Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the high-level General Assembly thematic debate, “UN@70: Human rights at the centre of the global agenda”, in New York today:
Thank you for this opportunity to address the subject of human rights at the centre of the global agenda. I thank President Mogens Lykketoft of the General Assembly for convening this high-level debate. We are also greatly honoured by the presence of Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of Belgium and I thank Her Majesty for her strong commitment for the ideals and values of the United Nations Charter.
Today, much of the world is benefiting from enormous progress in their economic, social, cultural, civil and political situations. For many, this means greater opportunities and protections that extend life spans, improve standards of living and give hope for a better future.
But, at the same time, racism and homelessness are rising in Europe, organized violence has taken root in parts of Latin America, deadly conflict continues in the Middle East, economic, social and political marginalization affect millions of people in Asia. Some Governments are sharply restricting people’s ability to exercise their rights, attacking fundamental freedoms and dismantling judicial institutions that limit executive power.
Others are detaining and imprisoning human rights defenders and clamping down on civil society and non-governmental organizations, preventing them from performing their vital work. Respect for international human rights and humanitarian law is being eroded as we face the highest numbers of people displaced by conflict since the Second World War.
To take just one example, the carnage in Syria began with a brutal crackdown against peaceful demonstrators with legitimate grievances. Five years on, hundreds of thousands of women, men and children have been killed, the economy is in ruins, the region is in flames. And still, the abuses continue against civilians who are starved, denied humanitarian aid and prevented from moving to places of safety, and against refugees who flee in search of asylum, only to face bias and barbed wire.
When does this end? The answer must be that it ends now. Governments must meet their responsibilities. The foremost tool for this change is human rights, the most powerful driver of peace and development.
Member States have already made a tremendous step forward by unanimously agreeing on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Human rights are at the heart of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, from ending poverty to reducing inequality and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.
In this crucial first year of implementation, let us recognize the need for far greater emphasis on human rights across all our work. The founding States of the United Nations created an institution balanced upon the three pillars of peace and security, development and human rights.
But, after seven decades, we are yet to realize this balance within the structure of the United Nations organization itself, in our funding, in our policies and actions. Just as we are striving to bring people in from the margins, so must we bring human rights into the very centre of our discussions and decisions.
I launched the Human Rights Up Front initiative as a way to bring the three pillars of the United Nations together, to ensure that human rights concerns are prioritized and to bring the Charter back to the forefront of the daily activities of the entire UN system. Human Rights up Front is changing how the United Nations thinks and acts. It is changing our operational practices to focus on prevention rather than reaction. It is encouraging staff to act in a more principled and courageous way by speaking up, even when their message may not be welcomed by host Governments — or indeed, by all parts of the United Nations system.
But, above all, bringing human rights to the centre of our decision-making requires the full commitment of Member States, who have the power to change lives for the better. Human rights are norms and standards against which institutions and Governments are measured. But, they are not just abstract ideas or aspirations to be addressed once peace and development have been attained. They call for extremely specific and concrete actions on the part of States and other authorities.
In our deeply connected world, all Member States have a shared best interest in promoting individual and collective human rights as a basis for global peace and prosperity.
For example, the evidence in country after country over many years shows that repressive policies against violent extremism and terrorism make nobody safe. When Governments undertake actions under the guise of counter-terrorism that disregard human rights, they reinforce feelings of exclusion and grievance, increase resentment and fuel extremism and terrorism around the world.
My Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism makes clear that preventing extremism and promoting human rights go hand in hand. Due process, respect for the rule of law and inclusive institutions must be paramount. All Governments have a responsibility to their own people and to all of us to recognize this and choose their strategies accordingly.
Human rights offer States a clear path towards stability and prosperity. They build confidence and loyalty, as well as thriving political and economic institutions. They are an indispensable part of our quest for a safer and more stable world, with dignity for all.
The United Nations system as a whole, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and I, myself, are ready to accompany you and to deliver the very best that we can for the people we serve. I thank you very much.