During a high-level thematic debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on human rights, many participants underscored that human rights, discrimination and inequality are at the center of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that peace, security, human rights and development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
Many also observed that human rights violations portend conflicts, and that conflicts are a cause of human rights violations.
13 July 2016: During a high-level thematic debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on human rights, many participants underscored that human rights, discrimination and inequality are at the center of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that peace, security, human rights and development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Many also observed that human rights violations portend conflicts, and that conflicts are a cause of human rights violations.
Titled ‘UN@70: Human Rights at the Center of the Global Agenda,’ the debate coincided with the 50th anniversary of the UNGA’s adoption of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). It was the third high-level thematic debate organized by UNGA President Mogens Lykketoft as part of efforts to foster ‘A new Commitment to Action.’ The debate is expected to result in a summary by the UNGA President.
Opening the debate on 12 July 2016, Lykketoft said human rights constitute a legal and moral framework that enables people to fight injustice, but today these rights “are far from universally respected.” Instead, he said, tolerance, equality, dignity, pluralism and liberty are “under siege,” and faith in public institutions, politics, the rule of law and open and just societies is “dangerously low.” He added that: repression of journalists, civil society actors and others who question authority is on the rise; feelings of alienation and marginalization are leading to extremism and violence; and intolerance, xenophobia and injustice have become commonplace in many countries. He called on leaders to reignite their commitment to human rights and reject the rhetoric of division and hate.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added that racism and homelessness are rising in Europe, organized violence has taken root in parts of Latin America, deadly conflict continues in the Middle East, and economic, social and political marginalization affect millions of people in Asia. He said the “carnage in Syria” began with a brutal crackdown against peaceful demonstrators with legitimate grievances, and five years later, hundreds of thousands of women, men and children have been killed, the economy is in ruins, and the region is in flames. He called on governments to meet their responsibilities, noting that human rights are “the most powerful driver of peace and development.”
Queen Mathilde of Belgium, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocate, called for: ensuring the right to education and training especially for women; a strict observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and proper functioning of institutions. Agnes Leifla Ntikaampi, Executive Director, Illaramatak Community Concerns, Kenya, said the next UN Secretary-General must foster the implementation of 2030 Agenda and increase capacity to understand the SDGs, especially at the national level. She also called for increasing tolerance, in particular on land issues, noting that many members of land defending groups have lost their lives.
In an interactive segment on combating discrimination and inequalities, Opal Tometi, co-founder, Black Lives Matter, said global capitalism, white supremacy and suppression of democracy are among the root causes of human right challenges. She said racism is central to inequality and discrimination across the globe, noting that black people represent 40% of US incarcerations. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women, underscored the need for leaders to be intolerant to injustice, and act on the courage of their convictions. She said “small steps” are not enough to address today’s challenges. José María Viera, International Disabilities Association, noted that 15% of the global population lives with disabilities and suffers from a great deal of inequality and discrimination. He pointed out that seven of the 17 SDGs reflect issues particularly related to persons with disabilities.
Mutuma Ruteere, UN Special Rapporteur on the contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, outlined the need for providing education in order to combat stereotypes and counter discrimination. Zamir Akram, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Right to Development, called on states to recognize that the right to development is a basic human right. Many countries also called for recognizing the right to development as an inalienable and fundamental human right.
Diakhoumba Gassama, Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESUR), Senegal and the US welcomed the HRC’s adoption of a resolution on protection against violence and discrimination. Gassama also noted the adoption by the UNGA of a resolution calling on countries to eliminate female genital mutilation.
On governance, the rule of law and access to justice, Irene Khan, International Development Law Organization, said rule of law means limiting the power of the state to take action against its people with impunity. She cautioned that without human rights, rule of law becomes “rule by law,” an instrument for oppression, and sustainable development is not possible if human rights, rule of law, and development are not pursued together. Jacqueline Moudeina, lead lawyer for the victims of the Hissene Habre regime, noted that “little by little” justice can change history, public discourse, and mentalities. Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, University of Indonesia, stressed the need for leaders and institutions to create an enabling environment for human rights, especially for the most marginalized groups, by integrating the principles of efficiency, transparency, accountability, rule of law, equity and dignity in their work.
Ivan Simonovic, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said donors should not try to mirror their own systems of justice in recipient countries, but improve existing systems. Ian McDougall, Lexis Nexis, noted that “rule of law” should imply an independent judiciary, access to remedy, access to justice, and equality in front of the law. Haoliang Xu, UN Development Programme (UNDP), underscored the need for national ownership of the measures taken for ensuring rule of law. Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions, recommended that special tools be developed to measure progress in rule of law for the implementation of SDG 16 (‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’).
On enabling active participation in society, Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, said Amnesty International has taken the UK government to the European Court of Justice because of evidence of spying on the organization. He cautioned against the misuse of criminal laws for the intimidation, stigmatization, and demonization of opposition. He also noted the UN’s “selective” treatment of human rights violations in different countries, observing that UN Security Council members are “very quiet” on human rights violations in ally countries. Milan Antonijevic, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, stressed the need to protect and fund civil society to ensure oversight and strengthening of human rights.
Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association, cautioned against using UNDP as vehicle to expand civil society space in developing countries, to ensure that civil society is allowed to defy and challenge the governments that UNDP is working with. For helping ensure the respect of human rights, Monika Bickeret, Facebook, highlighted the need for: increasing and protecting people’s access to online space; educating people about the online tools designed to protect them; and transparency reports that show Facebook what content governments block in what countries.
Among UN Member States that took the floor, Sweden stressed the importance of safeguarding human rights in the context of migration, and announced the launch of the Global Partnership to end violence against children on 12 July 2016. Canada said cultural diversity has made the country stronger. Ecuador said it recognizes the right to asylum, and the right of refugees in line with international law, and has taken the largest number of refugees in Latin America.
Senegal called for strengthening relations between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African States. Slovenia on behalf of several countries noted the role of the human security network in building more secure environments. Argentina remarked that extreme inequality is a main driver of conflicts that affect development.
Mentioning the 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the EU said smart girls are perceived as a threat to terrorists because they can change the power balance in a society. The EU also expressed support for the global moratorium on death penalty. Kazakhstan said it has set up an Ombudsman office and a Human Rights Commission that serves as a link between civil society and the government. Israel said the country has become a “haven” for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The United Arab Emirates reported that it has a Federal Council for gender equality where women are fairly represented, and that women comprise 60% of its Parliament. Tunisia for the African Group and other countries noted an urgent need to address poverty around world, and asked to respect national sovereignty.
Syria noted that governments should not use human rights as a reason to change regimes in countries with a different agenda. Sudan expressed opposition to unilateral coercive measures imposed on the country, noting that they undermine development and prevent it from moving ahead on the 2030 Agenda.
Switzerland announced it launched an appeal on 13 June 2016 to put human rights at the heart of conflict prevention, and stressed the need to improve access to appeals and reparation mechanisms for victims of human rights abuses. Many countries spoke about their efforts to define national indicators for the implementation of SDG 16. Mongolia said it has abolished the death penalty and begun comprehensive legal reforms to ensure protection of human rights. Ukraine said it has adopted a human rights strategy and action plan.
Several countries welcomed the Human Rights Up Front initiative launched by the UN Secretary-General in 2013, and highlighted the need to mainstream human rights in UN work. Many also asked to strengthen the HRC, expressing fear of having it undermined due to politicizing. Choi Kyonglim, HRC President, Permanent Representative of South Korea (Geneva), said decisions and discussions on human rights must lead to more tangible actions and impact on the ground. He noted the need for the HRC to be more responsive to crises. Some announced their candidacy for the HRC, including Guatemala for 2017-2019, Bahamas and Denmark for 2019-2021, and Finland for 2022-2024. Many called for strengthening the HRC’s relationship and synergies with the UNGA, the Security Council and other UN bodies. The Russian Federation noted that the Security Council’s mandate should not be “mixed up” with that of another UN body, and functions should not overlap. Several delegations expressed support for the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), with the EU calling on all countries to fully engage in this mechanism, and Paraguay noting it should be used as model in other UN bodies. China said human rights values should not be imposed.
The EU and many others expressed concern about attempts around the world and in the UN to restrict civil society space, and called for keeping the UN as a “safe space for civil society to express their concerns.” Several delegations also asked to: support civil society participation in decision-making processes, with some proposing to engage civil society in defining human rights priorities. Many also asked for more transparency and accountability, and for respecting freedom of expression, assembly and associations.
Other points raised during the debate included: increasing prevention and the use of early warning systems; combating root causes of conflicts; combating impunity, including at the UN level and for national peacekeepers; protecting the rights of women and girls, and ensuring gender equality, women’s empowerment and their participation in peace processes and other decision-making processes; safeguarding the rights of children; respecting the right to privacy; ensuring the right to health; and accounting for the needs of peoples under foreign and colonial occupation.
The High-level Thematic Debate took place in New York, US, from 12-13 July 2016, with statements continuing into the evening on 13 July. [Meeting Website and Programme] [IISD RS Sources] [UNGA President’s Letter and Concept Note] [UNGA President’s Opening Statement] [UN Secretary-General’s Statement] [Human Rights Upfront Initiative] [UN Press Release] [IISD RS Story on Event Preparations]