UN Assembly marks fiftieth anniversary of key human rights covenants, ‘bedrock of sound governance’

19 October 2016

With violent extremism on the rise and waves of intolerance and hate targeting minorities, migrants and the most vulnerable, the international community must renew efforts to uphold its human rights treaties, the United Nations General Assembly heard this morning.

“We live in times when people across our world are being denied their most fundamental human rights,” said Peter Thomson, the body’s President, as the Assembly marked the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Warning against greater restrictions on rights and freedoms, he urged Member States to work together to uphold the basics: the right to life, liberty and security; to equality before the law; to gender equality, education and health; to freedom of expression, worship and association; and to freedom from discrimination, torture, slavery and hunger.

In his remarks, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, speaking on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said that half a century ago, the Assembly adopted the two international human rights covenants, “marking the beginning of a global constitution of human rights protection.”

“The adoption galvanized the consensus view that the protection and realization of human rights is fundamental to building resilient, inclusive and peaceful societies,” he added.

According to Mr. Eliasson, the Covenants have inspired international human rights instruments and influenced national constitutions the world over. They have guided national and regional courts and provided a normative foundation for the work of national independent human rights institutions. “They have confirmed a common universal language of human rights – at the heart of which remains the right to life,” continued the Deputy Secretary-General, adding “the abolition of the death penalty has advanced significantly. But we must step up our efforts towards ending this inhumane practice of executions once and for all.”

The deputy UN chief explained that the goal of universal ratification of the Covenants includes the right of petition under their Optional Protocols and their full and effective realization for all people.

“Regrettably,” he lamented, “serious human rights violations remain a huge challenge. And here I think of all human rights – political, civil, economic, social and cultural.”

Elaborating, Mr. Eliasson specifically mentioned: civil liberties protection in fighting terrorism and violent extremism; preventing famine; upholding social protection, even during troubled economic times; respecting religious freedom, tolerance and freedom from discrimination for all, including migrants; shielding everyone from all forms of violence, especially women and children; and creating space for free speech, for free media and for human rights defenders to act without intimidation.

“In a world of widespread suffering, war, poverty and discrimination, the fiftieth anniversary is an appropriate moment to rally around the Covenants’ principles and vision,” he emphasized.

Pointing out how the Covenants remind all that carnage stemming from conflict and blatant disrespect of human rights and humanitarian law is “utterly inexcusable,” he said that they admonish us to “never accept extreme poverty, intolerance, inequality and injustices.”

“More than ever,” Mr. Eliasson added, “we have the knowledge and the tools – and even resources.” Indeed, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda provides a global blueprint to implement the Covenants in a broader and deeper sense. The Covenants, in turn, support stronger accountability of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In parallel, the UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative aims to enhance the UN system’s ability to prevent and respond in a timely fashion to serious human rights violations before they turn into mass atrocities, as has been apparent in so many cases.

Also speaking today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, underlined the importance of the two Covenants and said that they have been a “lifeline” for millions of women, men and children in the last half century.“These are not empty words, but rights. Every State represented in this room has sworn to be accountable to its people in ensuring these rights are respected,” said High Commissioner Zeid in his remarks at the special commemorative event, adding: “They have helped to shape constitutions of many nations represented in this chamber, and they are deeply grounded in your laws.”

He further noted that the Covenants, through the work their respective treaty-monitoring bodies, continue to guide States and also assist individuals seeking remedies for rights violations.

Underscoring the importance of the treaty-body mechanism, Mr. Zeid encouraged all members of the General Assembly to act on the recommendations made by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his report to ensure the bodies can provide the most effective possible support.

The High Commissioner also noted that even 50 years after their establishment, the Covenants continue to bear fruit, as illustrated in the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change that draw deeply from the human rights instruments to end discrimination on any grounds, and to build governance that is grounded in civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

“The fiftieth anniversary of the Covenants must be an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the International Bill of Rights – the great tripod of principle and commitment that is formed by the two Covenants and the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights],” said the UN rights chief, adding: “These texts are the bedrock of sound governance. In them lives the world’s hope for peace.”


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