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With eyes on Gaza, Ukraine, UN chief launches rights protection pledge

The UN Human Rights Council gathered in Geneva for its 55th session.
UN Photo / Elma Okic
The UN Human Rights Council gathered in Geneva for its 55th session.

With eyes on Gaza, Ukraine, UN chief launches rights protection pledge

Human Rights

An all-out Israeli offensive on Rafah would spell the end for UN-led humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned on Monday, in a wide-ranging call to the international community to fulfil its “primary responsibility” of promoting and protecting human rights everywhere and for everyone.

Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva at the start of its first high-level session of the year, the UN chief insisted that any further extension of Israel’s ground operation in the south of Gaza “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”. 

Rules of war ignored

The top human rights body also heard the UN chief decry how the  “rule of law and the rules of war” were being undermined from Ukraine to Sudan and from Myanmar to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond – a theme echoed by the UN’s top human rights official, Volker Türk, and by the President of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis.

Security Council ‘undermined’

The UN Secretary-General also reiterated his longstanding concerns about the Security Council, which he said was “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,” Mr. Guterres said, as he urged serious reform of the 15-member body’s “composition and working methods”.

In a call for reasoned and long-term solutions to these conflicts and other serious threats to human rights around the world, the UN chief emphasized that the Summit of the Future in September would be the ideal opportunity for Member States “to step up and re-commit to working for peace and security rooted in human rights”. 

Protection pledge

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the 55th session of the Human Rights Council.
UN Photo / Elma Okic
UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the 55th session of the Human Rights Council.

Mr. Guterres also pledged the global body’s system-wide support to all governments in this endeavour, announcing the launch of the United Nations Agenda for Protection, in partnership with the UN human rights office, OHCHR.

“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,” the Secretary-General said. “That is the Protection Pledge of all United Nations bodies: to do their utmost to protect people.”

Disinformation target

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Welcoming the UN chief’s initiative and offering to help advance people’s fundamental rights “in every circumstance, no matter how challenging”, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Türk cautioned that the global body’s work was at serious risk from “continued attempts to undermine the legitimacy and work of the United Nations and other institutions”.

Mr. Türk explained that these attempts “include disinformation that targets UN humanitarian organizations, UN peacekeepers and my Office. The UN has become a lightning rod for manipulative propaganda and a scapegoat for policy failures”. 

This malign influence was “profoundly destructive of the common good, and it callously betrays the many people whose lives rely on it”, insisted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

General Assembly chief’s alert

Echoing warnings that international humanitarian law and even the UN Charter were coming under increasing threat around the world, the head of the UN General Assembly, Mr. Francis, told the Human Rights Council that it was time for all global citizens to “do our part”.

Today, 75 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “humanity’s cherished Magna Carta”  –  conflict and the impact of climate change “including the existential threat of sea-level rise” had left 300 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance, some 114 million of them being refugees and other displaced people, he warned. 

“We must not simply stand by as callous observers lest we be seen as complicit in the expanding web of dehumanization," he said. "We must do our part.”

Highlighting the crisis in the Middle East, the UN General Assembly President said that the suffering of innocent civilians in Gaza had reached an “unbearable tipping point”.

More than 80 per cent of the enclave’s population had been displaced and was now “teetering on the brink of starvation and trapped in the depths of an impending though avoidable public health catastrophe”, Mr. Francis told the forum’s 47 Member States.

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As war continues in Gaza, triggered by Hamas-led attacks that left some 1,200 dead and more than 250 taken hostage on 7 October, “the most vulnerable suffer most”, Mr. Francis continued. “Hostages and their families are living in anguish, women and children are facing desperate and uncertain futures, and innocent civilians are unjustly caught in life threatening crossfire.” 

In the name of humanity

To help the most vulnerable – not only in Gaza but in Haiti, Myanmar, Sudan, the wider Sahel and Yemen – the General Assembly President insisted: “we must not fail the victims – the victims of human rights violations… We must never tolerate or ignore the flagrant disregard for the rights and freedoms our forebearers worked so arduously to define and to codify. Nor should we ignore the systemic impunity with which it is perpetrated.”

Mr. Francis also insisted on the need for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza and for humanitarian corridors to deliver aid to some 1.5 million homeless Palestinians “in the name of humanity”. 

The appeal by the President of the General Assembly came days after receiving a letter from the head of the UN agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, warning of a “monumental disaster” in Gaza and the West Bank amid repeated Israeli calls to dismantle it and the freezing of $450 million in funding by dozens of donors.

“I implore  donor States to uphold and sustain their contributions to the critical funding necessary for UNRWA to discharge its mandated responsibilities to the Palestinians. Even in the midst of the current extraordinary challenges, UNRWA has been and continues to be an indispensable lifeline of support to the Palestinians,” Mr. Francis said.