With human rights under attack, UN chief unveils blueprint for positive change

UN Secretary-General António Guterres attends the High Level Segment of the 43rd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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


People’s basic human rights – their birth-right – are “under assault”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday, as he launched a Call to Action aimed at boosting equality and reducing suffering everywhere.

People’s basic human rights – their birth-right – are “under assault”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday, as he launched a Call to Action aimed at boosting equality and reducing suffering everywhere.

“Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom,” he told Member States on the opening day of the UN Human Rights Council’s 43rd session in Geneva.

“To ensure equality for women and girls. To advance sustainable development. To prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world.

In his speech to the top UN right body, in which he detailed a seven-point blueprint for positive change, Mr. 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.”

Echoing the call for change, 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.

In his pledge to utilize the full weight of his office and the UN family to fulfil the Call to Action, Mr. 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.

Ms. 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 Member States.

Sovereignty ‘no defence for rights violations’

Highlighting the document’s proclamation that human rights are ‘humanity’s highest aspiration’, Mr. Guterres insisted that all States had a responsibility to protect and promote people’s “dignity and worth”.

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

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 also 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, Mr. Guterres explained.

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 realise their potential.

Journalists and civil society are also 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”.

Megatrends responsible for growing anxiety

Global hunger is also increasing, Mr. 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.”

Introducing his Call to Action blueprint, Mr. Guterres explained that its aim was to “transform the ambitions of the Universal Declaration into real-world change on the ground”.

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,” Mr. 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.

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 Sustainable Development Goals.

“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.”

Climate crisis is biggest threat

Turning to 21st century challenges, Mr. 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.

Young people will be empowered to participate in this process, the UN chief insisted, so that they do “not simply speak, but to participate and shape decisions that will affect their future”.

Online risks mar potential for progress

Finally, on the challenges posed to human rights by new technology, Mr. 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.

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