What are the world’s human rights priorities in 2020, and what to look out for in 2021?

by Danica Damplo, Universal Rights Group NYC Human rights institutions and mechanisms, UN General Assembly/Third Committee

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

Each fall, world leaders descend upon New York to speak at the general debate of the UN General Assembly (GA). This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders were invited to send in pre-recorded videos of their speeches which were broadcast ‘as live.’

The world’s presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and assorted dignitaries were allotted fifteen minutes each (though this is more a guideline than an enforced rule) to discuss global crises and trends, 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 into 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 crises made the cut in 2020? What will they be prioritising over the coming months?

As in previous years, Universal Rights Group New York (URG NYC) 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 NYC’s 2020 analysis can be read below (for the purposes of comparison, our 2019 analysis can be read here and our 2018 analysis can be read here).

This year’s GA (GA75) is focused on the following overall theme: ‘The Future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.’

His Excellency David Kabua, President of the Marshall Islands, echoed many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) during the general debate when he said:

Small and vulnerable nations cannot alone move the world. But as small nations, we often have a unique role in realising creative and dynamic approaches. The UN setting is vital, and as member States we cannot let it further risk irrelevance at the hour when it is most needed. Optimism remains, and the truest test of character is under adversity. Urgent action by all is needed to better act with conviction – and compassion. No nation – large or small – can afford the consequences of a fragmented world.

The GA75 general debate, chaired by the President of the GA, Volkan Bozkir, began on 22 September and ended on 29 September 2020. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, introduced the annual report on the activities of the Organisation at the opening of the general debate. The general debate saw the participation of 190 UN member State representatives, including heads of state, heads of government, and ministers. Only 9 of the speakers were women which unfortunately, is only about half of the number of women who spoke last year.

The speeches

URG NYC’s analysis of the 190 high-level speeches delivered by member States at this year’s general debate identified over two thousand references to 77 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. URG also created analyses/’word clouds’ identifying the top economic, social and cultural rights discussed, and the top 10 civil and political rights raised by States. Below these are analyses/’word clouds’ showing top priorities for member States serving on the Human Rights Council, and the top priorities related to human rights for each regional group of States.

Top themes:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic was by far the most commonly referenced human rights related topic by States in 2020. In addition to offering condolences, leaders discussed the human and economic consequences of the pandemic. COVID-19 often served in remarks as a link to other human rights-related topics, such as health and education, the importance of which became magnified by the crisis, as well as a link to the other two most often discussed topics: Agenda 2030 and climate change.
    • COVID-19 is the most referenced topic in every single region. Referring to its universality, many States called for global solidarity and cooperation. President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, stressed ‘We have all gone down together. We have to rise together.’
    • Many States described the impact of the pandemic and based goals for recovery on human needs, including the fulfilment of many social, economic and cultural rights.
    • A smaller number of States also pointed out the impact of this external shock on democracy, and the dangerous, linked phenomenon of disinformation and misinformation, which did not appear as a frequently mentioned topic in 2018 or 2019.
    • Many States described meeting climate change targets and ameliorating societal rights gaps such as health services and socioeconomic inequalities, as key to ‘building back better’.
  • After COVID-19 the most commonly referenced human rights related topic by States in 2020 was climate change, closely followed by Agenda 2030/the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As in previous years, URG’s analysis found that the human impact of climate change was primarily championed by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), although that has steadily expanded to include other States from every region.
    • Many States described how the economic effects of the pandemic would make meeting pre-existing SDG targets within the next ten years impossible without additional support.
    • Leaders also linked the pandemic to climate change, and a number of SIDS described the double impact of climate related natural disasters and the pandemic.
    • A number of States pointed out that COVID-19 should accelerate climate change efforts, not distract from them. President of Seychelles, Danny Faure, pointed out that ‘COVID-19 is not the biggest global challenge of our time. Climate change is.’ President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, urged GA to meditate on this statement: ‘the choice is simple but drastic: either we will live together or we will perish together.’
  • Regarding civil and political rights, the main priority issues raised by world leaders included: women’s rights / gender equality; democracy; freedom of religion; and disinformation/misinformation.
    • However, it is important to note that concerns about what could be categorised 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.
  • When referring to economic, social and cultural rights concerns, States raised poverty, health, education, and growing inequalities in numerous areas, as key issues they hoped to address. Health climbed higher in mentions this year than in previous ones, likely due to the pandemic.
  • Regarding country specific human rights violations and situations of concern, States made repeated references to: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories(PTO); Libya; Sahel, Syria; Venezuela; Iran; Libya; Yemen; DPRK; Western Sahara and Afghanistan. Myanmar appeared only a handful of times, as opposed to previous years. Belarus was added as a situation of concern, and States appeared particularly worried about events unfolding in the Sahel in Africa.
  • Looking specifically at those issues and situations raised by the leaders of States that currently hold a seat on the Human Rights Council, they were amongst the relatively small number of dignitaries who chose 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.
  • Among the top human rights issues that were included in the speeches of the high-level representatives of Council members were: COVID-19; the SDGs; climate change; cyber/digital/technology; democracy; inequality; peace and security; poverty; and development.
  • URG’s analysis of the top human rights concerns by regional group gives a sense of the top priorities raised by dignitaries from a specific region.
    • High-level representatives from the African Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: COVID-19; the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda; climate change; democracy; poverty; peace and security; terrorism; health; and the UN Security Council.
    • High-level representatives from the Asia-Pacific Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: COVID-19; climate change; SDGs and development; peace and security; cyber/tech/digital; denuclearisation; terrorism; and poverty.
    • High-level representatives from the Eastern European Group raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: COVID-19; climate change; SDGs; cyber/tech/digital; and international law.
    • High-level representatives from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States raised the following issues related to human rights most often in their speeches: COVID-19; SDGs; climate change; democracy; migrants/refugees; development; health; and poverty.
    • High-level representatives from the Western European and Others Group raised the following issues related in human rights most often in their speeches: COVID-19; SDGs; climate change, women’s rights; cyber/tech/digital; and inequality.


  • Given that the main theme of the General Debate was multilateralism, the vast majority of States explicitly expressed their commitment to multilateralism and the UN Charter, but many also lamented that so many States fell back on isolationist policies in the wake of the pandemic. Others cited concerns about rising tensions between great powers and a leadership vacuum at the global level.
  • Many leaders, particularly from small States and developing States, expressed appreciation to the World Health Organization (WHO), UN system, and donor countries for their support.
    • Leaders from nearly every region called for the future COVID-19 vaccine to be a global public good and universally available.
  • Many developing States, more so than in the last two years, raised the issue of debt, calling for a restructuring, reconsideration, freeze, moratorium or debt forgiveness on the part of donors and international financial institutions to enable developing countries to recover from the human and economic consequences of COVID-19 while getting back on track to achieving the SDGs. States also called for sanctions to be lifted during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • As in previous years, over two dozen states called for the sanctions on Cuba to be lifted.
  • This year, about a dozen States, largely SIDS, called for Taiwan to be able to engage with the UN and international bodies, particularly in light of COVID-19.
  • Speakers repeatedly pointed out that SIDS and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are least responsible for global warming yet are the most vulnerable to its impacts.
  • Beyond the human rights sphere, many State representatives spoke about and expressed support for the UN Secretary-General’s process of UN reform, while saying that additional reform was needed. Most comments focused on Security Council reform, with a number of States citing the Security Council’s failure to respond effectively to atrocity crimes and the pandemic.
  • More States raised the problem of racism than in the last two years, with a few explicitly stating ‘Black Lives Matter’, in reference to the activism and protests that emerged in the United States following the murder of George Floyd by police.
  • While many States expressed support for the Secretary-General’s Call for a Global Ceasefire, the Secretary-General’s Call to Action on Human Rights did not receive recognition.
  • A number of states raised the importance of digital technology, in improving the lives of their citizens and in fulfilling the SDGs. Some States noted that COVID-19 highlighted the value of digital technology, and a few referenced the global digital divide between States and regions, as well as the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. This has been a growing priority for member States over the past two years.
  • Many speakers expressed deep concern about deepening geopolitical tensions and calamities that could dwarf the COVID-19 pandemic. Others voiced the same optimism, 75 years from the founding of the UN, that led to its creation. As President of Micronesia, David Panuelo, said ‘[A] better world is not something we ask for. It is something we build.’

Top human rights-related issues raised at UNGA75

All top thematic issues and country situations of concern (human rights-related or otherwise) raised at UNGA75

Top country specific human rights-related situations raised UNGA75

Top 10 specific economic, social and cultural rights identified at UNGA75

Top 10 specific civil and political rights identified at UNGA75 (many rights in this category were raised very infrequently)

Priorities identified at UNGA75 by member States currently serving on the Human Rights Council

Priorities identified by members of the African Group at UNGA75

Priorities identified by members of the Asia-Pacific Group at UNGA75

Priorities identified by members of the Eastern European Group at UNGA75

Priorities identified by members of the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) at UNGA75


Priorities identified by members of the Western European Group and Others Group (WEOG) at UNGA75

Share this Post