At 75 years old, global survey indicates that the UN has plenty of room for growth on the human rights agenda

by Tess Kidney Bishop, Universal Rights Group NYC Blog, Blog, Universal Rights Group NYC

This year, the United Nations turns 75. Secretary-General António Gutteres has made clear that the anniversary should not simply be about celebrating the UN’s successes but a ‘global reality check’ focused on listening to the public. So, it is being marked with a global consultation on international cooperation and the priorities of the world’s citizens, as well as a series of online and in person events, all part of the UN75 Initiative.

The UN was founded in San Francisco in 1945, as the world emerged from World War Two. In 2020, we face what many Presidents and Prime Ministers called the greatest crisis since World War Two. At last month’s general debate, they remarked that responding to the pandemic is a real test for the strength of international cooperation. It has proved a test too, for ensuring equal respect for the three pillars of the UN: peace and security, human rights, and development. Just as in 1945 when human rights almost did not make the cut, commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary show that there is a risk of human rights slipping from the UN’s agenda.

Human rights achievements were praised in 75th anniversary commemorations

A high-level meeting to officially commemorate the occasion was held on 21 September and concluded on 26 October, with addresses by UN dignitaries, mostly virtual speeches by world leaders and youth representatives, and a video featuring Beyoncé. Many noted the prescience of the theme: “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism.” World leaders adopted a ‘Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations’ setting out 12 commitments including to build trust and to upgrade the United Nations.

Opening the meeting, the newly elected President of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, made a plea not only for political will and leadership, but for a mobilization of resources. As well as other UN achievements outside the realm of human rights, he praised the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and efforts to promote the equal rights of women and men. Bozkir reminded the General Assembly that the three pillars of the UN ‘are equally important, interrelated, and interdependent. One cannot advance without the other.’ However, at the general debate later in the week, world leaders tended to show more interest in peace and security and development than in the Third Pillar.

In his address, the Secretary-General also gave a long list of UN accomplishments. He praised the development of human rights standards and mechanisms to uphold them but called ongoing gender inequality ‘the greatest single challenge to human rights around the world.’ He too expressed his hopes for greater multilateralism. But, in an apparent attempt to allay the concerns of the growing number of leaders skeptical of international cooperation (such as President Trump), Gutteres emphasised that he does not want the UN to overreach. ‘No one wants a world government,’ he said, explaining ‘National sovereignty — a pillar of the United Nations — goes hand-in-hand with enhanced international cooperation.’

Global survey shows that respect for human rights is one of the most important long-term priorities of people around the world 

Earlier in the year, the Secretary-General launched a global consultation to mark the anniversary and to uncover the hopes and concerns of people around the world, and their perceptions of the UN. As COVID-19 spread around the world, consultations were updated to incorporate questions about priorities for recovery from the pandemic. Views were gathered from a short survey, taken by over a million people from every country, as well as representative polling, dialogues, analysis of social and traditional media, and research mapping. The findings were released as a report on 21 September to coincide with the high-level meeting. Final conclusions will be published in January 2021, including recommendations on how to best take the findings forward.

When asked about a better recovery following the pandemic, respondents put human rights low on their list of priorities (see Image 1). However, specific economic, social and cultural rights featured highly. Universal access to healthcare, investing more in education and youth, and universal access to safe water and sanitation were three of the top five most frequently chosen priorities. Though these priorities were not framed in the language of human rights in the survey, pursuing them would of course help to fulfil the right to health, to education, and to water and sanitation, respectively.

Image: What should the international community prioritise to recover better from the pandemic? Results from the global survey. 

Respect for human rights moved up the list when looking at longer term priorities: it was the third most chosen hope for the next 25 years. Improving access to basic services, which would in turn fulfill many economic, social and cultural rights, was the second most commonly chosen longer-term priority for survey participants worldwide. Environmental protection, which also has significant implications for human rights, took first place.

Interestingly, respondents were optimistic about progress on many of the human rights-related areas compared to other issues. More than two thirds of respondents believed access to education, women’s rights, access to healthcare and freedom of expression would be either better or the same in 2045. Less than half could say the same about corruption, violence or poverty. People were particularly pessimistic about the condition of the natural environment, on which almost half expected the situation to be worse by 2045.

Perceptions of the UN were mixed. More than half of respondents said they simply don’t know much about it. Of those aware of the UN, 60% agreed that the UN has made the world a better place. 74% believed the UN is “essential” to tackling global challenges but less than a third felt that it is helping “a lot” to do so. Most people did not feel that the UN had improved the lives of people they know personally. However, the area in which respondents had the most positive view of the UN’s impact was in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

Also interesting were the significant regional differences in perceptions of the UN. The Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and Central and Southern Asia regions tended to have the most positive views of the UN’s impact. Northern Africa and Western Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean had mostly negative views.

Human rights in 2045

Both the high-level meeting and the results of the global survey show that while human rights remain a core part of the UN and its long-term vision, they are rarely considered an urgent priority. At the General Debate too, there was praise for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan but almost no mention of the Call to Action for Human Rights. The survey results suggest that this lack of attention may be an issue of framing. Respondents were not motivated by platitudes about improving human rights, but were very concerned about specific issues. Just as the pandemic has shown us that international cooperation must not just be a principled stance but a real commitment, human rights should be presented and understood as concrete demands rather than vague principles. To ensure the fruits of the revitalised multilateralism that so many called for at the 75th anniversary of the UN, there must be more work to also reinvigorate human rights.

Image source: UN75 Office, The Future We Want, The United Nations We Need: Update on the Work of the Office on the Commemoration of the UN’s 75th Anniversary, September 2020, p. 35, 

Featured image: U75 (Afghanistan) 

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