What are the human rights priorities of world governments at HRC52?

by Geneva High level segment, Human Rights Council reports

An independent analysis of the High-Level Segment of the Human Rights Council

The High-Level Segment of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, held from February 27 to March 3 2023, saw the active participation of more than 130 world leaders, including three heads or deputy heads of State, eight heads or deputy heads of government, and 117 ministers or vice-ministers, as well as representatives from international organisations. In the statements delivered to the Council, they addressed both domestic human rights concerns, developments and achievements, as well as their countries international priorities in the human rights sphere for 2023 and beyond. As such, the participation of High-Level representatives presented an opportunity to assess the level of attention and prioritisation given by various States to specific human rights topics and areas of concern.

The Universal Rights Group (URG) has analysed the content of 124 statements made by State representatives, to identify the key human rights themes, debates, situations of concern, and priorities for 2023. The results of this analysis are presented below in a wordcloud of most recurring terms, where the size of the word reflects the total number of mentions of the relevant topic/situation, as well as graphs representing the most commonly mentioned issues across different categories. URG has identified a total of 171 topics that were highlighted by at least four different State Representatives during the High-Level Segment. These topics were grouped in seven different categories and URG has generated individual charts for each of them. The categories are as follows: institutional topics related to the UN human rights bodies and mechanisms; country or regional situations; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; groups in focus; cross-cutting themes; and hybrid mentions. In addition, URG identified the ‘top 20’ most frequently mentioned themes across all categories, which is represented in the first word cloud.

Key findings from URG’s analysis include: 

  • During the five-day long High-Level Segment, States placed renewed emphasis on supporting universal values such as human rights, democracy, rule of law and the mandate and purpose of the Human Rights Council to address global challenges, ensure that human rights are upheld everywhere and apply to everyone, and resist pushback. 
  • Overall, generic mentions of human rights were the most recurring theme, followed by the Russian Federation’s military attack on Ukraine, which marked its first year on the first day of the session. Dignitaries’ statements called for the end of hostilities and urged Russia to choose the path of multilateralism, diplomacy and dialogue towards a peaceful resolution. 
  • Given that 2023 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 30th Anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, these milestones were frequently mentioned by dignitaries, with 70% of the State representatives referring to the 1948 Universal Declaration in their statements.
  • Women’s rights and gender equality also featured prominently in countries’ statements. States renewed their commitments in combating violence and discrimination against women in all its forms. 
  • States also placed a significant emphasis on their calls for accountability and the fight against impunity as a pathway towards peace and security, with many States calling especially for the perpetrators of atrocities in the context of the war in Ukraine to be held accountable for their actions.
  • The effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights was also frequently addressed with many States recalling the differentiated impacts of climate change across countries.

Most frequent terms mentioned by State representatives at the HRC52 High-Level Segment 


Country and regional-specific situations


Distribution of mentions of country-specific situations by regional group


With regards to country or regional situations, the 2023 HLS was dominated by the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian Federation’s military invasion. References to the war in Ukraine came mostly from States in the Eastern European group (47% of references), followed by States from the Western European and Others group (45% of references). Notably, references to the war in Ukraine were scarce in the statements of dignitaries from Asia-Pacific (4%), Latin America and the Caribbean (3%) and African States (1%). State dignitaries condemned Russia’s invasion as an act of aggression, a breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a violation of international law, and an attack against global stability and security. 

In terms of the global distribution of country-specific mentions, the Syrian Arab Republic was the third most mentioned human rights situation, with most references coming from States in the Asia-Pacific (45% of mentions) and Western Europe and Others group (27%).

Overall, States recalled in their statements that the international community cannot forget other situations where human rights are violated and abused, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Armenia/Azerbaijan (the Nagorno-Karabakh region) and Afghanistan. 

A closer look at the regional distribution of mentions to country-specific situations shows stark contrasts between regions, with States regularly mentioning situations of concern in countries in their proximity; for instance, 90% of mentions to Mali came from African States (as it was the most mentioned situation in the region), with the remaining 10% coming from Western European and Others States. Likewise, the top two mentions from Latin American and Caribbean States were Venezuela and Colombia; the former was mentioned once by Western European and Others, Eastern European and African States, respectively, while Colombia was solely mentioned by countries in the same region. Similarly, States in the Asia-Pacific region alluded to the situation in Israel/Palestine (57% of mentions) and Myanmar (62% of mentions).

Cross-cutting and ‘other’ issues

Most frequently mentioned cross-cutting themes at the HLS


Looking at cross-cutting/horizontal human rights concerns, there was an overwhelming focus on multilateralism and international cooperation, as States consistently underlined the importance of multilateral cooperation to address current conflicts and crises, including the climate crisis, which was the second highest cross-cutting concern. Linked to the calls for greater multilateralism, mentions to the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of conflicts and to situations of conflict and insecurity were also among the highest ranking. States recalled that human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible and renewed calls for the respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other States and obligations under International Humanitarian Law.

In terms of the regional distribution of these topics, multilateralism was consistently among the most mentioned issues across different regions. However, for other issues, there were significant regional differences; for instance, mentions to climate change were notably highest among Asia-Pacific States (41% of mentions); mentions to the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights were made mostly by Western European and Other States (32%) and African States (30%), while mentions to COVID-19 were mostly concentrated in African States (40%) and Asia-Pacific (27%).

Civil and political rights

Most frequently mentioned civil and political rights at the HLS


With regards to civil and political rights, a majority of dignitaries made calls for accountability and the fight against impunity, mostly in relation to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Accountability was among the top four civil and political rights-related issues across all regions except for Latin America and the Caribbean (which accounted for 5% of references, as opposed to Western Europe and Others’ 40%). 

States, predominantly African States (which made 30% of the mentions), raised concerns over the rising number of instances of discrimination, intolerance and inclusion, including racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. References to mass atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity were also among the most recurring themes across all regions except for Latin America and the Caribbean. Mentions to these cross-cutting issues were often linked to the Russian aggression in Ukraine and made predominantly by Eastern European States.  Following closely, States highlighted the importance of democracy, working towards democratic participation and democratic elections, as well as safeguarding access to justice and ensuring an independent judiciary. In both cases, most mentions were made by African and Asia-Pacific States, with Latin America and Caribbean and Eastern European States making the least mentions.

In terms of contrasts among regions, the most notable difference was in regards to terrorism, extremism and radicalisation, as both Asia-Pacific States (48% of mentions) and African States (46% of mentions) gathered the majority of mentions.

Economic, social and cultural rights

 Most frequently mentioned ESC rights themes at the HLS


In the area of economic, social and cultural rights, States placed great emphasis on the right to development and sustainable development. In terms of the right to development, there was a considerable regional contrast, with Asia-Pacific States responsible for 50% of the mentions, followed distantly by African States (22% of mentions). On the contrary, references to sustainable development were homogeneous across regions, with the only outlier being Eastern European States (responsible for 7% of mentions, whereas the other four groups made between 21 and 26% of mentions).

A majority of States highlighted the right to education, often linking it to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s access to education, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Similarly, one of the most recurring topics was the right to food, mentions thereto were mostly made in connection with the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food security.  

Overall, most mentions of economic, social and cultural rights were made by Asia-Pacific (30%) and African States (24%), while Eastern European States made the least references (9%).

Groups in focus

 Most frequently mentioned groups in focus by regional group


In the category of groups in focus or groups in vulnerable situations, the HRC52 High-Level Segment saw a clear emphasis on women’s rights and gender equality. A regional divide can be observed in both categories, with States from the Western Europe and Others group leading the mentions, followed by Asia-Pacific States. Mentions to women ranged from references to the impact of the pandemic on women, the role of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations, including issues of sexual violence in conflict, and women’s participation in political and public life, including in the fight against climate change.

Moreover, States repeatedly highlighted the efforts of civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights, regularly expressing concern at the increased crackdown on civil society across the world. 

Overall, most references to the identified groups in focus were evenly distributed across regions, led by Western European and Other States (30% of mentions), and followed by Asia-Pacific States (22%), Eastern European States (19%), African States (18%), and trailed by Latin American and Caribbean States (11%).

UN institutions and mechanisms

 Most frequently mentioned UN mechanisms, institutions and concepts


In terms of mentions to UN institutions and mechanisms, general references to human rights (i.e. not linked to a specific right or situation of concern) were considerably higher than any other term. With 2023 marking the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most States commemorated this milestone and renewed their commitment to the text and its ensuing obligations.

In light of the ongoing conflicts happening across the world, peace and security was also one of the prevailing themes across all regions, led by African States, which accounted for 34% of mentions.

The majority of States reiterated their support and willingness to cooperate with the Human Rights Council’s mechanisms as well as with the Office of the High Commissioner, underlying their invaluable work, and many announced their upcoming candidacy for a seat on the Council (in this sense, it shall be noted that 40% of mentions to membership or candidacy to the Council were made by Latin America and Caribbean States).

In regards to regional contrasts, mentions to Council-mandated investigative mechanisms and fact-finding missions, including specifically to the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, were overwhelmingly made by States in the Western European and others group, with scarce mentions by African, Latin American and Caribbean or Asia-Pacific States. Conversely, most mentions to the Universal Periodic Review were made by African States (41%) while mentions to the Special Procedures were made mostly by Asia-Pacific States (32%).

Hybrid issues

Most frequently mentioned hybrid themes at HLS


URG has identified a series of clusters of terms that prominently came up together in dignitaries’ statements at the HRC52 High-Level segment: women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; women’s rights in Afghanistan; and children’s rights in Ukraine. It shall be noted that all three issues were mostly referred to by Western European and Others, followed by Eastern European States.

Among these three hybrid issues, the situation of women in Iran was referred to the most, with the majority of mentions coming from Western European and Others as well as Eastern European States. The prevalence of these mentions does not come as a surprise, considering that in November 2022 the Human Rights Council held a special session -at the request of Germany and Iceland- and adopted a resolution on the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, especially with respect to women and children.

The human rights situation of women in Afghanistan was also widely mentioned, again by States in the same two regions. As the country moves into the third year since the Taliban took over in August 2021, the deteriorating situation of women and girls’ rights were frequently recalled by States that raised concerns over the imposition of laws restricting women and girls’ presence in public spaces and access to education, among other rights.

Lastly, the human rights of children amid the ongoing war in Ukraine was a frequent topic, with States recalling the numerous reports of forced abductions and transfer of children from Ukraine to Russian areas. Remarkably, only Western European and Others as well as Eastern European States referred to this issue.


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