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UN chief warns pandemic has opened up new fractures in human rights

Introduction by Croakey: Amid the pandemic and widespread political upheaval, a record number of journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2020, and the number singled out for murder in reprisal for their work more than doubled from a year earlier, the global Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported today.

It said the United States, under President Trump, failed to stand up for press freedom at home and abroad, and it issued recommendations to the Biden administration for restoring the US “as a beacon of this vital human right”.

It was a concern echoed this week by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who warned that the coronavirus pandemic has deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as opened up new fractures in human rights.

In his opening address to the new UN Human Rights Council session on Monday, he warned heavy-handed governments had taken advantage of the pandemic to crush dissent and the work of journalists, and that white supremacist hate groups pose a “transnational threat”.

And in a timely alert, given Australia’s battles to regulate Google and Facebook and worryingly weak action on disinformation and misinformation, he urged all UN member states to “place human rights at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of digital technologies”, saying we need “a safe, equitable and open digital future that does not infringe on privacy or dignity”.

Read his full speech below.


António Guterres writes:

Human rights are our bloodline; they connect us to one another, as equals.

Human rights are our lifeline; they are the pathway to resolving tensions and forging lasting peace.

Human rights are on the frontline; they are the building blocks of a world of dignity and opportunity for all – and they are under fire every day.

The Human Rights Council is the global locus for tackling the full range of human rights challenges.

I thank you for that vital work — and welcome the engagement of Member States and civil society.

Vicious circle of violations

One year ago, I came before you to launch a Call to Action for Human Rights.

We named this values-based and dignity-driven appeal “The Highest Aspiration” — drawing from the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.

That phrase is a reminder that securing human rights is both essential and a constant work in progress.

Gains can be easily undone.

Perils can strike in an instant.

Soon after our gathering last year, COVID-19 hit the world without mercy.

The pandemic revealed the interconnectedness of our human family — and of the full spectrum of human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social.

COVID-19 has deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights.

We are seeing a vicious circle of violations.

The lives of hundreds of millions of families have been turned upside down — with lost jobs, mounting debt and steep falls in income.

The disease has taken a disproportionate toll on women, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples.

Progress on gender equality has been set back years.

Extreme poverty is rising for the first time in decades.

Young people are struggling, out of school and often with limited access to technology.

Crushing dissent

The latest moral outrage is the failure to ensure equity in vaccination efforts.

Just ten countries have administered more than 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccine equity affirms human rights.  Vaccine nationalism denies it.

Vaccines must be a global public good, accessible and affordable for all.

The virus is also infecting political and civil rights and further shrinking civic space.

Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalize basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations.

Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists — and even medical professionals — are being detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticizing government pandemic responses — or the lack thereof.

Pandemic-related restrictions are being used to subvert electoral processes, weaken opposition voices and suppress criticism. At times, access to life-saving COVID-19 information has been concealed— while deadly misinformation has been amplified — including by those in power.

The COVID-19 infodemic has raised alarms more generally about the growing reach of digital platforms and the use and abuse of data.

A vast library of information is being assembled about each of us.   Yet we don’t really have the keys to that library.

We don’t know how this information has been collected, by whom or for what purposes.

That data is being used commercially — for advertising, for marketing and for beefing up corporate bottom lines.

Behavior patterns are being commodified and sold like futures contracts.

This has created new business models and entirely new industries that have contributed to an ever-greater concentration of wealth and inequality.

Our data is also being used to shape and manipulate our perceptions, without our ever realizing it.

Governments can exploit that data to control the behavior of their own citizens, violating human rights of individuals or groups.
All of this is not science fiction or a forecast of a 22nd-century dystopia.

It is here and now.  And it requires a serious discussion.

We have developed a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation to find a way forward.

I urge all Member States to place human rights at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of digital technologies.

We need a safe, equitable and open digital future that does not infringe on privacy or dignity.

Our Human Rights Call to Action is a comprehensive framework to advance our most important work — from sustainable development to climate action, from protecting fundamental freedoms to gender equality, the preservation of civic space and ensuring that digital technology is a force for good.

Racism and white supremacy

Today, I come before you with a sense of urgency to do even more to bring our Human Rights Call to Action to life.

I want to focus on two areas where the imperative for action is great — and the scale of the challenge looms large.

First, the blight of racism, discrimination and xenophobia.

And, second, the most pervasive human rights violation of all: gender inequality.

These evils are fed by two of the deepest wells of injustice in our world: the legacy of centuries of colonialism; and the persistence, across the millennia, of patriarchy.

The linkages between racism and gender inequality are also unmistakable. Some of the worst impacts of both are in the overlaps and intersections of discrimination suffered by women from racial and ethnic minority groups.

Stoking the fires of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, violence against some minority Christian communities, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny is nothing new.

It has just become more overt, easier to achieve, and globalized.

When we allow the denigration of any one of us, we set the precedent for the demonization of all of us.

The rot of racism eats away at institutions, social structures and everyday life — sometimes invisibly and insidiously.

I welcome the new awakening in the global fight for racial justice, a surge of resistance against being reduced or ignored — often led by women and young people.

As they have highlighted, we have a long way to go.

I commend the Human Rights Council decision to report on systemic racism, accountability and redress, and responses to peaceful anti-racism protests — and look forward to concrete action.

We must also step up the fight against resurgent neo-Nazism, white supremacy and racially and ethnically motivated terrorism.

The danger of these hate-driven movements is growing by the day.

Let us call them what they are:

White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats.

They are becoming a transnational threat.

These and other groups have exploited the pandemic to boost their ranks through social polarization and political and cultural manipulation.

Today, these extremist movements represent the number one internal security threat in several countries.

Individuals and groups are engaged in a feeding frenzy of hate — fundraising, recruiting and communicating online both at home and overseas, travelling internationally to train together and network their hateful ideologies.

Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago.

We need global coordinated action to defeat this grave and growing danger.

We must also place a special focus on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom are under threat around the world.

Minority communities are part of the richness of our cultural and social fabric.

Just as biodiversity is fundamental to human well-being, the diversity of communities is fundamental to humanity.

Yet we see not only forms of discrimination but also policies of assimilation that seek to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities.

When a minority community’s culture, language or faith are under attack, all of us are diminished.

When authorities cast suspicion on entire groups under the guise of security, all of us are threatened.

These measures are doomed to backfire.

We must continue to push for policies that fully respect human rights and religious, cultural and unique human identity.

And we must simultaneously nurture the conditions for each community to feel that they are fully part of society as a whole.

Burden on women

No human rights scourge is more prevalent than gender inequality.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated entrenched  discrimination against women and girls.

The crisis has a woman’s face.

Most essential frontline workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Most of the increased burden of care in the home is taken on by women.

Violence against women and girls in all forms has skyrocketed, from online abuse to domestic violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation and child marriage.

Women have suffered higher job losses and been pushed into poverty in greater numbers.

This is on top of already fragile socio-economic conditions due to lower incomes, the wage gap, and a lifetime of less access to opportunities, resources and protections.

None of this happened by accident.

It is the result of generations of exclusion.

It comes down to a question of power.

A male-dominated world and a male-dominated culture will yield male-dominated results.

At the same time, the COVID-19 response has highlighted the power and effectiveness of women’s leadership.

The lives of women are perhaps one of the most accurate barometers of the health of society as a whole.

How a society treats half its own population is a significant indicator of how it will treat others.  Our rights are inextricably bound.

This is why, as a proud feminist, I have delivered on my commitment to make gender parity a reality in the leadership of the UN.

And I have made gender equality a leading priority for the Organization as a whole.

This is not just the responsibility of any individual or agency.  If we are to be an inclusive, credible, and effective international Organization, it is the work of everyone.

I am committed to doing much more.

Our Call to Action on Human Rights has a specific emphasis on repealing all discriminatory laws globally.

And on achieving women’s equal right to participation and representation, in every sector and at every level through ambitious actions, including temporary special measures such as quotas.

Realizing this right will benefit all of us.

The opportunity of man-made problems – and I choose these words deliberately – is that they have human-led solutions.

But these solutions can only be found through shared leadership and decision-making and the right to equal participation.

Myanmar travesty

Every corner of the globe is suffering from the sickness of violations of human rights.

Of course there are a number of extremely concerning country situations — some of them very prolonged – and this is where the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms are so vital in raising awareness, protecting people, maintaining dialogue and finding solutions.

I thank the Human Rights Council for your recent and timely focus on a situation where the challenges that I outlined today are dramatically evident — and that is the case of Myanmar.

We see the undermining of democracy, the use of brutal force, arbitrary arrests, repression in all its manifestations.  Restrictions of civic space.  Attacks on civil society.  Serious violations against minorities with no accountability, including what has rightly been called ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population.  The list goes on.

It is all coming together in a perfect storm of upheaval.

Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately.  Release the prisoners.  End the violence.  Respect human rights, and the will of the people expressed in recent elections.

Coups have no place in our modern world.

I welcome the resolution of the Human Rights Council, pledge to implement your request, and express my full support to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.

People around the world are relying on us to secure and protect their rights.

With the pandemic shining a spotlight on human rights, recovery gives us an opportunity to generate momentum for transformation.

Now is the time to reset.  To reshape.  To rebuild.  To recover better, guided by human rights and human dignity for all.

I am convinced it is possible – if we are determined and if we work together.

Thank you.

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