What are the world’s human rights priorities in 2018 and what to look out for in 2019?

by Danica Damplo, Universal Rights Group NYC Blog

Human rights analysis of high level speeches at the General Debate at the UN General Assembly

What are the human rights situations and issues world leaders have on the brain in 2018, and what will they be prioritizing over the next twelve months?

The best place to get a sense of both is the general debate of the UN General Assembly (GA) in New York, held each year in the fall, where the world’s presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and assorted dignitaries meet to pronounce on global developments, crises, and trends.

With that in mind, Universal Rights Group NYC has completed its annual analysis of the speeches of world leaders at the UNGA – a human rights-orientated analysis designed to pick out key words, key themes and key ideas from the nearly 200 high level speeches delivered every year at beginning of each GA session.

Every year, the general debate focuses on a different main theme – although leaders are of course free to address any issue. This year, the 73rd session of the GA (GA73) addressed: ‘Making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies.’

The debate, chaired by the President of the GA, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, began on 25 September and ended on 1 October 2018. It saw the participation of over 193 high-level dignitaries, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in all, 77 Heads of State, five Vice-Presidents, 44 Heads of Government, four Deputy Prime Ministers, 54 Ministers, one Vice-Minister, and eight Chairs of Delegation mounted the podium during the six days.

URG NYC’s detailed analysis of their 193 speeches identified reference to 1,874 human rights-related topics or subjects. When clustered and prioritized (only themes raised by at least five different speakers were included in the final analysis), it was possible to identify broad themes raised the most by leaders. These are presented below in ‘word clouds’: one summarizing the 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. For each, the size of the word reflects the total number of mentions of the given theme or situation.

  • The most widely referenced human rights topic by States in 2018 was climate change. SIDS continue to champion the issue, raising its urgency, describing the destruction caused in their countries, and detailing the steps they’ve undertaken to combat it. One island State urged the United Nations to prioritize climate change or “soon, we won’t exist.”
  • Other key human rights issues and priorities for 2017-2018, include: development and the SDGs, migrants and refugees, terrorism, women’s rights, youth, and poverty.
  • On civil and political rights, important human rights themes included: democracy; good governance; justice; terrorism; the rights of women; and atrocities.
  • In terms of economic, social, and cultural rights issues, States highlighted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the SDGs. Linked with this, States also drew attention to the importance of the role of human rights in the context of the fight against climate change. Other ESCR priorities include: corruption; the right to health, the right to education; employment; and poverty.
  • Regarding country-specific human rights violations and situations of particular concern, States made repeated references to: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (PTO); Syria; Myanmar; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Iran; Yemen; Libya; and Crimea/Ukraine.
  • Ubiquitous themes and concepts raised by leaders included: multilateralism; equality and inequality; peace and security; UN reform; and sovereignty. An oft repeated theme across numerous addresses was multilateralism, recognizing threats to multilateralism and international cooperation, and a need to strengthen multilateral efforts and international institutions. Some European States also raised concerns about the rise of nationalism across Europe, describing efforts their governments have undertaken to combat it.
  • On UN reform, most States focused on reform of the Security Council, including familiar charges that the power structure of the Security Council is antiquated, evidenced by the paralysis created by members of the security council with veto power. Numerous States urged the UN to enlarge the council, include rotating regional representatives in permanent seats, and expanding or eliminating veto power. Even French President Emmanuel Macron advocated for an increase in permanent and non-permanent seats on the Council, and a suspension of veto power in cases of mass atrocities. Many states also raised other issues of UN Reform, including the Secretary-General’s proposed internal reforms, supporting the need to improve the efficiency of the UN to address persistent challenges.
  • States also mentioned the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), noting this year’s anniversary, with many lamenting the failure to end human rights violations globally. Multiple States mentioned international law; most used the term to deny allegations of acts that would constitute crimes under international law. The UN Charter was evoked by many States who advocated a return to the principles in the text, but unsurprisingly, interpretations of that text (and prioritization of it’s elements) varied.

Top human rights issues raised at UNGA73


All top thematic issues and country situations of concern (human rights or otherwise) raised at UNGA73


Top country-specific human rights situations raised at UNGA73

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