americas and the Middle East – as well as State mechanisms that protect the space for participation and engagement, for example in Mexico and Colombia. In Cambodia, we have supported Government consultations with civil society in the drafting of a national institution law.
The Office has also monitored human rights and provided technical assistance in the context of electoral processes, including in Bolivia, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Peru. In the Central African Republic, the Niger and Uganda, we helped strengthen the capacity of State institutions and civil society in early warning and monitoring human rights during elections.
WORK OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL AND ITS MECHANISMS
Turning now to the crucial work of human rights mechanisms, which my Office has continued to support, including in the resumption of their regular activities.
This year, the Special Procedures have continued to deliver thematic recommendations through more than 90 reports, many of which looked at the impact of the pandemic on human rights explicitly. Since January, almost 800 communications have been sent and some 500 replies have been received from States and others. Mandate holders have now also been able to resume country visits.
Last month, my Office presented a report to the Human Rights Council that spotlighted the extensive contribution of special procedures in the field of prevention, with some 35 per cent of their reports this year focusing on this area.
So far in 2021, my Office has assisted treaty bodies to adopt 220 individual communications, process 413 urgent actions for the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and review a total of 71 States parties. New artificial intelligence-powered functionalities were added to the Universal Human Rights Index, a searchable database of over 180,000 observations and recommendations of all human rights mechanisms. Drawing from the experiences and lessons learned, my Office will further the digital transformation of the work of human rights mechanisms, while concomitantly pursuing a return to in-person deliberations.
In spite of the severe underfunding and the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the positive impact of the work of treaty bodies has continued to be felt on the ground in the past months. I call on this Assembly to make a concerted effort to provide the additional human and financial resources to support Treaty Bodies’ work. The crushing backlog of Treaty Bodies has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with the backlog of States party reports now attested at 428, in additional to the backlog of 1,792 individual communications and 1,213 urgent actions.
Since January, OHCHR has also successfully supported the Human Rights Council in the holding of three regular sessions, in addition to three special sessions, on Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Afghanistan. Last March the Council organized its high-level segment remotely, with a record participation of 130 dignitaries. The number of high-profile speakers and victims of human rights violations in discussions increased significantly, enriched by the remote participation of speakers who would, in normal circumstances, not be able to travel to Geneva.
I am particularly proud of the achievements of the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund to support the participation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), managed by my Office, which since its establishment has supported 172 delegates and fellows.
The third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review is well underway to be completed by 2022, with 168 member states having been reviewed thus far. Participation and engagement of national stakeholders remains high, further supported by the use of technology. In addition, this cycle saw the expansion of partnerships with stakeholders, especially Parliaments.
Our victim-centered work, through the Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the Voluntary Fund on the Contemporary Slavery, has continued unabated despite COVID restrictions. This year, these two unique mechanisms are reaching the historic anniversary of 40 and 30 years, respectively and I strongly encourage their continuous funding in order to discharge their life-transforming work in support of victims worldwide.
REDUCING OVERALL INEQUALITIES AND ACHIEVING THE SDGs
In essence, in different areas, we are working towards narrowing the overall gaps that separate peoples as well as people from their rights. In that, we must address widespread inequalities within and among countries. That is the key to recovering better.
Low-income countries already in debt distress face severe fiscal limitations to respond and recover effectively from the pandemic. Over 100 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty worldwide; and many developing and least developed countries face serious setbacks on development gains.
Vaccine inequity has made this situation much worse. While developed countries have fully vaccinated almost half of their adult population or more, many low and low-middle income countries have been able to do so for only a tiny fraction of their populations.
My Office is now part of the Global Health Cluster and, together with UNICEF and WHO, is monitoring the roll-out of vaccines focusing on groups likely to be left behind to promote access to vaccines to everyone, everywhere.
And I cannot stress it enough: COVID-19 vaccines must be treated as a global public good.
We work with States and other partners for a sustainable recovery. Through my Office’s Surge Initiative we have been providing support to States and UN country teams in the areas of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. We have integrated human rights in critical economic discussions, including around budgeting, ring-fencing social expenditures and austerity measures that many countries are considering in the aftermath of COVID-19. We are helping to address the human rights impacts of economic measures in Barbados, Ecuador, Mozambique and Zambia through budget analysis in key social sectors such as health, social protection and work.
Our work also focuses on expanding social protection and health coverage. For example, in Serbia, OHCHR is supporting the development of guiding tool for the mainstreaming approach to leave no one behind in the national policymaking. In Ukraine, we are analyzing public budgets in ten municipalities in order to enhance social protection of marginalized groups such as older people, the homeless, persons with disabilities, Roma and internally displaces persons. In Nepal, we are working with community-based organizations to analyze essential levels of health care for women working in informal sectors.
To recover better 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 all know what has to be done. Inequalities are not inevitable. They stem from policy choices.
We need a new social contract and an economic model that puts human beings and human rights at the centre of economic policy – accelerating our path towards realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We need to increase investment in social protection and universal health coverage, decent work and other human rights, as well as progressive taxation.
Efforts must be underpinned by transparency, accountability and a broad space for social dialogue.
The Common Agenda notes that “now is the time to re-embrace global solidarity and find new ways to work together for the common good”.
Now is the time to build bridges and narrow human rights gaps. The next steps must be taken with urgency and resolve, trust and solidarity.
My Office and I look forward to continuing working with you in this common endeavour.