UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday once again added his voice to international condemnation of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, telling the Human Rights Council that it had “triggered the most massive violations of human rights we are living today”.
Speaking only days since a large majority of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, the UN chief stressed that Russia’s decision to go to war against its neighbour on 24 February 2022 had unleashed “widespread death, destruction and displacement”.
Also present at the opening of the 52nd session of the Geneva-based Council, the President of the UN General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, issued a stark warning that Russia’s actions had “effectively paralyzed” the Security Council in New York, the primary international forum tasked with maintaining peace and security.
The Security Council, like the General Assembly, was at a crossroads, he said.
Many countries are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 70 countries are in debt distress amid a global cost of living crisis, Mr. Kőrösi continued, with women and girls “systematically marginalized” in many countries.
Amid such “unprecedented…interlocking” crises, the General Assembly President said that nothing less than a fundamental shift in the global response was needed, especially on tackling climate change, which is already an existential threat for many communities.
Confirmed abuses in Ukraine
In addition to “terrible suffering” caused by repeated shelling of Ukrainian cities and key infrastructure, Mr. Guterres added that dozens of cases of conflict-related sexual violence against men, women and girls, had been documented in Ukraine in the last year.
“Serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law against prisoners of war and hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions of civilians” have been uncovered in the past 12 months, the UN Secretary-General told Human Rights Council Member States, as they gathered for an unprecedented marathon near six-week session in Geneva.
As part of the Human Rights Council’s scheduled work, its 47 Member States will hear an update from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine on 20 March.
The probe was set up in March last year, after Member States adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression. The work of the three Commissioners complements that of the existing UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), which gathers together testimonies of possible war crimes, among other tasks.
Highlighting the enduring value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted 75 years ago by the international community after the Second World War to avoid a repeat of that catastrophe – Mr. Guterres warned that although it should be humanity’s common blueprint, some governments “use it as a wrecking ball”.
Leading a call to “stand on the right side of history”, the UN chief insisted that now was the time “to stand up for the human rights of everyone, everywhere”. All of us should “revitalize” the Universal Declaration which sets out everyone’s right “to life, liberty and security; to equality before the law; to freedom of expression; to seek asylum; to work, to healthcare and education”, he said.
Linking a century of progress on human rights to “remarkable leaps” in human development, Mr. Guterres noted that in 1900, 80 per cent of people around the world lived in poverty, but that figure had fallen to less than 10 per cent by 2015.
And although the average lifespan in the last 100 years ago has increased from 32 years to more than 70, the UN chief warned that numerous 21st century challenges confront us today.
“Extreme poverty and hunger are rising for the first time in decades. Nearly half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, live in climate hotspots…Just yesterday, yet another horrific shipwreck in the Mediterranean claimed the lives of scores of people seeking a better future for themselves and their children,” the UN Secretary-General said, as he warned that antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, the persecution of Christians, racism and white supremacist ideology were all “on the march”.
UN rights chief’s call to nations
Echoing the Secretary-General’s strong appeal to all nations to stand by the Universal Declaration, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk insisted that people’s fundamental rights are far better understood today than ever.
Nonetheless, “oppression…can return, in various disguises”, the UN rights chief continued, as he pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as representative of “old destructive wars of aggression from a bygone era with worldwide consequences”.
Modern-day opportunities provided by digital innovation should be harnessed “to tackle our biggest challenges: poverty, climate change, and inequality, Mr. Türk insisted. “If there was ever a moment to revitalise the hope of human rights for every person, it is now.”
The very survival of humankind “depends on finding our way back to that common language”, the UN rights chief continued, as he urged Member States “to address your people’s rights to freedom from want and to freedom from fear on an equal footing”.
In a call for global solidarity and underscoring the Secretary-General’s observation that the Universal Declaration reflected the wisdom expressed in ancient texts, including the Hindu Vedas, the Ancient Chinese Analects of Confucius, the Bible and the Koran, High Commissioner Türk insisted that it “not only voices ancient wisdoms from all cultures but will ensure our survival”.