Report of the Secretary-General: D. Promotion and protection of human rights

Refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, struggle to paddle to safety after their inflatable boat burst 100 metres offshore.

Refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, struggle to paddle to safety after their inflatable boat burst 100 metres offshore., by UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

As human rights abuses are so often a cause and a major consequence of strife, unrest, displacement and humanitarian crises, it is no surprise that the gloomy picture painted elsewhere in this report prevails in this section too. The reporting period was marked by brutal disregard for human rights, extreme violence, persisting impunity and by the worst displacement the world has seen since the Second World War, exposing millions of innocent people to long-term uncertainties. It is hard not to rue missed opportunities to prevent such widespread human misery.

More priority to timely, effective prevention is one of the purposes of the Human Rights up Front initiative. This was an important component of United Nations efforts to prevent and respond to serious human rights violations throughout the year, and led to much more consistent integration of a human rights perspective in the peace and security, humanitarian and other work of the Organization both at Headquarters and at country levels. The initiative helped to ensure that the risk of serious human rights violations — including violations of economic, social and cultural rights — were recognized early and that the whole United Nations system understood them as possible threats to development or to peace and security, and as a shared responsibility.

Many countries and subregions experienced armed conflict involving a variety of non-State actors who spread terror across borders, were often implicated in organized crime and perpetrated gross violations of the human rights of children and women. While such actions are unforgiveable, a deeper understanding of the root causes of violent extremism is required. Alienation can be fed by years of corruption, repression, discrimination, deprivation and neglect of basic human rights. More attention is needed to the long-term work of building rule of law-based institutions and inclusive governance, education and trust. The United Nations drew attention throughout the reporting period to the need to address comprehensively these broader conditions, including by combating hate speech, promoting dialogue, protecting human rights and enhancing social cohesion, as the most effective means for countering the spread of extremism. I was heartened by the fact that Member States also reaffirmed important commitments and principles with respect to their collective responsibility to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. While these commitments are welcome, we have a long way to go before they are fully upheld in practice.

A strong focus on inclusivity and equality was a key thread across the pillars of United Nations activity in the reporting period. Global human rights challenges, such as migration, disabilities, rights of women and children, sexual orientation, and the rights of various minorities, were addressed through promotion of equality and countering discrimination. A higher number of ratifications in the past year of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities demonstrates that States are receptive to new approaches on this issue. Some progress has also been made in securing the human rights of women and children but it is slow and uneven. The same cannot be said of migrants. There are more international migrants on the move now than ever before in human history, many of them facing unacceptable levels of human rights abuses throughout the migration cycle, in countries of origin, transit and destination. In response, the United Nations appealed for protection of the human rights of all migrants and called on Governments to embrace migration as essential for inclusive and sustainable social and economic development. In this connection, we issued Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders.

Growing threats to civil society, particularly acute in conflict situations, but also in the context of electoral processes, in countries in political transition, as well as in the framework of counter-terrorism policies, are a matter of great concern. The United Nations continues to assist States to ensure that civil society can operate freely and without harassment. Attacks on human rights defenders continued, as did, while repeatedly condemned at all levels, intimidation of those who cooperate with the United Nations and reprisals against them. I fully support discussions on the protection of journalists at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Security Council and welcome the recent adoption by the Security Council of resolution 2222 (2015).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the Security Council on many critical situations, including those concerning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Ukraine, as well as providing regular briefings on protection of civilians and other thematic briefings, for example in relation to small arms. The Human Rights Council considered Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iraq, Libya, Mali, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Ukraine.

The human rights-based approach to United Nations programming continued with the deployment of 11 new human rights advisers to country teams in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Malawi, Maldives, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia, and to United Nations Development Group regional teams in Bangkok and Panama. Human rights standards and principles were also taken into account in the design of the post-2015 development agenda.

The United Nations human rights mechanisms continued to draw attention to a wide range of human rights issues, both thematic and country-specific, brought new issues to the fore and provided early warning functions. The number of special procedures mandates increased and an unprecedented number of commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions/investigations were deployed, namely in relation to the Central African Republic, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Syrian Arab Republic and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The recommendations in the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the establishment of a field-based structure, were also vigorously pursued. The universal periodic review mechanism continues to benefit from 100 per cent participation of States and the overwhelming support of Member States. The process of strengthening the treaty body system (General Assembly resolution 68/268) was successfully concluded.

Faced with the multiple challenges in the protection of human rights, an increasingly difficult financial situation and heightened demands stemming from new and sometimes unfunded mandates from the Human Rights Council in particular, my new High Commissioner led a prioritization and restructuring process in his office to ensure that resources are channelled to areas of highest impact on people’s lives. I fully support these efforts but recall that Member States are ultimately responsible for human rights protection and promotion and that the United Nations can only support them to that end.