We are ‘burning up our future’, UN’s Bachelet tells Human Rights Council

17ª Brigada de Infantaria de Selva A fire burns in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


The Human Rights Council opened in Geneva on Monday with a warning from the UN’s top rights official that, with forest fires raging in the Amazon, “we are burning up our future, literally”.

In a direct appeal to the forum’s 47 Member States to unite to tackle climate change, Michelle Bachelet insisted that every region of the world stands to be affected.

In the short-term, however, the worst effects of the fires and “drastic acceleration of deforestation” in Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil were on the families living in these areas, she explained.

“Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world,” the High Commissioner maintained. “The human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic. Storms are rising and tides could submerge entire island nations and coastal cities. Fires rage through our forests, and the ice is melting. We are burning up our future – literally.”

Citing UN reports that the climate emergency has caused a sharp increase in global hunger levels, the High Commissioner also noted that warmer temperatures will likely contribute to an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

‘We’ve never seen a threat of this scope to human rights’

“The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope”, Ms. Bachelet insisted. “This is not a situation where any country, any institution, any policymaker can stand on the sidelines. The economies of all nations; the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every State, and the rights of all your people – and future generations – will be impacted.”

Speaking 14 days before UN Secretary-General António Guterres opens a Climate Action Summit in New York, the High Commissioner urged the Geneva-based Council to do its bit, too.

Each State should contribute the “strongest possible action to prevent climate change”, Ms. Bachelet told Member States, and they should promote the “resilience and rights” of their citizens when implementing these policies, too – one of no less than two dozen references in her speech to indigenous peoples and minorities.

In keeping with tradition, the High Commissioner also highlighted numerous other country-specific human rights situations requiring the Council’s attention.

Citing ongoing concerns about Kashmir, the High Commissioner cited continuing reports of curfews, internet blackouts and restrictions on political gatherings, including the detention of activists.

Appealing to Pakistan “and particularly to India” to ensure people’s access to basic services, Ms. Bachelet also highlighted the recent census in the north-east Indian state of Assam.

Some 1.9 million people had been excluded from this list, she maintained, before appealing to the Indian authorities to “ensure due process” for anyone appealing against this development, while also ensuring that people are protected against statelessness.

Ukraine prisoner-swap a ‘breakthrough moment’

On Ukraine, where more than five years of conflict in eastern territories bordering Russia has left thousands dead and injured tens of thousands more, the High Commissioner welcomed the “breakthrough agreement” of prisoner releases between the two countries.

“I strongly encourage all parties to build on this momentum, to put an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” she added.

Turning to South Africa, Ms. Bachelet noted the “terrible recent incidents of xenophobic violence” where a spate of attacks has reportedly claimed the lives of least 10 foreigners.

“All people in South Africa – citizens and foreign nationals alike – are entitled to fundamental human rights under the Constitution and international human rights law,” Ms. Bachelet said, while welcoming President Cyril Ramaphosa’s condemnation of the violence.

Sudan’s new Cabinet ‘a cause for celebration’

On Sudan, where a ministerial cabinet was sworn in on Sunday, a first since President Omar Bashir was removed from office in April amid country-wide protests – Ms. Bachelet called the development “ a cause for great celebration”.

She also welcomed the many human rights references contained in Sudan’s new Constitutional Declaration, notably its commitment to establishing a national investigation committee, following reported extreme rights violations against protesters.

Amid ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the UN official reiterated her appeal to demonstrators to engage “peacefully and constructively” with the authorities.

At the same time, she urged the territory’s security forces to respond to any violence with restraint, before encouraging Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to “pursue her initiative to establish dialogue with the people”.           

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