UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on February 24 clearly delineated the growing challenges confronting the international community today. Some of the key points he highlighted are truly relevant to our own society and the times we live in. While the remarks covered global phenomena, there is a need to see the same in local context.
Pointing out that that no country is free from the scourge of misrule, he stated that one could still see civilians trapped in war-torn enclaves, starved and bombarded in clear violation of international law. Guterres categorically stated that women and girls are being enslaved, exploited and abused, denied the opportunity to make the most of their potential.
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The Secretary General also acknowledged that there were growing incidents of civil society activists tossed in jails, religious and ethnic minorities persecuted under broad definitions of national security reinforcing widespread suppression of dissent in recent times. The worst impact of this is being felt by the minorities, indigenous people, migrants, refugees, the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex) or LGBTI community. Guterres’ statement also mentioned the phenomena of journalists being killed or harassed for seeking only to perform their duties.
While taking cognizance of the fact that global hunger is on the rise and youth unemployment at alarming levels, the UN Secretary-General said, “Fears are growing. Divisions are widening. And some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to the breaking point”. He said that a perverse political arithmetic has taken hold and this was aimed at dividing people to garner and multiply votes.
Guterres made it distinctly clear that national sovereignty cannot be a pretext for violating human rights and that there is a need to overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. “Human rights and national sovereignty go hand-in-hand. The promotion of human rights strengthens states and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty”, he said.
While singling out seven areas for call to action, the UN Secretary-General specifically outlined sustainable development, rights in time of crisis, and gender equality and equal rights for women.
Another significant observation he made was how current regimes around the world have pushed back women’s rights given the alarming increase in femicide, attacks on women human rights defenders, and the persistence of laws and policies that perpetuate subjugation and exclusion. “Violence against women and girls is the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse” he said.
Guterres lamented the chronic stagnation in women’s participation in political leadership roles, peace processes and economic inclusion and pointed out that the gaps may vary but the reasons are the same. Taking a reluctant dig at the all pervasive patriarchy, he also stated that for millennia, women have been systematically silenced, marginalized and ignored. Policies and laws have been shaped largely through the experiences of only half of humanity.
Guterres called on all countries to support policies and legislation that promote gender equality, repeal discriminatory laws, end violence against women and girls, ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights, and strive for women’s equal representation and participation in all spheres.