Geneva, 20 February 2020
It is a very special honour for me to preside over the Human Rights Council during this year, and I am fully aware of the responsibility I have assumed from my predecessor. The Human Rights Council is unique in many ways. Unlike many other UN bodies, the Council provides a place where States and civil society can enter into direct conversation and human rights defenders as well as victims of human rights violations are given the space to tell their stories. It is a huge year-round machinery involving thousands of people, which produces a tremendous amount of information and recommendations – be it through its system of Special Procedures, its resolutions or the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – that have an impact well beyond Geneva and feed into policy decisions around the world. Again and again, its recommendations lead to positive changes in the lives of many people, even though not everybody may be aware of this.
Nonetheless, most of us would agree that there is room for improvement, in particular against the background of increasing challenges and decreasing financial means. Today, the multilateral system is facing a number of push-backs – with the real danger that human rights might get lost in the quicksand of other issues. Multilateralism can be hard work, there are no easy wins, and compromises can be hard to sell back home as what they are: the best solution available at a particular moment in time. This is exactly what the Human Rights Council is all about – finding common ground to make the system work for the challenges of our time.
In its 14th year, the Council will need to demonstrate its readiness and flexibility to address human rights crises and emerging human rights issues, like digital technologies and climate change, while at the same time upholding its work on more traditional human rights challenges, which are coming increasingly under pressure.
This flexibility will be even more necessary this year. It is no secret that the UN finds itself in the middle of a serious financial crisis as a result of member States not paying their contributions to the organisation’s regular budget, all of which has a significant impact on the Council’s work and gives rise – among other things – to time constraints for our meetings. Together with the Vice-Presidents, I will do my utmost to ensure that the Council can conduct all of the deliberations required under its agenda and fulfil its mandate as decided by the international community. We will work to find lasting solutions to the logistical and financial challenges while at the same time protecting the Council from any attempt to weaken its impact on the international human rights agenda.
Having said this, I am also strongly committed to attracting more attention to the positive and tangible work of the Council. Over the past 14 years, the Council has accumulated many success stories that have gone mostly unnoticed by anyone not directly participating in it. The UPR offers a wealth of concrete examples where recommendations by States have resulted in policy changes on the ground. Inputs from the Council’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief have stimulated much-needed discussions at local and national level to help promote tolerance and combat discrimination. States have also taken concerted measures to improve prison conditions and address challenges in their detention policies as a result of the Council’s recommendations. Numerous discussions in the Council and its various panels and side-events have helped to change traditional mindsets with regard to women’s rights, like the prevention of FGM, child marriages or human trafficking. Moreover, the Council’s work has led to increased discussions on what we call ’emerging’ issues, such as climate change and new digital technologies, which were not considered to be human rights issues a decade ago. Everyone knows that good news does not sell, but for the credibility of the Council, it is vital that its success stories are showcased.
One issue that worries me is a certain lack of trust between delegations. Very often, progress is hampered because delegations suspect a hidden agenda or do not trust their counterparts. I am therefore fully committed to fostering more genuine dialogue and trust among the various stakeholders in the Council. The human rights challenges we face today require common solutions, and we will only achieve those if we talk to each other – including with those whose views we do not necessarily share – and try to understand one another. I will do my part by being everybody’s President, open and available to everybody.
The Council must be a safe space for all those that wish to engage with it. Whoever wants to tell his or her story, raise our attention to serious human rights violations or enrich – and substantiate – our discussions with their first-hand experience, must be able to do so without fearing repercussions back home nor being prevented to travel to Geneva in the first place. I pledge to use all procedures at my disposal to address any allegation of intimidation and reprisals committed against those who cooperate with the Council and its mechanisms. We owe it to them – not least for the courage they often have to muster.
The realities of our time appear to be growing ever more complex and trying. The Human Rights Council is one of the instruments today’s world has at its disposal to face these challenges. It is the forum where we have to re-commit ourselves time and again to strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights by using all the tools of effective multilateralism. We must make sure that the Human Rights Council lives up to this potential and leads the way.
H.E. Elisabeth TICHY-FISSLBERGER is the Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN in Geneva and the 14th President of the UN Human Rights Council.
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