U.N. issues ‘call to action’ on human rights

U.N. leaders challenged nations, businesses and citizens to respond to a “call to action” for greater efforts to withstand a rising tide of human rights abuses.

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The U.N. Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva, with its dome painted by Miquel Barceló, one of Spain’s leading contemporary artists (AN/Eric Bridiers)

GENEVA — United Nations leaders challenged nations, businesses and citizens to respond to a “call to action” on Monday for greater efforts around the globe to withstand a rising tide of human rights abuses, violent conflicts and climate change.

The appeal came at the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s usual month-long session at the end of winter that plays host to government leaders, ministers and other high-ranking diplomats and officials.

‘I have come to the Human Rights Council — the fulcrum for international dialogue and cooperation to advance all human rights — to launch a Call for Action,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech to the 47-nation council.

“And I decided to do it now — during the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations — because of the centrality of human rights in all U.N. does, and because human rights are under assault,” he said. “Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom. To ensure equality for women and girls. To advance sustainable development. To prevent conflict, reduce human suffering and build a just and equitable world.”

Guterres outlined a seven-point plan for supporting human rights through sustainable development, crisis prevention, gender equality and equal rights for women, civic participation, consideration for future generations, collective action and new perspectives.

He said the world body will sometimes work “hand-in-hand” with governments and other stakeholders by offering technical support and guidance on international norms and standards. But at other times, he said, U.N. officials will “speak out, identifying both violations and violators” or work more discreetly behind the scenes.

“And the ultimate test is not the headlines we generate or the catharsis of public critique,” said Guterres. “Success must be measured by the yardstick of meaningful change in people’s lives.”

From China to the United States

Guterres took on authoritarianism, entrenched in China’s Communist Party and rising under the U.S. administration’s “America First” policies, along with increasing racism, extremism and White supremacy.

In an apparent reference to nations such as China, he said it would be “a mistake to diminish economic, social and cultural rights.” But he said it would be “equally misguided to think that those rights are sufficient to answer people’s yearning for freedom.”

And with regard to the United States and other countries where nationalism is on the rise, he said, “sovereignty remains a bedrock principle of international relations. But national sovereignty cannot be a pretext for violating human rights. We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and national sovereignty go hand in hand.”

Guterres also spoke out against rising racism, White supremacy and extremism, and lamented that violence against women and girls has become the “world’s most pervasive human rights abuse.”

“When we press for climate action, we are advancing intergenerational justice and promoting human rights,” said Guterres. “When we call out the rise of racism, White supremacy and other forms of extremism and issue the first-ever U.N. system-wide plan of action to combat hate speech, we are upholding human rights.”

Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director, said that in a moment of crisis it is essential for the U.N. secretary-general to show bold leadership on human rights. “Today’s announcement signals a commitment to do just that,” said Belay, an Ethiopian human rights lawyer.

“We hope this will translate to a genuine, effective and coordinated U.N. response to address ongoing human rights crises around the world — from the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the systematic targeting of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and the mass internment of almost 1 million Uighurs in China — and to hold states to account,” he said in a statement.

Louis Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director, welcomed Guterres’ “long-needed” overhaul to his approach to human rights, but urged him to lead by example.

“Guterres’ low-key approach to human rights may have been calculated to avoid conflicts with big powers like the United States, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. But human rights groups and former senior U.N. officials have criticized it for being ineffectual,” Charbonneau, a former journalist, said in a statement.

“The secretary-general’s new initiative contains some excellent ideas,” he said. “The test for any initiative is the implementation. No one is suggesting the secretary-general do everything alone. But he needs to lead by example.”

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