What are the world’s human rights priorities in 2017 and what to look out for in 2018?

by the URG team Beyond the Council BORRAR, Prevention, Prevention, accountability and justice BORRAR

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

What are the human rights situations and issues that keep world leaders up at night in 2017? What are the human rights priorities of governments for 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 October, where the world’s presidents, prime minsters, foreign ministers and assorted dignitaries meet to pronounce on global developments, crises, and trends.

With that in mind, today the Universal Rights Group NYC launches the first of what will become an 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 72nd session of the GA (GA72) addressed the overall theme: ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.’

The debate, chaired by the incoming President of the GA, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, began on 19th September and ended yesterday afternoon, 25th September 2017. It saw the participation of over 197 high-level dignitaries, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, two kings, two princes, one emir, 69 presidents, 35 prime ministers, eight vice presidents, and 58 ministers.

URG NYC’s detailed analysis of their 196 speeches identified reference to 1,874 human rights-related topics or subjects. When clustered and prioritised (only themes raised by at least four different speakers were included in the final analysis), it was possible to identify around 107 broad themes.

The results of this groundbreaking assessment are presented below via two ‘word clouds,’ one summarising key thematic human rights issues and one relaying the most talked about country-specific human rights situations (i.e. situations of alleged violations). For each, the size of the word reflects the total number of mentions of the given theme or situation.

Key findings from URG NYC’s analysis include:

  • The most widely referenced human rights topic, by States in 2017, was sustainable development / SDGs / 2030 Agenda and human rights. This mirrors an increased focus on the relationship between implementation of the SDGs and implementation of human rights obligations – something the Secretary-General has termed ‘two converging agendas’ – at the Human Rights Council in 2017.
  • Again mirroring developments at the Council, URG’s analysis of speeches at the GA found a strong focus on the prevention of human rights violations and strengthening the UN’s response to emerging crises.
  • Other key human rights issues and priorities for 2017-2018, include: the human rights dimension of climate change, terrorism, extreme poverty, and preventing violent extremism/radicalisation.
  • Turning to ‘groups in focus’ or ‘groups in vulnerable situations,’ in 2017 States drew particular attention to concerns over the rights of migrants and refugees, IDPs, women and young people.  Regarding women’s rights, there was a particular focus on gender equality and violence against women.
  • Turning to civil and political rights themes, issues around ‘discrimination’ were heavily cited by governments. Other important human rights themes included: democracy and good governance; civil society space; and corruption.
  • In terms of economic, social, and cultural rights issues, States highlighted, as an overriding priority, the importance of leveraging human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights and the right to development, in support of the fulfillment of 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 for governments in 2017 include: corruption; the right to education; and the right to health.
  • Regarding country-specific human rights violations and situations of particular concern, States made repeated references to: Myanmar, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and DPRK.
  • Looking at cross-cutting human rights issues, State representatives drew particular attention to improving the delivery of international technical assistance and capacity building to advance domestic human rights resilience, including in the context of conflict prevention. Finally, as was widely covered by the world’s press, there was also a high level of interest in the issue of UN reform, including Human Rights Council reform.


Feature photo: The General Assembly Hall in Advance of General Debate. The view from the podium in the General Assembly Hall from which heads of state and delegations will address the GA during the upcoming general debate. UN Photo/Kim Haughton (17 September 2017). United Nations, New York, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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