Remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
Special Representative Lambrinidis,
It has been an inspiration to participate in this event. I take this opportunity to thank Stavros Lambrinidis for organising this welcome initiative, with its crucial embrace of both Member States and representatives of civil society. I also congratulate all 14 States that have joined this innovative project. In my previous functions I supported this important initiative on behalf of Chile, and I am very glad to continue to support it as the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Too often, we think of human rights in terms of the horror, the suffering, the deprivation and the chaos generated by human rights violations. And that is absolutely true. Every week seems to bring new evidence of atrocities and avoidable pain. A great part of the work of my Office consists of working to mitigate and resolve situations of human rights disaster. But there are many places where human rights do not go wrong. And sometimes we lose sight of these good stories.
Let me celebrate a number of potential human rights breakthroughs in recent months. In India, the recent decision by the Supreme Court which decriminalized same-sex relationships is a beacon of hope for LGBTI communities across the globe. Too often, the rights of LGBTI people to live free from discrimination and assault are portrayed as a “Western” agenda with little relevance in the Global South. I hail this great step forward in India, both for its impact on the communities directly affected, and for its symbolic importance to the 72 countries that continue to criminalise same-sex relationships between consenting adults.
The historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, after 20 years of hostilities, has been greeted with great enthusiasm by the people of both countries – for good reason. The immediate impact has included resumed telephone connections, flights and border passages, including for separated families. The leaders of both States have also committed to forging closer economic, political and social ties, and to work for greater peace, development and co-operation across the Horn of Africa region – with potentially far-reaching benefits to people in many countries. Among other key points, I am hopeful that the reduction in tensions will lead to reform of Eritrea’s national service and inspire reforms to restore human rights and rule of law. In Ethiopia, the Prime Minister’s reform agenda is already underway, addressing longstanding human rights grievances.
The process of rapprochement unfolding on the Korean peninsula creates an unprecedented opportunity to move beyond the rhetoric of conflict and address severe and longstanding issues in the Peninsula.
Chile and South Africa also have good stories to tell, as they showed how nations can come together after a terrible history and rebuild a democratic transition and work towards truth, justice and reparations and become stronger democracies.
Colombia is another clear example where work to promote human rights helped to end conflict and promote reconciliation. Long-term, incremental work, by thousands of partners, has helped to give victims a voice and lay the groundwork for more inclusive institutions. One striking example of this effort took place in the town of Bojayá, where in May 2002 at least 79 people were killed by the FARC-EP. Many years of sustained work by my Office lead to a public acknowledgment and act of contrition by the FARC-EP commander. This led to further actions to promote truth, justice and reparation – and in turn, greater progress towards the peace talks. Today, Colombia’s peace agreement provides for the establishment of a Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, and offers a historical opportunity to rebuild society.
In Guatemala, indigenous women suffer from at least three forms of discrimination: because of their ethnicity, because they are women, and because they are often poor. Ten years ago, we began working with women from the Mayan, Xinca and Garifuna communities, including education in law, and capacity building. This empowered hundreds of women to seek justice, and to participate in public life. That ten-year programme has changed something deeply important in the lives of thousands of people. It has brought them more agency, more rights, and more respect. It has changed the future of their children. Our Maya Programme also involved training for judges and judicial officials in international law, and this heightened awareness also opens a highway for improvements in the long-term.
Work to help parliaments amend or draft laws, so that they strengthen human rights protection, can also have far-reaching impact. In Georgia, a country that is part of this initiative, we have worked closely, for many years, with the Bar Association and the training institute for judges, to address various structural shortcomings of the legal system; enhance fair trial guarantees; improve the training and capacity of defence lawyers, and boost the rights of defendants. The results can be seen in courtrooms across the country.
The point I want to make here is that well-designed human rights measures don’t just produce a ripple effect. It’s a surge – forging new mind-sets across all of society.
In 2005, human rights staff working with UNMIL, in Liberia, discovered appalling conditions for workers in many rubber plantations. Many were under the effective control of armed groups, who worked with international companies operating under agreements that made no adequate reference to labour rights. In May 2006 a public report by OHCHR and UNMIL documented serious human rights violations: the eviction of villagers; denial of access to school and medical facilities for people living in or near the plantations; serious environmental pollution; and abusive conditions for workers – including the use of child labour. That report led to important reforms. The Government renegotiated the concession agreements, to ensure direct employment of the workers, their union rights, better social services, including education for workers’ children; and a higher percentage of revenue for the Government. A treatment facility was built to clean up waste. Zero tolerance policies were adopted for child labour. The workers got new housing, an expanded school system on plantations, and better working conditions and pay. Today, UNMIL’s work to keep and sustain peace has been successfully completed – and Liberia has embarked on a new era.
Tunisia is another Good Story, in which numerous human rights measures – often considerable steps forwards, in and of themselves – merge to form a tidal shift across a nation’s destiny. The new Constitution, promulgated in January 2014, enshrines fundamental human rights, includes guarantees of judicial independence, and makes strong progress towards the rights of women, of children, and of people with disabilities, among other key achievements. Together with the 2017 law to combat violence against women, the President’s initiative in August to ensure equality between men and women in inheritance may open a new area of women’s economic empowerment. I also commend the beginning of trials under the transitional justice process in May 2018. This is an important milestone in the fight against impunity.
This Good Human Rights Stories initiative is important. First, it will help to spread the message that in many countries, things are moving in the right direction. Sometimes not quickly enough — but nevertheless, they are moving, and the broader impact is clear. This is crucial in a world increasingly accustomed to – and put off by – bad news. I also hope we can bring down the perception that human rights are not universal – that they are somehow an alien construct imposed by foreign powers and global elites. The participating States hail from across the globe, and the stories you highlight will demonstrate the interlocking progress enabled by advances across the full spectrum of rights.
So let us find many more positive human rights stories. Let us become inspired by them, learn from them, and amplify them across the world. Let us encourage others to join this new-born alliance which will promote transformative change by show-casing the results already achieved. There are many places where measures that uphold human rights are enabling massive improvements in people’s lives. Places where, step by step, the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is moving forward.
Let us tell those good stories.
I thank you.