Human rights analysis of high-level speeches during the general debate of the UN General Assembly
Every autumn, leaders from around the world come together in New York for the UN General Assembly (GA) general debate. This gathering brings together Heads of State, Heads of Government, Foreign Affairs Ministers, and other dignitaries to address global issues and their impact on their countries and provide suggestions for the international community’s response.
The theme of the 77th session of the GA general debate held in September 2022 was “a watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges,” pursuant to GA resolution 58/126. During the general debate, leaders are usually allotted 15 minutes each for their high-level speeches, although this is more of a suggestion than a strict rule. These speeches offer valuable insights into the priorities and concerns of world governments and leaders for the upcoming year, including in the realm of human rights. They provide information on which topics were prioritised in 2021 and what will be focused on in the coming months.
URG conducted a human rights analysis of a sample group of 97 speeches delivered at the 77th session of the UN GA general debate, selected from a total of 193 speeches. The analysis aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the current priorities and concerns in the field of human rights. Due care was taken to ensure a representative sample, with countries selected from all United Nations regional groups.
The general debate of the 77th session of the GA, chaired by the President Csaba Kőrösi from Hungary, took place from September 20th to 26th, 2022. 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 23 of the speakers were women which however represents an increase of 28% from the number of women who spoke last year.
URG analysed 97 high-level speeches delivered by member States during the UN General Assembly (GA) general debate, identifying over 5,000 references to 83 human rights-related topics. By clustering and prioritising the themes raised by at least five different speakers, URG was able to identify key themes and issues of concern.
URG created “word clouds” to summarise the human rights issues discussed during the general debate of the 77th session of the GA. The size of each word in the cloud reflects the total number of mentions of a particular theme or situation. The word clouds include a summary of the top human rights issues, a breakdown of all the top thematic issues and country situations of concern, and an overview of the most talked-about country-specific human rights situations. Additionally, URG analysed the top economic, social, and cultural rights issues discussed and the top civil and political rights issues raised by States.
URG also created word clouds for the top human rights priorities of Member States serving on the Human Rights Council and each regional group of States. These word clouds provide insight into the priorities and concerns of world leaders in the field of human rights, helping to inform the international community’s response.
Top human rights issues raised at UNGA77
- The war in Ukraine caused by Russia’s invasion in February 2022 was by far the most frequently referenced issue by States during the general debate. Leaders called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and expressed their concern over the loss of life and its global repercussions, such as the food and energy crisis, displacement, nuclear safety, inflation, and shortages. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz denounced that ‘there is no justification whatsoever for Russia’s war of occupation against Ukraine’ while Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, proposed the creation of a ‘delegation or caucus of Heads of State and Government, that would encourage and accompany the efforts by the Secretary General to promote peaceful and trust-building measures between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.’ The Vice-President of South Sudan, Hussein Abdelbagi Akol Agany, called on ‘Russia and Ukraine to cease all forms of hostilities and resolve the dispute through diplomatic and constructive dialogue.’ References to Ukraine/Russia were often accompanied by mentions of multilateralism, peace and security, international human rights law, sovereignty and non-interference, and the UN Charter. Ghanian President President Akufo-Addo pointed at the economic impact of the war, stating that ‘every bullet, every bomb, every shell that hits a target in Ukraine, hits our pockets and our economies in Africa.’
- Ukraine/Russia came as the top concern for Eastern European and Western European and Other States and was the second most referenced theme among Latin American and Caribbean States (topped only by the Agenda 2030/sustainable development). It was also the fifth and eighth most mentioned issue by Asia-Pacific and African States, respectively.
- The President of the General Assembly echoed such concerns, drawing attention as well to the fact that the war in Ukraine is ‘one of nearly 30 armed conflicts worldwide,’ none of which are improving.
- The President of the General Assembly also highlighted these concerns, drawing attention to the fact that the conflict in Ukraine is one of nearly 30 armed conflicts worldwide, none of which are improving.
- The COVID-19 pandemic was once again one of the most frequently discussed topics during the general debate of the 77th session of the GA. World leaders spoke about the human and economic impacts of the pandemic, and how it relates to other human rights issues such as inequalities, international solidarity, health, education, the Agenda 2030, and climate change.
- Speakers from all regions emphasised the need for global cooperation and solidarity to ensure that no one is left behind in the pandemic recovery efforts. They also pointed out the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on social, economic, and cultural rights.
- Many states emphasised the need to tackle climate change and address societal rights gaps, such as access to health services and socioeconomic inequalities to ‘build back better.’
- The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighted by several States as a significant obstacle to achieving the pre-existing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the next decade. The President of the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, made a call to the world to declare a total war against climate change, which he referred to as ‘this century’s greatest challenge – the climate change monster.’
- Conflict/insecurity tied with COVID-19 as the second most referred to term by States. These themes were often brought up in relation to their links with other issues such as peace and security, multilateralism, cooperation, and international law.
- Trailing closely behind COVID-19 and conflict/insecurity was a set of three intertwined themes: climate change, the right to food, and the 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 this has gradually expanded to include other States from all regions.
- Leaders linked the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change and several SIDS highlighted the dual impact of both climate-related natural disasters and the pandemic. They called for comprehensive loss and damage funding to address the unequal impact of climate change on developing countries.
- States emphasised that the COVID-19 pandemic should not detract from efforts to address climate change. President of Palau, Gustav N. Aitaro, pointed out that climate change-related catastrophes represent the unfortunate ‘new normal for many in Small Island Developing States.’
Top civil and political rights issues discussed at UNGA77
- Regarding civil and political rights, the main priority issues raised by world leaders included: terrorism/extremism/radicalisation; democracy; and the rule of law/governance.
- Terrorism was a frequently mentioned topic by African States, with several leaders highlighting its spread throughout the continent. Togo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Dussey, declared that Africa ‘has become a sanctuary for terrorist groups,’ while the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, stated that terrorism ‘has spared no continent’ and called for collective action to eradicate it.
- Democracy was a commonly discussed theme across all regional groups, notably among Latin America and Caribbean States. Chilean President Gabriel Boric was among those who emphasised the importance of democracy, calling for inclusive participation and dialogue to resolve inequalities and injustices.
- Issues related to the rule of law and governance were frequently mentioned by leaders from all regions, especially from Africa and Asia-Pacific. The rule of law was often cited in connection to the war in Ukraine and other global conflicts. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio emphasised the importance of countries being ‘under the rule of law, not the rule by force.’ The rule of law was also linked to UN reform, with some leaders questioning Russia’s membership in the Security Council.
Top economic, social, and cultural rights issues discussed at UNGA77
- When referring to economic, social and cultural rights concerns, States mostly raised the right to food/hunger, as well as the Agenda 2030 and sustainable development. Health, education, and growing inequalities in areas such as vaccines and poverty were also addressed. Mentions of the right to food increased compared to previous years, as States drew attention to the global food crisis exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and disruptions in supply chains. Economic, social, and cultural rights were also approached from their intersection with other human rights issues, especially in relation to climate change. President Wavel Ramkalawan of Seychelles pointed that ‘food and energy security must be apprehended within the context of climate change,’ and advocated for sustainable alternatives to address food insecurity. The Agenda 2030 and sustainable development were consistently mentioned by states from all regions, with African states being particularly vocal. President William Samoei Ruto of Kenya called for bottom-up approaches to ‘build back better,’ including the marginalised working classes.
Top country-specific human rights-related situations raised UNGA77
- Regarding country specific human rights violations and situations of concern, the most frequently referenced countries by world leaders were Ukraine/Russia, followed by Israel/Palestine, Armenia/Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), Sahel, Afghanistan, China/Hong Kong/Xinjiang, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran. Mention of other country-specific situations, such as Myanmar/Rohingya, Yemen, or Libya, decreased compared to previous years. Overall, Eastern European States made the most references to country-specific situations, followed by Western European and Other States, while Latin American and Caribbean States made the least references to country concerns.
- Looking specifically at those issues and situations raised by the leaders of the 47 States that held a seat on the Human Rights Council as of autumn 2022, Ukraine/Russia was once again the main theme, followed distantly by the right to food. Members of the Human Rights Council were responsible for approximately half of the overall references made to the Council. Paraguay and Maldives were among the States that made the most references to the Council, emphasising the importance of multilateralism and international solidarity in achieving full respect for human rights. However, there was a concerning trend regarding the visibility, standing, and credibility of the body, as many Council Member States failed to mention the Council at all, and across all 47 Council Members, the UN’s main human rights forum was not among the top 25 most frequently raised topics.
- In addition to Ukraine/Russia, the main human rights issues highlighted by the high-level representatives of Human Rights Council Member States included the right to food; conflict and insecurity; COVID-19; climate change; sovereignty/non-interference; human rights; Armenia/Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh); the Agenda 2030/SDGs/sustainable development; and vulnerable and marginalised groups.
Top human rights concerns by regional group
- URG’s analysis of the top human rights concerns by regional group provides a glimpse of the most frequently raised priorities by dignitaries from a specific region.
- Representatives from the African Group frequently mentioned the following human rights issues in their speeches: COVID-19; conflict/insecurity; climate change; the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda; terrorism and violent extremism; the right to food; vulnerable/marginalised groups; Ukraine/Russia; the right to education; and the right to health.
- Representatives from the Asia-Pacific Group often raised the following human rights concerns: climate change; COVID-19; the right to food; Agenda 2030/SDGs and development; Ukraine/Russia; conflict/insecurity; multilateralism/international cooperation; sovereignty/non-interference; peace and security; and cyber/tech/digital.
- Representatives from the Eastern European Group talked about the following human rights topics: Ukraine/Russia; sovereignty/non-interference; Armenia/Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh); the right to food; human rights; conflict/insecurity; cyber/tech/digital; the UN Charter; international law; and climate change.
- Representatives from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States often raised the following issues related to human rights in their speeches: Agenda 2030/SDGs and development; Ukraine/Russia; climate change; COVID-19; conflict/insecurity; democracy; vulnerable/marginalised groups; Venezuela; the right to food; and poverty.
- Representatives from the Western European and Others Group frequently mentioned the following human rights concerns in their speeches: Ukraine/Russia; conflict/insecurity; the right to food; sovereignty/non-interference; climate change; COVID-19; the UN Charter; vulnerable/marginalised groups; equality/inequality; and human rights.
Priorities identified by members of the Asia-Pacific Group at UNGA77
 Out of a total of 193 speeches.
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