New York

27 January 2016

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at interactive dialogue with the General Assembly on Human Rights Up Front [as prepared for delivery]

I welcome this opportunity for an interactive dialogue with Member States on Human Rights up Front.  As you know, the Secretary-General and I attach great importance to this initiative. I am glad to be joined by close colleagues from different parts of the UN at this presentation.

In short, the initiative aims to strengthen the human rights pillar in the UN and to recognize the value of identifying human rights violations as early warning signals of crises to come.

Let me start by posing a few questions which could serve to frame our discussion.

First, what more can we do in response to the crises, which over the past five years alone have killed hundreds of thousands of people and forcibly displaced more than 60 million people from their homes?

Second, what are the long-term consequences of these staggering numbers for the people, communities and nations on the front-lines?

Third, how many years of development have been lost in the affected regions by these conflicts, crises and human losses?

Fourth, what are the ripple effects on regional and international peace and security, on the global economy, and on the health and cohesion of our societies?

I could ask many more such questions, several of them rhetorical, since the answers are already clear:

The scale of such suffering is intolerable. The political, social and financial costs are massive. The trend is unsustainable. It is imperative that we do far better at prevention, taking action early rather than waiting for disaster to occur.

Prevention is the fundamental premise and vocation of Human Rights up Front. This the Secretary-General wrote in his letter distributed to the General Assembly earlier this month. We have talked a lot about prevention over the years. This initiative is an example of what we can do concretely to live up to the imperative of prevention.

“Human Rights up Front” is very much about changing how the United Nations thinks and acts on the prevention and protection responsibilities of the Charter and required by Member States. This initiative is a tangible manifestation of the objectives and obligations on prevention laid down in Chapter I and VI of the Charter. (articles 1, 33, 34)

The initiative is to help the United Nations operate in a more cohesive, cross-cutting, horizontal manner. It is to ensure that the three pillars of UN action – peace and security, development and human rights – as much as possible are pursued together, in parallel.

It is also important to recognize how violations of economic, social and cultural rights are indicators of instability and looming dangers. Violations of the rights to property, education and employment have often marginalized entire communities, leading to failed development, social and political crises and even to conflict.

Human Rights up Front aims to help the United Nations to understand and respond to these risks and warning signals at an early stage, whether political, social, economic or related to human rights violations.

Further, in many respects, Human Rights up Front can address and reduce the fragmentation identified by Member States in the recent reviews of United Nations peace operations, peacebuilding and Security Council Resolution 1325.

It can also support progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a great achievement of Member States. This Agenda recognizes that development grievances, lacking access to justice and failing institutions often are drivers of crisis and conflict.

Human Rights Up Front is a lens through which we can see more clearly and with better foresight. It can help us act coherently across the pillars and the different parts of the UN. It can and must make us stronger than the sum of our parts.

Human Rights up Front aims to achieve three types of change in the UN System.

First, a cultural change: to make sure that UN staff understand our prevention responsibilities and pursue them vigorously in the spirit of the Charter.

Second, an operational change: to ensure that we work on the basis of shared analysis among UN development, humanitarian, political and human rights entities.

Third, an enhanced engagement with Member States and the main organs of the United Nations, as well as with national authorities in Member States. 


One result of our efforts to date has been a far greater recognition among staff of how problems in the development pillar can affect, and are related to, human rights and peace and security issues, and vice versa. Here, let me also, parenthetically, tell you how positively – even enthusiastically – the initiative has been received by UN colleagues.

In the future, we expect to see much-improved early warning, early response, as well as enhanced support to national authorities. We have already experienced how Human Rights up Front has mitigated threatening situations and how dialogue with Governments has helped avert potential crises. In other instances, it has made it possible for Resident Coordinators to respond more quickly to requests for support from national authorities on concerns which may fall outside the normal development assistance frameworks (UNDAF).

Human Rights up Front is designed to be as informal and light as possible. For instance, it does not involve any new reporting. Rather, it is a new approach and dimension to the work that we are already doing.

Experience has taught us that prevention must be exercised at all stages and all areas of UN action. In this sense, Human Rights up Front should in my view be a regular feature of United Nations engagement with Member States.  It primarily seeks and builds on national action and efforts. When needed, it aims for appropriate UN engagement as early as possible, before serious problems occur.

In this pursuit, transparency, dialogue and cooperation with Member States are guiding principles of the Human Rights up Front initiative.

As some of you may recall, I discussed Human Rights up Front at an informal briefing in the General Assembly at the end of 2013. I also presented the initiative to Member States in Geneva and to members of the Human Rights Council 2014 and last year. Based on comments from Member States in New York and Geneva, we have elaborated the initiative -- for example, to give more prominence to economic, social and cultural rights.

We all know that Member States come to the United Nations deliberations with the important issues and weight of national interests. But let us recall that we are also united by the universal purposes of the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reinforced by your and your predecessors many related resolutions.

Human Rights up Front is in the Secretary-General’s and my view, an important part of and a catalyst to achieve these purposes, mainly by emphasizing prevention and by connecting the three pillars of United Nations action.

Human Rights up Front is about improving how the UN system functions and how staff members are to perform.

It does not directly address the role of Member States in prevention. But I would hope that Member States will identify elements of the initiative, which they can usefully adopt in their national efforts.

Member States - in the General Assembly, the Security Council as well as in ECOSOC - have an important role to play in promoting the approaches and changes, which Human Rights up Front seeks to achieve. We count on you to not least provide political support for preventive action.

As we all know, the world is facing grave and complex challenges. When we look around us today, we see the urgent, even desperate, need to react early and to take effective action before situations get out of control, leading to immense human suffering.

If there was ever a time to strengthen United Nations prevention work, it is now. With the Human Rights up Front initiative and process, we have a tool in our hand, which can make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

It can strengthen a dimension of the UN, which can and should inspire confidence and much-needed hope for the future in today’s troubled world.

Thank you.