Perspectives on the human rights priorities of the new UN Secretary-General

As António Guterres begins his important duties, the Universal Rights Group has asked a range of opinion-leaders and policy-makers to offer their thoughts on key human rights challenges, opportunities and priorities for the new UN Secretary-General.

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Sir Nigel Rodley

Member of the UN Human Rights Committee, member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group, member of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex

‘I expect the new Secretary-General to continue the practice of his two most recent predecessors, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, of trying to place human rights at the very top of the international agenda. Much of the work of UNHCR, which he led effectively, is concerned with the humanitarian work of alleviating the plight of people who have fled repression. I know António Guterres recognises that the protection of human rights is pivotal in preventing people from having to abandon their countries. His experience, as a former head of government and of a large international bureaucracy, suggests that he should be able to steer the Security Council towards a greater awareness of the centrality of respect for human rights to the maintenance of international peace and security.’

Professor John H. Knox

UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group

‘One of the main priorities of the new Secretary-General will be to promote the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In that regard, he should emphasise not only that sustainable development is critical for people to be able to enjoy their rights to health, food, water, and many others, but also that the free exercise of human rights is necessary for sustainable development. Unless people can have information about the environmental consequences of proposed projects, can participate fully in decision-making processes, and have access to effective remedies for violations, they cannot ensure that development in their country is truly sustainable. Unfortunately, in too many places, speaking out for the environment is construed as being ‘anti-development’ and the people who should be recognised as environmental human rights defenders are treated as enemies of the State. Last year, at least 185 environmental defenders around the world were killed, and countless more were harassed and attacked. The Secretary-General can and should draw attention to this global crisis. We cannot achieve sustainable development unless we protect the human rights of those in the front line of the struggle for sustainable development.’

Ms Lucy McKernan

Geneva Representative, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

‘After a tumultuous 2016, will the new Secretary-General heed the signs and make 2017 the year of economic and social rights? Recent political shocks, the continuing mass migration crisis and increasing land and resource conflicts all signal that people have lost patience with the growing inequality and failure of governments to distribute resources fairly and to prioritise their economic and social rights. In both developed and developing countries and in all regions of the world, people are demanding decent work, adequate housing, access to water and sanitation facilities and good quality education for their children. Of course, these are not new issues, but the extent of people’s desperation is creating upheaval. I am hopeful that in 2017 we will see greater attention on economic and social rights in the UN system. Whilst the Sustainable Development Agenda should be a key vehicle for the advancement of economic and social rights and tackling inequality, a rights-based approach, including one focused on gender equality, is needed to fulfill the promise of ‘leaving no one behind’. Approaches that focus solely on development and growth, without rights, and without regard to issues of power, patriarchy and privilege, will not deliver sustainable solutions to poverty. In order to avoid the disappointments of the MDGs the UN system and States must strongly emphasise the importance of implementation of the SDGs in a manner compatible with human rights standards, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights and principles of participation, non-discrimination and accountability. The leadership of the Secretary-General will be crucial in achieving this.’

Mr Marghoob Saleem Butt

Executive Director, OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) Secretariat

‘The election of Mr Guterres is hailed by the developed and developing world alike. His impeccable record as one of the most active and effective UN High Commissioners for Refugees means he begins his important new role with a strong reputation as an astute diplomat who believes in inclusivity and building bridges. Based on his vast experience of dealing with human rights and humanitarian issues, it is hoped that he will pay special and equal attention to the promotion and protection of all human rights, including the right to development. Contemporary issues of human rights concern such as growing discrimination and violence based on one’s religion also merit special consideration. Our common goal should be to promote pluralistic, tolerant societies, and in so doing promote peace and security both within and between nations.’

Dr Ahmed Shaheed

UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group

‘Unfortunately, since the founding of the UN, the on-the-ground realisation and enjoyment of human rights has too often fallen being the obligations defined and ratified at UN level. A key priority of the new Secretary-General should be to bridge this long-standing ‘implementation gap.’ By driving a new international human rights implementation agenda, António Guterres can provide an important boost to the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, and to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. If those goals are to be realised ‘leaving no one behind,’ then the strengthened enjoyment of human rights will have to be a central component of that effort.

Guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief, and combatting religious intolerance, were among the original human rights goals of the United Nations Organisation when it was established in the late 1940s. Sadly, seven decades later, millions of people do not enjoy freedom of conscience, while many more are discriminated against or targeted based on their faith or beliefs. I look forward to working with Mr Guterres in the years to come, to press all States to make tangible progress in combatting religious discrimination and protecting religious minorities.’

Mr Ted Piccone

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

‘The new Secretary-General should build on the steady institutional progress of the last ten years toward mainstreaming human rights as one of the three pillars of the United Nations. The most important anchors of human rights in the international system are the Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures, Commissions of Inquiry and Universal Periodic Review; the Human Rights Up Front initiative; and the emerging consensus for a rights-based approach to development as represented by goal 16 of the SDGs. A concerted effort to expand budgetary resources for these elements is vital.

A major challenge for the new Secretary-General will be to forge the broad political consensus needed to make oft-repeated words like ‘accountability’ and ‘implementation’ meaningful at both the national and international levels. This is particularly challenging for the P5 members of the Security Council. His well-regarded political skills will be put to the test as both systemic and episodic human rights violations continue to dominate headlines. I hope Mr Guterres will also take up one or two signature human rights issues of his own to drive forward and champion, like tackling corruption, combatting illicit financial flows and strengthening rule of law.’

Mr R. Iniyan Ilango

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

‘The UN faces numerous human rights challenges in Asia on issues ranging from conflict to rapidly shrinking democratic space. Egregious violations in the last phase of Sri Lanka's civil war revealed serious systemic failures in the UN's approach to human rights situations. This led the outgoing Secretary-General to begin the Human Rights Up Front initiative. The incoming Secretary-General has an important task to ensure that this initiative becomes a robust reality. While in principle human rights has been a core pillar of the UN, in practice the weight it carries within the UN machinery is not commensurate, in terms resource allocation and influence. The human rights pillar of the UN therefore urgently needs to be nurtured and strengthened. This should be one of the key priorities for the new Secretary-General.’

Dr Alice Edwards

Head of the Secretariat for the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI)

‘The CTI's vision is to reach universal ratification of the UN Convention against Torture, by 2024, as well as to improve States’ implementation of the Convention. As a government-led initiative the CTI works through inter-State cooperation, dialogue and technical assistance. The CTI congratulates António Guterres on his election as Secretary-General and offers its support to him and his agencies.

Torture and other techniques of oppression, intimidation and coercion are still in common usage in many countries. Evidence shows that such practices produce unreliable information, give rise to false confessions and miscarriages of justice, and break the trust between the authorities and citizens. Used to discriminate against or control populations, or to silence critics, such targeted forms of violence cause civil unrest, instability and conflict, with serious consequences for people, societies and the international community. The CTI aims to eradicate such practices once and for all.

The CTI is working with all UN Member States to share good practices in such areas as law enforcement, effective criminal investigation and anti-torture legislation. The CTI is also supporting States to follow through on their commitments made pursuant to the Universal Periodic Review. We look forward to the Secretary-General’s leadership on these important issues."

H.E. Mr Hans Brattskar

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Norway

‘I would like to congratulate Mr António Guterres on his appointment as UN Secretary-General. Norway looks forward to working with him to further strengthen the human rights pillar of the UN. We expect him to show leadership in integrating human rights concerns across all UN activities. The world is now changing at an unprecedented pace and the UN must adapt and reform to remain relevant. The UN should put further emphasis on human rights, including in its peace and development operations. We hope Mr Guterres will expand and systematically apply the Human Rights Up Front initiative. We are looking forward to cooperating with the new Secretary-General in his work and wish him every success in his new endeavours.’

Ms Catarina de Albuquerque

First UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, Executive Chair of the Sanitation and Water for all Global Partnership, member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group

‘In my six years as UN Special Rapporteur I observed how human rights can strengthen policy at the national and international levels, and improve the way UN agencies and national actors work. Since I began my work as Executive Chair of the Sanitation and Water for all Global Partnership, I have come to see, even more clearly the importance of ensuring that human rights are mainstreamed across all three pillars of the UN. This is what António Guterres, in his Vision Statement presented to States last April, called ‘connecting the dots.’

When he takes up his important responsibilities, I hope the new Secretary-General will invest in making sure those dots become increasingly well connected, that human rights are given sufficient prominence and resources, that the Human Rights Up Front initiative is further developed, and that human rights are truly mainstreamed throughout the system. I hope he will work with all parts of that system to take us out of our comfort zones, abolishing the culture of silos that still exists across the Organisation, and confronting the political aversion to human rights that still exists in some parts of the international system.

I look forward to working with the new Secretary-General to make sure - to borrow his words - that human rights move to an era of ‘implementation, implementation, implementation.’ I would also add that that implementation should be combined with ‘accountability, accountability, accountability’ for any wrongdoing. As Mr. Guterres has so eloquently put it, ‘we must make sure that when someone sees the Blue Flag she or he can say: ‘I am protected.’

Mr Phil Lynch

Director, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

‘The work of human rights defenders is essential to the promotion and protection of human rights and the realisation of the UDHR and the UN Charter itself. Despite this, human rights defenders are under sustained and systematic attack in many countries and regions of the world. Championing the role and protection of defenders should be a key priority for the new Secretary-General. There are a number of steps that António Guterres could and should take in this regard. First, he should speak out strongly and consistently against attacks and restrictions on defenders and in support of vibrant, independent civil society participation at the UN and at the national level. Second, the new Secretary-General should ensure that all UN staff are aware of the importance of the work of defenders and act to prevent and address attacks against them as a moral, legal, political and developmental priority. Third, recognising that the work of defenders is essential to international peace and security, the new Secretary-General should bring cases of systemic attacks and restrictions against defenders to the attention of the Security Council as an aspect of early warning and prevention. Finally, with civil society participation at the UN being essential to the organisation’s effectiveness and fulfilment of its mandate, Mr Guterres should ensure that the recently appointed high-level official for combating reprisals, Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Gilmour, is provided with all the resources and political support necessary to protect those who cooperate with the UN.’

Professor Paul Hunt

former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group, member of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex

‘If we are serious about human rights implementation we have to be serious about human rights mainstreaming, i.e. the explicit integration of human rights into national and international policy making and practice. One of the Human Rights Council's core mandates is to promote human rights mainstreaming within the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deserves credit for taking practical measures to promote human rights mainstreaming, such as his Human Rights up Front initiative. OHCHR also deserves credit for actively promoting this agenda in numerous ways. However, despite its explicit mandate, the Human Rights Council continues to do far too little to advance human rights mainstreaming. The new Secretary-General must do everything in his power to ensure members of the Human Rights Council redress this serious dereliction of their mandated obligation.’

Professor Dan Magraw

President Emeritus, Centre for International Environmental Law, Professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group

‘Promoting and protecting human rights in the context of climate change is one of the most important contemporary challenges facing humanity and should be one of the new Secretary General's highest priorities. Enormous resources will need to be mobilised and new policies of mitigation and adaptation will need to be put in place if the world is to effectively confront global warming. It is imperative that all these actions take place in a manner that respects and promotes human rights. Indeed, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change acknowledges States’ responsibility to protect human rights while undertaking efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Thus both the human rights and climate regimes converge on this imperative.

The human rights of the tens of millions of climate migrants - international refugees and internally displaced persons - as well as the rights of receiving populations, must also be protected. States have a human rights obligation to plan for climate migration. Whether or not climate migration occurs in a pre-planned way, the difficult challenges involved in handling migration require the Secretary-General's guidance to ensure human rights are given adequate attention.’

H.E. Ms Marta Maurás

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations Office at Geneva

‘Chile welcomes António Guterres appointment as UN Secretary-General. During his time in Office, we look forward to working with him to make human rights a true equal pillar of the UN. This means, inter alia, working to secure more equitable funding for human rights (currently only around 3% of the regular budget) and ensuring that the next review of the Human Rights Council, due to start in 2021, provides a platform for genuine reflection on how all stakeholders can come together to build a body with the prerogatives and capacity to deliver on its crucial mandate.

It is furthermore my hope that the new SG will, as he suggested during his campaign, ‘join the dots’ between human rights and sustainable development. That means better understanding the nature of the contribution of the human rights pillar to the achievement of the SDGs, and working together to strengthen that contribution. Human rights are key to a sustainable development agenda that leaves ‘no one behind’ in practice as well as in words.’

H.E. Mr Foo Kok Jwee

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations Office at Geneva

‘We warmly congratulate Mr Guterres on his election as the next UN Secretary-General. Singapore is passionate about supporting fellow Small States in the UN system. We established an informal grouping of Small States in New York in 1992 called the Forum of Small States (FOSS) – which now boasts 107 members – to share information informally, foster better cross-regional understanding and to learn from each other’s experience. We hope that Small States, which form the majority of the UN membership, will continue to receive the support, resources and technical assistance they require to realise the human rights of their citizens. The UN and the UNSG ensure a level playing field with common rules that apply to all countries, big and small. We hope that Mr Guterres will actively engage FOSS and fellow Small States in support of his work, because Small States can have big ideas too and many also act as bridge-builders in our common quest for peace and security, human rights and sustainable development.’

Ms Laila Matar

UN Advocate, Human Rights Watch

“Mr Guterres is becoming the world’s top diplomat at a particularly difficult time, when human rights in many parts of the world are at risk of serious setbacks, and the human rights framework itself is being challenged. Human Rights Watch is confident that the new Secretary-General will bring the full strength of his leadership to the post, and not hesitate to speak out against abuses and call out states that are violating their human rights obligations. It’s also important that the Secretary-General works toward expanding the application of the Human Rights Up Front policy to all parts of the UN. Mr Guterres should also use his role to counter the narrative of division, suspicion and hatred that has enabled those preaching bigotry and xenophobia to ascend to power in many countries around the world."