What are the world’s human rights priorities in 2019, and what to look out for in 2020?

by Grace Kennedy, former Universal Rights Group NYC and Danica Damplo, Universal Rights Group NYC Beyond the Council BORRAR, Beyond the Council BORRAR, Blog BORRAR, Blog BORRAR, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, New York City BORRAR, UNGA borrar, Universal Rights Group NYC BORRAR

Human rights analysis of high level speeches during the general debate of the UN General Assembly

Each fall, the world leaders descend upon New York to speak at the general debate of the UN General Assembly (GA). The world’s presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and assorted dignitaries are allotted fifteen minutes each to discuss the global crises and trends that are preoccupying them, how those crises and trends affect their countries, and what the international community should do about it.

The high-level speeches therefore offer a fascinating window onto 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 which crises made the cut in 2019? What will they be prioritising over the coming months?

As in previous years, Universal Rights Group New York (URG NY) 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 keywords, 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 NY’s 2019 analysis can be read below (for the purposes of comparison, our 2018 analysis can be read here.)

This year’s GA (GA74) is focused on the following overall theme: ‘Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion.’ Notwithstanding, States are free to address any issue they so choose.

The GA74 general debate, chaired by the President of the GA, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, began on 24 September and ended on 30 September 2019. It saw the participation of over 192 high level dignitaries, including presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and other high level government representatives. Unfortunately, as the new President of the GA noted, only 16 of the speakers were women; ‘When we speak of a representative United Nations, this is clearly not what we mean,’ he said.

The speeches

URG NY’s analysis of the 192 high-level speeches delivered at this year’s general debate identified references to 11,075 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.

This year, URG NY added a number of new analyses/’word clouds’: one showing the top 15 human rights priorities for member States currently serving on the Human Rights Council; and five showing the top 15 priorities of each UN regional group – as raised by State representatives from those regional groups (i.e. the African Group, the Asia-Pacific Group, the Eastern European Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group, and the Western European and Others Group. URG also created new analyses/’word clouds’ identifying the top 10 specific economic, social and cultural rights, and the top 10 civil and political rights, raised by States.

Top themes:

  • Like last year, the most commonly-referenced human rights topic by States in 2019 was climate change, closely followed by development. Also, as with last year, URG’s analysis found that the issue of human rights and climate change was mainly championed by Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Many States pointed out that there can be no peace, security or development (other key topics raised by dignitaries) without a sustainable and healthy environment.
  • Regarding civil and political rights, the main priority issues raised by world leaders included: democracy, good governance, the rights of women, and justice.
  • When referring to economic, social and cultural rights concerns, States – perhaps unsurprisingly – focused heavily on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs. Specifically, States highlighted poverty, employment, education, health and climate change, as key factors influencing their ability to promote the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.
  • Regarding country specific human rights violations and situations of concern, States made repeated references to: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (PTO); Syria; Venezuela; Iran; Libya; Yemen; and Myanmar. More positively, States expressed hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy, good governance and rule of law in Sudan, and as well as for the new unity government in South Sudan.
  • Looking specifically at those issues and situations raised by the leaders of States that currently hold a seat on the Human Rights Council, perhaps the most notable trend was that they were amongst the relatively small number of dignitaries who choose to mention the Council in their speeches. Even then, and in a worrying trend for the visibility, standing and credibility of the body, many member States failed to mention the Council at all, and across all 47 Council members, the UN’s main human rights forum did not even make the top 15 of most frequently raised topics/concerns/words.
  • The top human rights issues that were included in the speeches of the high-level representatives of Council members were: democracy, sustainable development, climate change, migrants/refugees, poverty, and women’s rights.
  • URG also did a closer look at top 10 specific economic, social, and cultural rights raised, as well as and the top 10 civil, and political rights issues.
    • The top economic, social, and cultural rights issues raised include poverty, right to health, right to education and the right to work.
    • The top civil and political rights raised include democracy/governance,  rule of law, discrimination (including racism and xenophobia), gender equality and freedom of religion and religious intolerance.
    • However, it is important to note that concerns about what could be categorized as civil and political rights were raised infrequently by States, particularly given the very public and serious violations of these rights that took place just this past year, as well as their centrality to more widely-discussed topics, such as good governance and the SDGs.
  • URG’s new analysis of the top human rights concerns by regional group gives a sense of the top 15 priorities raised by dignitaries from a specific region.
    • High-level representatives from the African Group raised the following issues (in the context of human rights) most often in their speeches: SDGs and development; climate change; peace and security; poverty; terrorism/counter-terrorism; and education.
    • High-level representatives from the Asia-Pacific Group raised the following issues (in the context of human rights) most often in their speeches: climate change; SDGs and development; education; democracy; peace and security; and poverty.
    • High-level representatives from the Eastern European Group raised the following issues (in the context of human rights) most often in their speeches: climate change; cyber/digital/technology; migrants/refugees; SDGs/development; security; and international law.
    • High-level representatives from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States raised the following issues (in the context of human rights) most often in their speeches: climate change; SDGs and development; peace; migrants/refugees; SIDS/LDCs; poverty; inequality; democracy; and women’s rights.
    • High-level representatives from the Western European and Others Group raised the following issues (in the context of human rights) most often in their speeches: SDGs and development; climate change; women’s rights; cyber/digital/technology; migrants/refugees; and diversity/inclusion.

Specific highlights:

  • The specific effects of climate change on the rights of people in SIDS and LDCs was raised well over 100 times, both by SIDS/LDCs themselves and by other States. Speakers repeatedly pointed out that SIDS and LDCs are least responsible for global warming, yet are the most vulnerable to its impacts – and are also in many cases doing the most to mitigate climate change with the least resources (i.e. climate justice).
  • Many leaders expressed condolences for the victims of climate disasters already affecting SIDS and LDCs, such as the people of the Bahamas (Hurricane Dorian) and southeast Africa (Cyclone Idai). Many SIDS and LDCs called for a deeper commitment to multilateral solutions to climate change, and called for more financial and technical assistance to address the long-term threat of climate change.
  • Beyond the human rights sphere, many State representatives spoke about and expressed support for the UN Secretary-General’s process of UN reform. Most comments focused on the security pillar reforms (and, more broadly, on Security Council reform), although there were also considerable interest in the important reforms to the UN’s development system.
  • Other themes raised repeatedly by world leaders (beyond a specific human rights context) were: multilateralism (mentioned over 450 times – especially in the context of the 75th anniversary of the UN); inequality; and social inclusion.
  • As always during GA general debates, many States used their speaking opportunity to air grievances against one another, such as Iran and the United States, and Colombia and Venezuela.
  • A growing priority for States in 2019, as evidenced by the high-level speeches, was the ‘digital revolution.’ States repeatedly drew attention to the potential for technology to both help (climate change solutions, access to education, etc.) and hurt (the spread of hate speech, cyber weapons, etc.) our world.


Top human rights issues at UNGA74

All top thematic issues and country situations of concern (human rights or otherwise) raised at UNGA74

Top country specific human rights situations raised UNGA74

Top 10 specific economic, social and cultural rights identified at UNGA74 

Top 10 specific civil and political rights identified at UNGA74 (many rights in this category were raised very infrequently)

Priorities identified at UNGA74 by member States currently serving on the Human Rights Council

Priorities identified by members of the African Group at UNGA74

Priorities identified by members of the Asia-Pacific Group at UNGA74Priorities identified by members of the Eastern European Group at UNGA74

Priorities identified by members of the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) at UNGA74

Priorities identified by members of the Western European Group and Others Group (WEOG) at UNGA74

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