It is a privilege to be the first British Minister to address the Council since the United Kingdom’s re-election. To serve on the UN Human Rights Council is a great responsibility.
I want to see the UN and its States deliver on our shared obligation to promote and strengthen human rights. We will work in partnership with all those who want to make positive reforms. And we stand ready to call out those responsible for the worst violations and abuses of human rights. To leave no state, no people, “no-one behind”.
The High Commissioner has eloquently identified risks to the human rights system. It is right that we - both states and civil society - must all work tirelessly to uphold universal values. Now is not the time for us to be defensive, but rather to make the positive case for human rights. To celebrate how much we have achieved, and give hope to those whose rights are under threat.
UK priorities at HRC
Our agenda at this session covers some of the most urgent situations.
In Syria, we must not allow our familiarity with the crisis to numb us to the violations and abuses that continue to take place. It is our responsibility to bear witness. And to support UN-led efforts to achieve a lasting political settlement to the crisis. I hope this Council will continue its close scrutiny of Syria and that this will be reflected in strong support for the resolution.
We took decisive action at the Special Session on South Sudan in response to disturbing reports of violations and abuses, including sexual and gender based violence. Now facing a man-made famine, it is imperative that we renew the Commission on Human Rights and strengthen its mandate to cover investigations and ensure individual accountability.
I welcome the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s constructive engagement here. We must give Sri Lanka time to fully implement the October 2015 resolution and post-conflict measures required to embed stability, reconciliation and justice.
Burma’s progress towards democratic transition and the election of a new civilian administration is to be welcomed. However, we have deep concerns about reports of violations committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine by the security forces, as well as the escalation of conflict in Kachin and Shan States. We therefore support a robust resolution at the Council, renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.
Appalling human rights violations continue in North Korea . We must ensure that the perpetrators of systemic human rights violations there are held to account.
Let’s us also not forget the issues that are not on the Council’s agenda, but that demand our attention.
Take modern slavery. Making a difference to people’s lives must be the driver for everything we do. This is why the UK is at the forefront of efforts to tackle Modern Slavery - a personal priority for my Prime Minister, Theresa May. It is a scourge that affects all regions. Our first responsibility is to take decisive action at home. We have strengthened our legislation through the Modern Slavery Act, including tougher penalties for sexual exploitation and forced labour. The UN also has a pivotal role to play in our collective efforts.
Women and Girls
In a similar vein, the UK has placed the promotion of the rights of women and girls at the centre of our domestic and foreign policy. Yesterday, in advance of International Women’s Day, our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson set out a strategy to reinforce UK leadership and action on women’s rights and the empowerment of women and girls internationally.
It is important that we send the strongest message of support to individuals and organisations working to promote and strengthen human rights.
I know from the UK’s own experience how vital civil society is for functioning democracies. It is equally valuable for countries in transition emerging from conflict and instability.
We must make space for civil society. Without their voice, perspectives are too narrow to offer real solutions to the challenges we face. As a politician, I know that the paths we sometimes take are open to questions and criticism. But civil society gives states the oxygen we need to govern well and helps make our institutions accountable. Human rights defenders must be protected from intimidation and reprisals.
Stability, prosperity and human rights
The charge is sometimes levelled, including at the UK, that we prioritise trade over human rights. I do not think it is a case of choosing one over the other. When we engage on trade, we create the space to discuss human rights and governance.
The linkages are obvious. Though important for their own sake, a good record on human rights is also a magnet for foreign direct investment; and FDI often has the effect of reinforcing norms and regulations. Good governance and stability are good for business, and vice versa. You can’t build a modern, “knowledge economy” in a country which stifles freedom of expression. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because this is at the heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
As the UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, I have experienced the power of trade and how it allows us to speak candidly about our partners’ long-term self-interest. For example, in the Philippines, a country with which we have a strong bilateral relationship, and flourishing trade, I strongly urged the government to uphold the rule of law and respect human rights in their battle with illegal drugs.
And it is why I urge the Vietnamese Government to embrace the growing number of bloggers and commentators, and to recognise that public debate does not threaten development and stability: public debate strengthens development and stability.
Despite the many clear challenges we face, we must not lose sight of the fact that the human rights system is having a positive impact. UN Human Rights mechanisms can and do work. As mandates end on Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea this year, credit must go to the support provided by the independent experts and the commitment shown by Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in working with the UN to improve human rights.
The more that we can share these positive developments, the more states will consider it worthwhile engaging with the human rights system. And the more we all engage, the more there will be to celebrate.
The human rights system is only under threat if states choose to weaken it. The UK is more resolved than ever to support the work of this Council. Because the rights and freedoms we enjoy are universal rights to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.