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“Human rights are under assault,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, as he opened on Monday the UN Human Rights Council’s main annual session in Geneva.

“People are being left behind. Fears are growing,” he said, pointing to swelling divisions and political polarization in many countries.

A perverse political arithmetic

“A perverse political arithmetic has taken hold: divide people to multiply votes,” he said, warning that “the rule of law is being eroded”.

The UN chief launched a “call to action” on Monday against rising attacks on human rights, highlighting the persecution of minorities and “alarming levels of femicide”. He was addressing member states on the opening day of the UN HRC’s 43rd session.

People bombed and starved

Chief among these challenges are several protracted, unresolved conflicts that have left families trapped in war-torn enclaves, “starved and bombed in clear violation of international law”, he said.

Human trafficking also affects “every region of the world”, the UN chief noted, leaving women and girls “enslaved, exploited and abused”, unable to realize their potential.

He said “human trafficking, affecting every region in the world, preying on vulnerability and despair”.

Activists tossed in jail

He said women and girls were being “enslaved, exploited and abused”, journalists are under threat, with activists jailed, religious groups and minorities – including indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and the LGBTI community – persecuted under “overly broad definitions of national security”.

Guterres launched a “call to action” to “people everywhere” to take action in seven areas – including halting violence against women and girls, boosting protection for people trapped in conflict and recognizing the challenges created by the climate crisis and new technologies.

Speak out

“We see a pushback against women’s rights, alarming levels of femicide, attacks on women human rights defenders, and the persistence of laws and policies that perpetuate subjugation and exclusion,” Guterres said.

He said work towards gender equality “starts within”, stressing that the UN had already achieved gender parity across its most senior ranks and promised to achieve the same throughout the UN system by 2028.

“Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom,” he told.

In his speech, Guterres issued an appeal for solidarity.

“People across the world want to know we are on their side,” he said.

“Whether robbed of their dignity by war, repression of poverty, or simply dreaming of a better future, they rely on their irreducible rights – and they look to us to help uphold them.”

In his pledge to utilize the full weight of his office and the UN family to fulfill the Call to Action, Guterres highlighted the enduring value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This cornerstone of understanding between UN member states was proclaimed in 1948, out of the ashes of the Second World War – and a desire to prevent such suffering from ever happening again.

Guterres, who mentioned no countries by name, has faced criticism for not speaking out more forcefully against rights violations carried out by powerful countries like the US and Saudi Arabia – appearing to opt instead for behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

Guterres said the UN could sometimes work alongside governments, behind the scenes or at other times “we will speak out, identifying both violations and violators”.

“There is a place for each of these approaches, and often all three at once,” he said.

Sovereignty “no defense for rights violations”

National sovereignty “cannot be a pretext for violating human rights”, Guterres insisted, while also maintaining that greater equality “strengthens States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty”.

“The promotion of human rights strengthens States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty,” he said.

Guterres insisted that all States had a responsibility to protect and promote people’s “dignity and worth”.

Change is possible

Positive change is possible, the UN chief insisted, recalling his own experience living under dictatorship in Portugal, which finally gave way to a democratic movement when he was 24 years old.

Other “human rights struggles and successes inspired us”, the UN chief said, noting how these had secured the end of apartheid in South Africa and colonial rule.

One billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a generation, he continued, and there have also been major advances in improving access to drinking water, along with big declines in child mortality.

Despite this, in the 75 years that the UN has strived for peace, security and development, myriad challenges persist, Guterres explained.

People are being left behind

Global hunger is also increasing, Guterres said, before highlighting a series of 21st century issues linked to huge problems that affect all countries: the climate crisis, population growth, urbanization and the dark underbelly of technological progress.

“People are being left behind. Fears are growing. Divisions are widening,” he said. “Some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to breaking point.”

Sustainable development at core of rights blueprint

Heading the seven-point protocol is a call to put human rights at the core of sustainable development – a reference to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by the international community in 2015 under the Agenda 2030 banner.

“The vast majority of the goals and targets correspond to legally binding human rights commitments made by every Member State,” Guterres said.

“When we help lift people out of abject poverty – when we ensure education for all, notably girls – when we guarantee universal healthcare…we are enabling people to claim their rights and upholding the core pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave nobody behind.”

Violence against women must end

Among the other priorities, the UN Secretary-General highlighted that much more needs to be done to prevent violence against women.

“Violence against women is the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse,” he said, in a call to “every country” to support policies that promote gender equality, repeal discriminatory laws…ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights, and strive for women’s equal representation.

Climate crisis is biggest threat

Turning to 21st century challenges, Guterres reiterated that the climate crisis was “the biggest threat to our survival”.

It has already threatened human rights around the world and would continue to do so in future, he noted, before underscoring people’s right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable planet that the Call to Action is designed to achieve.

Online risks mar potential for progress

On the challenges posed to human rights by new technology, Guterres explained that progress in this field “are too often used to violate rights and privacy through surveillance, repression and online harassment and hate”.

Facial recognition and robotics should never be used to deepen inequality, he insisted, while also reiterating his call for online-ready human rights norms such as the Internet Governance Forum.

At the same time, the UN chief also repeated his call for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Rid the world of exploitation

Underscoring the need for sustainable growth, President of the UN General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande also underlined the importance of gender equality, calling for its streamlining in the implementation of the SDG.

“When it comes to human rights, there are no exceptions to those whom are protected under the Universal Declaration,” he continued, stressing that it is therefore important to strengthen partnerships to ensure that human rights can be upheld for all, and “we rid the world of abuse, exploitation, marginalization, racism, torture and all exclusion.”

Not an uncontrollable firestorm

Echoing the call for change, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that although threats to human rights, development and peace were on the rise, so were the practical, actionable solutions to these issues.

Michelle Bachelet stressed the need for urgent action on human rights.

“Let us not deliver to our young people and to their children an uncontrollable firestorm of intersecting and escalating human rights crises,” she told the council.

Bachelet stressed that the human rights agenda offers guidance to resolve grievances and conflicts, improve lives, and create greater justice, more peace and more sustainable development.

“I ask you to harness these solutions, and the power of cooperative action, to ensure a more equitable and sustainable world – for all of us; for today’s youth; and for tomorrow,” she told.


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