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‘Bedrock of peace’ under attack, Secretary-General warns

Guest content
29 February 2024

Around the world, governments must step up and commit to working for peace and security rooted in human rights. We urgently need a new commitment to all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social, says UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 26 February 2024:

Human rights are the bedrock of peace. Today, both are under attack. We meet at a time of turbulence for our world, for people, and for human rights. First and foremost, conflicts are taking a terrible toll as parties to war trample on human rights and humanitarian law. At the local level and online, many communities are riven with violent rhetoric, discrimination and hate speech. Add to that an information war. A war on the poor. And a war on nature.

All these battles have one thing in common: they are a war on fundamental human rights. And in every case, the path to peace begins with full respect for all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social, and without double standards. Because building a culture of human rights is building a world at peace. I commend the critical contributions of the Human Rights Council towards this goal, through its mandates and mechanisms, and its response to evolving situations.

Our world is becoming less safe by the day. After decades of stable power relations, we are transitioning into an era of multipolarity. This creates new opportunities for leadership and justice on the international stage. But multipolarity without strong multilateral institutions is a recipe for chaos. As Powers compete, tensions rise. The rule of law, and the rules of war, are being undermined.

From Ukraine to Sudan to Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gaza, parties to conflict are turning a blind eye to international law, the Geneva Conventions and even the United Nations Charter. The Security Council is often deadlocked, unable to act on the most significant peace and security issues of our time. The Council’s lack of unity on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on Israel’s military operations in Gaza following the horrific terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October, has severely — perhaps fatally — undermined its authority. The Council needs serious reform to its composition and working methods.

Nothing can justify [Hamas’s] deliberate killing, injuring, torturing and kidnapping of civilians, the use of sexual violence — or the indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israel. But nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. I invoked Article 99 for the first time in my mandate to put the greatest possible pressure on the Council to do everything in its power to end the bloodshed in Gaza and prevent escalation. But it was not enough.

International Humanitarian Law remains under attack. Tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, have been killed in Gaza. Humanitarian aid is still completely insufficient. Rafah is the core of the humanitarian aid operation, and UNRWA is the backbone of that effort.

An all-out Israeli offensive on the city would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there; it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes. I repeat my call for a humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

Around the world, violence is increasing, and conflict-related human rights violations are spreading. International human rights and humanitarian law are clear: All parties must distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times. Attacks on civilians or protected infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.

Attacks where the likelihood of civilian death is disproportionate to the probable military advantage are prohibited. Forced displacement is prohibited. The taking and holding of hostages is prohibited. The use of civilians as human shields is prohibited. Collective punishment is prohibited. The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is prohibited.

And violations by one party do not absolve the other from compliance. We cannot — we must not — become numb to appalling and repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. All allegations of serious violations and abuses demand urgent investigation and accountability. And we are determined to take such action in relation to allegations against our own staff.

The Geneva Conventions, which require the protection of civilians and the humane treatment of people in enemy hands, were not the result of an outbreak of global goodwill. These treaties were agreed because they protect everyone.

Around the world, warring parties claim exemptions, asserting that certain people or situations are uniquely dangerous. But flouting international law only feeds insecurity and results in more bloodshed. Human rights conventions and humanitarian law are based on cold, hard reality: They recognize that terrorizing civilians and depriving them of food, water, and health care is a recipe for endless anger, alienation, extremism and conflict. Today’s warmongers cannot erase the clear lesson of the past. Protecting human rights protects us all.

We urgently need a new commitment to all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social — as they apply to peace and security, backed by serious efforts at implementation and accountability. States have the primary responsibility to protect and promote human rights. To support states in meeting their obligations, I am launching a system-wide United Nations Agenda for Protection, together with the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Under this Agenda, the United Nations, across the full spectrum of our work, will act as one to prevent human rights violations and to identify and respond to them when they take place. That is the Protection Pledge of all United Nations bodies: to do their utmost to protect people.

Around the world, governments must step up and commit to working for peace and security rooted in human rights. The Summit of the Future in September is our opportunity for such a re-commitment. The New Agenda for Peace, to be discussed at the Summit, applies a human rights lens to preventing and ending violence in all its forms.

Building on our Call to Action for Human Rights, it urges an end to reflexive responses to violence, underscoring the need for strategic, comprehensive approaches that address root causes. Successful peace processes, from Colombia to Northern Ireland, demonstrate that the full spectrum of human rights is indispensable to building peace.

The New Agenda for Peace recognizes that security policies that ignore human rights can divide communities, exacerbate inequalities, and drive people towards extremism. It calls for all military engagement to respect human rights and humanitarian law, and to be backed by political and development strategies. It urges security policies centred on people, with the full and equal participation of women, and the strong representation of young people.

It calls for human rights to be at the heart of the governance of new weapons technologies, including artificial intelligence, and seeks the total prohibition of lethal autonomous weapons with the power to kill without human involvement. It affirms that human rights and humanitarian law apply in cyberspace. And it calls for much closer collaboration between the UN’s human rights frameworks, the Security Council and the Peacebuilding Commission — to address violations, and put human rights at the core of peace operations.

The New Agenda for Peace also addresses the links between human rights violations and violence at the community level. From the epidemic of violence against women and girls, to the activities of criminal gangs, to rising antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, the persecution of minority Christian communities, and discrimination against minorities of all kinds, many people do not feel safe in their own communities.

Media workers and human rights defenders are frequently targeted — sometimes as part of a strategy to reduce civic space and silence criticism. Decades of progress on women’s and girls’ rights are being challenged and rolled back — including their fundamental right to education and health care, and their sexual and reproductive rights.

The New Agenda for Peace urges Governments to create space in national security policies for civil society, human rights defenders, and those representing vulnerable and marginalized people. Freedom of the media, freedom of expression and an open, inclusive civic space are essential to peaceful, democratic societies.

It calls for the dismantling and transformation of power structures that discriminate against women and girls; and for concrete steps to secure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation at all levels of decision-making on peace and security. And it presses for young people to be included as participants in decision-making on peace and security events.

We are also setting out ways to tackle online abuses of human rights and support people’s rights to connectivity and privacy online, through our forthcoming code of conduct for information integrity, and a Global Digital Compact. Peaceful communities require an open, secure, accessible digital public space that supports human rights and freedoms.

War is not only waged on the battlefield. Some of today’s economic policies, at both national and global levels, constitute a war on the poor — and on human rights. Many developing economies are still struggling to recover from the double shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Sustainable Development Goals are very far off-track.

The world’s poorest countries are due to pay over $185 billion in debt services costs this year — more than their total public spending on health, education and infrastructure. The absence of a debt lifeline jeopardizes the ability of millions of people to realize their rights to clean drinking water, a nutritious diet, education, health care, and jobs.

The global financial architecture is at the heart of this human rights emergency. It is outdated, dysfunctional and unjust, and it must be reformed to provide long-term, low-cost financing and an effective safety net for all countries in need. We are pushing for an SDG Stimulus of $500 billion annually in affordable long-term finance for developing countries. We are also calling for a new Bretton Woods moment to reshape the global financial architecture in line with today’s reality — not the world of 80 years ago.

The Summit of the Future will consider deep reforms to make global financial frameworks more inclusive, equitable and just, so they can support Governments in prioritizing social spending, sustainable development and climate action, essential to human rights.

Next year’s World Social Summit and International Conference on Financing for Development will focus on ways in which economic policies, including budgets, taxes and subsidies, can reinforce investments in the SDGs and human rights for all.

Our war on nature is a war on the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the world: Indigenous People; rural communities; the marginalized and dispossessed. The crises assaulting our planet — climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution — all have a massive injustice at their core: Those who did least to cause these crises are bearing the brunt of rising hunger and famine, land degradation, forced displacement, contaminated water sources and premature deaths.

The recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council in 2021 and by the General Assembly in 2022 shows that times are changing. Environmental justice and climate justice are rallying cries for ethical, equitable treatment, accountability and human rights.

Climate justice demands that G20 countries lead the progressive phase-out of fossil fuels. It demands that all nationally determined contributions, or national climate plans, align with the 1.5°C upper limit on global heating. It demands an effective carbon price and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

It demands the developed countries meet their finance commitments to developing economies — starting with the $100 billion and doubling adaptation funding by 2025. And it demands that the Loss and Damage Fund is up and running as soon as possible, with significant contributions.

For many countries of the Global South, economic, environmental and climate justice are the defining human rights challenges of our time. The United Nations stands with them in calling on all countries to assume their responsibilities.

Our world is changing at warp speed. The multiplication of conflicts is causing unprecedented suffering. But human rights are a constant. They bring coherence to our search for solutions. And they are fundamental to our hopes for a world at peace.

Four years ago, the United Nations marked its seventy-fifth anniversary with a global survey. Overwhelmingly, people everywhere said they want world leaders to prioritize and deliver human rights. This call was echoed as we marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last December.

This year’s Summit of the Future is our opportunity to answer that demand. To align our global institutions with today’s ever-changing reality. And to embrace the unchanging values of human rights. Together, let’s seize this opportunity to advance peace and human rights for all. Thank you.

Original source: United Nations 

Image credit: Some rights reserved by UN Geneva, flickr creative commons