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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL OPENS FORTIETH REGULAR SESSION

United Nations Secretary-General, President of the General Assembly, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Foreign Minister of Switzerland Address the Council
25 February 2019

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its fortieth regular session, hearing addresses by António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations; María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the United Nations General Assembly; Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Ignazio Cassis, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Opening the session, Coly Seck, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that the Council would hear statements by some 100 high-level dignitaries, testifying to the importance of the Council’s mandate and of human rights within the United Nations system.  He welcomed the participation of the representatives of seven least developed countries and of small-island States.  Recalling resolutions 16/21 and 36/21 of the Council which rejected any act of intimidation or reprisal against persons or groups that cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms, he called on all States to prevent such acts and ensure that those who needed it were granted protection.

António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, stressed that the Council was the epicentre for international dialogue and cooperation on the protection of all human rights.  Prevention had to be a priority and human rights were a template for building resilience and preventing crises.  The primary responsibility to uphold human rights rested with Member States.  The human rights agenda was losing ground in many parts of the globe.  At present trends, it would take two centuries to close the gap in economic empowerment and that was unacceptable.  Civic space was shrinking in every region of the globe.  Over a thousand human rights defenders and journalists were killed in the last three years.  There was a groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance – including rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred.  Hate was moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike.  The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals were the clearest blueprint for realizing the rights of all. 

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the United Nations General Assembly, highlighted the many contributions of the Human Rights Council to the whole human rights agenda.  The major challenge was to overcome the implementation deficit.  The Council had to return dignity to all human beings worldwide.  Accordingly, Ms. Espinosa Garcés called for a renewal of commitment, dialogue and mutual understanding.  Half of the global population, girls and women, continued to suffer discrimination and violence in all countries.  They failed to enjoy the same level of political participation as men.  Indigenous peoples continued to be the most excluded and vulnerable.  People with disabilities continued not to enjoy the same opportunities.  But perhaps the most pressing issue was inequality and the concentration of wealth in very few hands.  If the goals of the 2030 Agenda were to be achieved, inequality needed to be addressed.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that in her service as Head of State of Chile, two lessons stood out to her, first that there was rarely a gap between the interest of humanity and the national interest of her country.  If a policy seemed to advance a narrow interest in the short term but hurt the future of humanity, it was considered counter-productive.  Today, human rights were sometimes dismissed as supposedly being “globalist” as opposed to the patriotic interest of a sovereign government. But how could any State’s interests be advanced by policies that damaged the well-being of all humans?  This was true of climate change, war and discrimination.  The second lesson was that she saw many human rights measures debated, enacted, adapted and upheld. There could not be optimal, sustainable or inclusive development without the voices of civil society. 

Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, pointed out to two dangerous trends.  First, turning a blind eye to human rights violations or the shrinking of the space for the advancement of these rights, and second, talking about human rights in an increasingly generic and abstract way, which would not help younger generations to understand the importance of the issue.  While it was true that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had shone like a lighthouse for the world, that light would not automatically provide illumination for another 70 years.  There could be no rights without duties and Mr. Cassis called on the Human Rights Council to fight for human rights with courage and determination, but to also concentrate on the essential, to speak clearly and simply when it came to human rights.


The Human Rights Council will next open its high-level segment.  In the afternoon, the Council will hold its annual high-level panel on human rights mainstreaming. 


Opening Statement by the President of the Council

COLY SECK, President of the Human Rights Council, opening the fortieth session of the Human Rights Council, reminded that the Council would hear statements by some 100 high-level dignitaries.  Their presence testified to the importance of the Council’s mandate and of human rights within the United Nations system.  He also welcomed the participation of the representatives of seven least developed countries and small-island States in the current session.  Recalling resolutions 16/21 and 36/21 of the Council which categorically rejected any act of intimidation or reprisal against persons or groups that cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms, he called on all States to prevent such acts and ensure that those who needed it were granted protection.  Mr. Seck assured that as the President of the Council, he would follow up on all reported allegations of intimidation.

Statement by the President of the United Nations General Assembly

MARÍA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS, President of the United Nations General Assembly, noted that each session of the Human Rights Council represented an opportunity to renew commitment to human rights, especially at the moment when the most basic principles of multilateralism were threatened.  Urgent action needed to be taken to tackle climate change, whereas extreme nationalism and xenophobia reminded all of the past that no one wished to be repeated.  Recalling the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Ms. Espinosa Garcés underlined the importance of the mechanisms that propped international law, and highlighted the many contributions of the Human Rights Council to the whole human rights agenda.  The major challenge was to overcome the implementation deficit.  The Council had to return dignity to all human beings worldwide.  Accordingly, Ms. Espinosa Garcés called for a renewal of commitment, dialogue and mutual understanding.  She also highlighted the universal value of the Universal Periodic Review as a mechanism to promote cooperation between and across countries.  The work of the Council was extremely productive; it had contributed to the deepening and broadening of the protection of individuals, and to establishing accountability.  It had a positive impact on millions, but a lot remained to be done.

Half of the global population, girls and women, continued to suffer discrimination and violence in all countries.  They failed to enjoy the same level of political participation as men.  Indigenous peoples continued to be the most excluded and vulnerable.  People with disabilities continued not to enjoy the same opportunities.  But perhaps the most pressing issue was inequality and the concentration of wealth in very few hands.  If goals of the 2030 Agenda were to be achieved, inequality needed to be addressed.  As 2021 was approaching, when the Council would have its second review, more in-depth thinking was needed to strengthen its credibility and authority on a new international stage.  The Council needed to be strong and efficient, without double standards and politicization; it needed to deal with all abuses, irrespective of who committed them.  The articulation of the entire United Nations family was key for the achievement of human rights.  In that regard, Ms. Espinosa Garcés cited the excellent cooperation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and she underlined the importance of better coordination with social organizations because the defence of human rights was the responsibility of the world as a whole. 

Statement by the United Nations Secretary-General

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General, said the High Commissioner would bring enormous added value to the advancement of human rights around the world.  The Human Rights Council was the epicentre for international dialogue and cooperation on the protection of all human rights.  The rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belonged to everyone, everywhere, independently of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, belief or any other status.  Prevention had to be a priority and human rights were a template for building resilience and preventing crises.  Every measure to uphold human rights helped to ease tensions, deliver sustainable development and sustain peace.  If the ceasefire held in Hudaydah, if the recent peace agreement took root in the Central African Republic, if conflict ended in South Sudan – human suffering would be dramatically reduced and it would pave the way for justice for victims.  The primary responsibility to uphold human rights rested with Member States.  One of the key mechanisms was through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.  

The Secretary-General said he spoke from experience of living under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal which had oppressed not only its own citizens, but also the people of the African colonies.  It was the human rights struggles around the world that moved all to believe in change.  Human rights inspired progress and that truth was the animating spirit of this Council.  It was the DNA of the Organization’s founding Charter.  The human rights agenda was losing ground in many parts of the globe, but there were also powerful movements for human rights, and youth, indigenous people, migrants and refugees were making their voices heard.  Journalists were fearlessly getting the stories out.  Women were standing up and saying: me, too.  The largest number of countries in history had abolished the death penalty.  The Human Rights Up Front initiative allowed for a more systematic way of spotting early signs of crises and improving response.  One billion people had been lifted out of extreme poverty in just a generation.  More than two billion people had gained access to improved sanitation and over 2.5 billion people had gained access to improved drinking water sources.  The mortality rate for children under five had declined by almost 60 per cent.  The thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was a rallying point for intensifying efforts to ensure that no child was left behind.  

Gender equality was a question of power.  At present trends, it would take two centuries to close the gap in economic empowerment and this was unacceptable.  Civic space was shrinking in every region of the globe.  Activists and journalists were targeted by surveillance, misinformation campaigns and threats of violence.  The immediacy of online threats posed serious challenges to those wishing to speak up.  Big data and facial-recognition technology were misused for surveillance and interference with free speech.  Over a thousand human rights defenders and journalists had been killed in the last three years.  In 2018, four environmental activists were killed every week.  Impunity for crimes against journalists and other media workers should not be tolerated.  There was a groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance – including rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred.

Hate speech was abetted by public discourse that stigmatized women, minorities, migrants, refugees and any so-called “other”.  Hate was moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike.  The Secretary-General said that he had asked the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, to bring together a United Nations team to scale up response to hate speech, define a system-wide strategy and present a global plan of action on a fast-track basis.  The debate on human mobility had been poisoned with false narratives linking refugees and migrants to terrorism, but a campaign against the Global Compact on Migration had failed and the Global Compact on Refugees had been adopted.  The world had achieved remarkable progress in fighting extreme poverty and the Council had a pivotal role in fostering the right to development.  The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals were the clearest blueprint for realizing the rights of all.  In conclusion, the Secretary-General thanked the Council for promptly focusing on the greatest challenge - climate change; 150 States recognized the right to a healthy environment; yet over 90 per cent of the world’s urban population breathed unsafe air.  Air pollution was leading to 7 million premature deaths each year, including 600,000 children. Climate change exacerbated hunger and it had a drastic effect on the marginalized and vulnerable.  A Climate Summit would be convened on 23 September to mobilize action by political leaders, the business community and civil society.

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was honoured to address the high-level segment of the Human Rights Council, noting that the impressively high number of national, regional and international dignitaries present at the session spoke to the importance and relevance of the Council’s deliberations.  She noted that in her service as Head of State of Chile, two lessons stood out to her, first that there was rarely a gap between the interest of humanity and the national interest of her country.  If a policy seemed to advance a narrow interest in the short term but hurt the future of humanity, it was considered counter-productive.  Today, human rights were sometimes dismissed as supposedly being “globalist” as opposed to the patriotic interest of a sovereign government. But how could any State’s interests be advanced by policies that damaged the well-being of all humans?  This was true of climate change, war and discrimination for example.  The second lesson was that she saw many human rights measures debated, enacted, adapted and upheld.  Human rights based policies were effective and delivered better outcomes across the spectrum and beyond borders, including by developing stronger economies, driving more inclusive political systems, and better frameworks for education and healthcare.  She emphasised that there could not be optimal, sustainable or inclusive development without the voices of civil society and that policies which supported the rights of every woman and man to make their own choices helped drive the 2030 Agenda.  She recognised that public policy was complex and that achieving good human rights outcomes in the real world of governments required a balancing of many issues, but that progress could be achieved through courage and vision.

The High Commissioner said the universal appeal of human rights standards stemmed from their roots in many cultures and traditions and that these norms had proved their value in preventing calamity, and constructing safety, resilience, fairness, social cohesion and peace.  She highlighted that no country had a perfect human rights record but all acknowledged that their people had rights which their respective governments must uphold and protect.  She reiterated her expectations and belief that States could meet these expectations and in continuing her Office’s engagement with Member States to understand their approach and context, and assist them in fulfilling their responsibilities.  She lamented that in today’s political climate, some important human rights advances had been dismantled - for example in the rights of women, of minorities and of indigenous peoples.  She spoke of being fiercely inspired by watching youth march against climate change and warned against defeatism.  She made special note of the Venezuelan crisis, her Office had issued a statement wherein they hoped human rights would be part of the solution.  The High Commissioner emphasized her admiration for the Council’s record in effecting early warning and providing detailed guidance.  She reiterated her Office’s engagement to forge partnerships with United Nations agencies, regional and global bodies, business and other stakeholders and to do their best to strengthen all international human rights institutions with common purpose and coordinated action.

Statement by the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland

IGNAZIO CASSIS, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, noted that last year, the world commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Among the many successes achieved since that time, Mr. Cassis identified two dangerous trends: firstly, turning a blind eye to human rights violations or the shrinking of the space for the advancement of these rights, and secondly, talking about human rights in an increasingly generic and abstract way, which would not help younger generations to understand the importance of this issue.  While it was true that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had shone like a lighthouse for the world, this light would not automatically provide illumination for another 70 years.  Mr. Cassis said all could speak of human rights, but there could be no rights without duties.  He called on the Council to fight for human rights with courage and determination, but to also concentrate on the essential, to speak clearly and simply when it came to human rights.

Mr. Cassis also noted that this year, the world marked the hundredth anniversary of the League of Nations, the first organized effort to maintain peace.  Throughout these 100 years, Mr. Cassis noted, the world had lived ups and downs, and recognized that nothing was finalized, that all too often, humanity fell in the same traps.  It was important to draw lessons from this journey and to explain them to young people.  The underlying challenges would be with the world for a long time to come: if they stopped fighting for freedom, they would run the risk of falling into these traps once again.  These rights were the very foundation of democratic societies, and it was everyone’s duty to preserve them.  He highlighted the importance of the right to freedom of opinion, which guaranteed everyone’s right to free thought, opinion and religion.  But even in Switzerland, to express a view that ran against the mainstream could give way to anger.  It was important, therefore, to continue to support those brave enough to run counter to uniform, without the need to hide behind anonymity on social media.  He drew the Council’s attention to Jamal Kashoggi and Jan Kuciak, both assassinated last year because of their courage to express dissent.

Mr. Cassis said that the international role of Geneva rested upon two events: the foundation of the Red Cross in 1863, and the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919, which formed the basis of multilateralism more than 100 years ago.  However, the selection of Geneva for this role had not been self-evident: the population at the time had engaged in a very fierce debate on this topic.  Ultimately, it was through a plebiscite that citizens had decided to implement this process.  Free and fair elections like these had paved the way for other multilateral organizations, such as the World Health Organization.  The path to democracy was a difficult one and Switzerland had walked it step by step.  Still, it was only democratic States that complied with the rule of law and could truly ensure the peace and prosperity of their peoples.

For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC/19/02E