Human rights analysis of high-level speeches during the general debate of the UN General Assembly
In the pre-pandemic world, each fall world leaders would descend upon New York City to speak at the General Debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Last year, this tradition was disrupted (as so many others) by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of migrating to Turtle Bay, world leaders were invited to submit pre-recorded videos of their speeches in place of the physical gathering in New York, which were broadcast as ‘live’. This year, a hybrid format was adopted, as such some dignitaries were able to deliver their speeches in person, while other statements were pre-recorded.
The world’s leaders, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other dignitaries were given fifteen minutes to share their country’s perspective on global trends, conflicts, crises and proposed solutions for their own country and the world.
The high-level speeches, therefore, offer a fascinating window into the issues that world governments and leaders see as their principal priorities for the next twelve months – including in the area of human rights. So, which issues and crises took center stage in 2021? And what will world leaders be prioritising over the coming months?
As in previous years, Universal Rights Group – New York (URG NYC) followed all the speeches delivered during this year’s general debate (so you don’t have to), and carried out a human rights-oriented analysis designed to pick out key messages, key themes, and key ideas from the nearly 200 high-level speeches delivered every year at the beginning of each GA session. The results of URG NYC’s 2021 analysis can be read below (for purposes of comparison, our 2020 analysis can be read here and our 2019 analysis can be read here.)
This year’s UNGA (UNGA76) focusses on the following overall theme: ‘Building Resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalise the United Nations.’
This theme was also the subject around which the opening statement of His Excellency Abdulla Shahid (The Maldives), President of the General Assembly, was built. In it he put forward his vision for the ‘Presidency of Hope delivering for people, planet and prosperity’, which is based on five elements, including vaccine equity; build back better, stronger, greener, and bluer from COVID-19; the climate crisis; human rights; and UN reform and revitalization.
The UNGA76 general debate, chaired by the President of the General Assembly, H.E. Abdulla Shahid, began on 21 September 2021, and ended on 27 September. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, introduced his annual Report on the Work of the Organization at the opening of the general debate. The general debate saw the participation of 188 UN member State representatives, including Heads of State, Heads of Government, and Ministers. 18 of the speakers were women, which is double the number of women who spoke last year.
URG NYC’s analysis of the 188 high-level speeches delivered by member States at this year’s general debate identified over two thousand references to 77 human rights-related topics or subjects. When clustered and prioritised (only themes raised by at least five different speakers were included in the final analysis), URG was able to identify a number of key themes and situations raised by world leaders.
For each ‘word cloud’ below, the size of the word reflects the total number of mentions of the given theme or situation. A number of different ‘word clouds’ are presented: one summarising the (overall) top human rights issues; one detailing all top thematic issues and country situations of concern (human rights-related or otherwise); and one relaying the most talked-about country-specific human rights situations. URG also created analyses/‘word clouds’ identifying the top economic, social and cultural rights discussed, and the top 10 civil and political rights raised by States. Below these are analyses/‘word clouds’ showing top priorities for member States serving on the Human Rights Council, and the top priorities related to human rights for each regional group of States.
Top human rights-related issues at UNGA76
- The COVID-19 pandemic remained one of the most commonly referenced human rights-related topics in 2021. Leaders often began their speeches with condolences for the 4.5 million people lost to the pandemic, while also applauding the efforts of frontline workers and the scientists that developed the vaccine. Vaccine equity was often brought up in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many developing States expressed their frustrations over wealthy developed nations administering booster shots while their own countries are struggling to inoculate enough people with even a single dose. Many representatives from African countries stressed the fact that less than 2% of the continent’s population has been fully vaccinated. Many renditions of the phrase ‘we are not safe until we are all safe’ were shared to emphasise the necessity of widespread global vaccination in order to finally conquer the virus.
- Many States noted that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems, and even reversed progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- Dignitaries stressed the effect of the pandemic on global, regional, and national economies. Small Island Developing States (SIDS), some African States and some land-locked States emphasised the need for both development assistance and climate financing from developed States in order to overcome the reversal of progress caused by the pandemic. The same States also called for debt relief, cancellation, restructuring or refinancing.
- On the other hand, many States also emphasised the opportunity that the COVID-19 pandemic presented, as devastating as it has been, to build back better. States often mentioned the opportunity to build back ‘greener and bluer’ as well.
- Climate change closely followed the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the most commonly referenced human rights-related topics. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report that came out in August 2021 was referred to often, which notes the already irreversible changes to our climate, and the potential disasters that loom in the future if climate action is not taken swiftly and forcefully.
- Many leaders touted the pledges they were making to decrease emissions at home or to finance green technology and sustainable practices abroad, while also emphasising the need to continually raise ambitions at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November this year.
- Developing States spoke about their already comparatively low emissions, and shared updates about their steps to develop sustainably. African States and SIDS focused on the unfair reality that the lowest contributors to climate change are often most affected – by rising sea levels, natural disasters, and other negative consequences. As noted by the President of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, Úmaro Sissoco Embaló, ‘The problem of climate change is an irrefutable reality, and while it is felt more frequently and greatly impacts small island States, it is a permanent challenge for all nations.’
- Multilateralism paired with UN reform were also referenced frequently by countries from all regions. Many States renewed the call for multilateralism because of the clear interconnectedness of the world revealed during the pandemic. This call was often coupled with leaders underlining the need for a reinvigorated UN system that follows the democratic and egalitarian principles of the UN Charter.
- The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, pointed out that many of the current UN member States did not exist when the UN was created in 1945. There were only 51 member States then, and now there are 193. She noted that to date the UN has only been changed once, in 1963 to enlarge the Security Council, and that the institution as it stands today meets the needs of the mid-20th century, not the 21st century.
- African leaders renewed their call for an updated Security Council format, many suggesting adding a permanent seat for an African State in addition to two rotating seats for African countries. In the 76th session, African States make up the largest proportion of votes at 28%, yet with only holding rotating seats on the Security Council many African countries feel as if they do not have a true avenue to affect change. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) also called for a rotating seat to represent their interests permanently on the Security Council.
- UN reform was one of the top 10 priorities of the African Group, Asia Group and Latin American and Caribbean Group based on the number of times it was brought up by leaders from States of those regions. It was mentioned less by the Eastern European Group and the Western European Group and others, yet both of these groups emphasised multilateralism as a necessity, ranking among their top 10 priorities.
- Equality and Inequality were often brought up to describe a variety of different situations, some already mentioned like vaccine distribution and climate change, but usually focused on the growing wealth gap within and between countries.
- There were calls from a variety of Latin American, Caribbean, African States and SIDS for a reassessment of the global financial structure and from some, a call to restructure the system to place human well-being rather than profits at the centre. These same countries often called for debt restructuring, cancellation of forgiveness as well
- United States’ President Joe Biden touched on this, acknowledging that the ‘wealthy and well-connected are growing richer and richer while the vast majority struggle to find a job, put food on the table, get their businesses off the ground or send their children to school.’
- Regarding civil and political rights, the main priority issues raised by world leaders included: women’s rights and gender equality; democracy; extremism; disinformation; accountability and justice.
- Women’s rights and gender equality received much attention due to recent developments in Afghanistan, in which many leaders fear the deterioration in both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights under the new Taliban rule for women.
- Many Eastern European leaders spoke about how democracy was under siege by forces like polarisation, populism or authoritarianism. Others spoke about the inherent connection between human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy, while emphasising the sometimes fragile nature of democracy. Notably, the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, ‘democracy is not a force directed against anyone. It is not a western instrument of political power. It is a working experiment. It is a project for freedom.’
Top 10 specific civil and political rights identified at UNGA76
- When referring to economic, social and cultural rights concerns, States raised vaccine equity, the right to food, poverty, the right to health and the right to education as key issues they would like to address. Leaders said the pandemic exacerbated existing problems with food security, instances of poverty, health access and education as schools were shut down, supply chains were severed and healthcare systems were overrun.
Top 10 specific economic, social and cultural rights identified at UNGA76
- Regarding country specific human rights violations and situations of concern, States made repeated references to Afghanistan; Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (PTO); Libya; Syria; Myanmar; Crimea; the Sahel; Yemen; Iran; Ethiopia and Haiti. With the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States, the human rights issues within Afghanistan took centre stage. It was mentioned a few times that the Syrian conflict has been going on for a decade, and that States were divided about the best solution to the conflict. Many SIDS emphasised the need to support Haiti after recent natural disasters and political turmoil.
Top country specific human rights-related situations raised UNGA76
- The issues focused on by States that currently hold a seat on the Human Rights Council include: climate change; the COVID-19 pandemic; vaccine equity; UN reform; Afghanistan; terrorism; equality and inequality; technology; women’s rights/ gender equality and multilateralism. The human rights council itself was only mentioned a handful of times, usually by States who are seeking to run for a seat on the Council.
Priorities identified at UNGA76 by member States currently serving on the Human Rights Council
- URG’s analysis of the top human rights concerns by regional groups gives a sense of the top priorities raised by dignitaries from a specific region.
- High-level representatives from the African Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, vaccine equity, UN reform and the 2030 Agenda/SDGs.
- High-level representatives from the Asia-Pacific Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, vaccine equity, terrorism, and technology.
- High-level representatives from the Eastern European Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, vaccine equity, women’s rights/gender equality and technology.
- High-level representatives from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: climate change, vaccine equity, COVID-19 pandemic, equality and inequality, UN reform and the 2030 Agenda/SDGs.
- High-level representatives from the Western European and Others Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: climate change, COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine equity, women’s rights/gender equality and the 2030 Agenda/SDGs.
- The COVID-19 pandemic remained central to most discussions, although the greatest change from last year was the introduction of vaccines as a topic. As earlier mentioned vaccine equity was discussed often, but the term ‘vaccine nationalism’ was also introduced to describe the unequal distribution of the vaccines. Many leaders demanded vaccines be considered global public goods. Additionally, there was some discussion about ‘vaccine apartheid’ as some vaccines that have been distributed and administered are not being accepted as a viable vaccination, therefore limiting certain peoples’ ability to return to enter certain countries, or largely return to normal life.
- On climate change, many developing countries and SIDS asked for climate financing or ‘climate justice’ as they have contributed least to climate change, but are affected the most by the warming temperatures and growing frequency of natural disasters.
- More than two dozen States called for sanctions on Cuba to be lifted, and some also included Venezuela and Syria in the call for lifted sanctions.
- Many States, about a dozen, typically SIDS called for the inclusion of Taiwan into the UN system.
- Leaders shared their worries about Afghanistan becoming a hub for terrorist and extremist movements given the recent departure of the United States from the country.
- Given the recent violence in Israel/OPTs, many States called for dialogue between the parties and ultimately the two state solution along the 1967 agreed upon territories.
- Many States warned that the pandemic has hindered their ability to achieve the SDGs, especially if they do not receive development funding from donor countries to make up progress lost to the pandemic.
- Some leaders spoke of the digital divide and the need to close it urgently before risking leaving people behind.
- Disinformation and hate speech were often condemned by leaders, but there was no form of resolution offered to combat them.
- Calls for multilateralism were present in almost every speech, as the resounding consensus was that global issues require global solutions.
All top thematic issues and country situations of concern (human rights-related or otherwise) raised at UNGA76
Priorities identified by members of the African Group at UNGA76
Priorities identified by members of the Asia-Pacific Group at UNGA76
Priorities identified by members of the Eastern European Group at UNGA76
Priorities identified by members of the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) at UNGA76
Priorities identified by members of the Western European Group and Others Group (WEOG) at UNGA76
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