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Statement to the High Level Segment of the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva

Speeches and statements

Statement to the High Level Segment of the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva

1 March 2017
High Level Segment of the 34th session of the Human Rights Council

Mr. President,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Human Rights Council today. 

Refugee protection and human rights are inextricably linked.  Serious violations of human rights, whether they occur in times of peace or war, can trigger flight.  When human rights cannot be guaranteed, people may be compelled to flee.  When people are desperate and fearful enough to leave their homes and communities behind, often in haste, without documents, and under chaotic circumstances, we know that things have gone seriously awry.  Displacement is an early warning signal and a call for action at many levels.  It “internationalizes” what is happening inside a country, having an impact felt far beyond national borders.  It makes the case – if one still needs to be made – for our collective interest in human rights compliance at the national level, transcending sovereignty.  Listening to what refugees tell us about why they had to flee is an unfortunate lesson in the shadow side of human behaviour.  They show what can happen when a world in disarray is not tempered by the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Sadly, displacement has become commonplace in a world where violent conflicts, weak governance, and growing inequality abound.  Last week, UNHCR issued its Mid-Year Trends report,[1] which attests to this reality.  By the middle of 2016, there were more than 16.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR and 36.4 million people internally displaced around the world.  In the first six months of 2016 alone, 3.2 million people were newly displaced, including 1.5 million who sought protection in another country.  Most came from Syria [where over half of the population is now displaced], Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan.  Those who became refugees fled primarily to countries in their own regions, as we saw in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, Latin America, and Turkey.  Yet, onward movements, notably across the sea to Western Europe and elsewhere, continued to attract the most attention.

Statelessness – another major concern of UNHCR – can also lead to disenfranchisement, which can cause people to flee or may result from flight.  It is often in this sense linked to displacement.  We continue to focus on the goal of eradicating statelessness by 2024, as envisaged in the #IBelong Campaign.[2]  To this end, we hope to see more recommendations to States, through the Universal Periodic Review, to remove discrimination from nationality laws and to accede to the Statelessness Conventions.  We also encourage all relevant Special Rapporteurs, including those with country mandates, to pay close attention to issues of discrimination in the right to a nationality.  We are pleased that a resolution on the right to a nationality was passed at the Human Rights Council in June 2016, and hope that this will serve as the impetus to include stateless minorities in future resolutions on minority rights.

Mr. President,

Against this backdrop, we need to remain steadfast in our pursuit of preventive action and solutions.  The more advances we make in the respect and enjoyment of human rights, the less people will be uprooted and living in exile.  It would be a worthwhile exercise to look at each and every human right through this prism – to examine how the lack of respect for each right leads or could lead to displacement, and how we could address it.  Resolving refugee situations, as well as preventing them from occurring by addressing their underlying causes, hinge on the success of your work in this Council and the human rights system more broadly, both within and outside the UN.  Admittedly, this is a huge task.

For as long as displacement remains a reality, however, and people are unable to return home or settle elsewhere, refugee protection and asylum are not only a life-saving necessity, but in effect “practical politics”.  At the end of the day, it comes down to basic human dignity.  Refugee protection is blind to ideology, creed, and party politics.  It is a deep-rooted humanitarian act of solidarity and compassion towards the other in need.  It is not an act of charity, but is borne out of a simple human instinct, intertwined in our grand moral and religious traditions.  It transcends identity politics to meet each person at the fundamentally human level where it does not matter to which religion you belong or from which country you arrive.

This principle is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and a series of regional refugee instruments.  These are all human rights instruments emanating from the unequivocal “never again” promise brought about by the horrors of the Second World War.  It was also in this spirit that UNHCR was created to advance the protection of a particularly vulnerable group of people who endured a rupture with their country of origin. 

In the decades since then, the international refugee instruments have adjusted with ease to changing circumstances, but their implementation continues to depend upon respectful, open, and compassionate societies devoted to the fundamental worth, inherent dignity, and rights of every human being.  While we do see many heartening expressions of these values today, we also see divisive politics and xenophobia gaining traction and threatening to undermine them.  There are emotional debates, for example, surrounding irregular arrivals whose presence may resonate with atavistic fears of invasion or loss of control, or who provide an easy scapegoat in uncertain times. 

In this connection, functioning rule of law systems are critical, particularly the role played by an independent judicial system within a State structure.  I have found Ronald Dworkin’s comments on the judiciary especially powerful, as they resonate in so many contexts around the world today: “It is crucial to the role … Justices play in our constitutional system that they be free and able to reject popular opinion – to overrule the wishes of the majority in order to protect individual rights.  The individual rights that need protection are often unpopular…”[3]  What Dworkin says applies equally to refugee law.  Majority opinion may not always be favourable to seeing one’s country as a haven for people fleeing persecution and violence, especially where this is presented as unmanageable.  In such situations, the judiciary must serve as the enlightened bulwark against populism, short-term political gains, and emotional public debate.  Its role is to protect the rights of every individual – to rise above the fray and to be the voice of reason.

Mr. President,

The lessons learned from recent experience have not been lost on the international community.  We have seen time and again how violent conflicts and other drivers of displacement have consequences that assume not only regional, but global dimensions.  It has become clear that if we are to overcome isolationism, fragmentation, and toxic public debates, we will need a concerted, comprehensive, and proactive approach to refugee situations.  The universal adoption of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants by UN Member States last September was a clear acknowledgement of this imperative. 

The Global Compact on Refugees envisaged in the New York Declaration will aim to ensure equitable and predictable responsibility-sharing arrangements to address both large-scale movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations.  At its core will lie the principle of international cooperation, which is key to ensuring global stability, building public confidence in our institutions, and bolstering refugee protection. In recognition that prevention is the only real cure, the New York Declaration further contains a clear commitment by States to address the root causes of displacement and to find solutions not only for individuals, but also for whole communities.  It stresses the importance of crisis prevention and peaceful conflict resolution, which require better coordination between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors, as well as ensuring the centrality of the rule of law and human rights. 

I foresee many opportunities where, working together, we can leverage human rights systems in advancing the commitments set out in the New York Declaration, and in the development of a “culture of prevention” envisioned by the Secretary-General.  There must be ways to prevent and remedy the human rights violations that lead to or exacerbate situations of displacement.  National and international institutions will need to be strengthened to guarantee the rule of law, promote inclusive governance, and ensure respect for human rights, including for future generations.  We look forward to working with the Human Rights Council and the various human rights mechanisms in bringing the fundamental values that the New York Declaration embodies to life.

Thank you.


[1] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, 2016, available at:

[2] See

[3] See Ronald Dworkin, The Temptation of Elena Kagan, The New York Review of Books, 19 August 2010, available at