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High-Level Side Event: Participation, Human Rights and the Governance Challenge Ahead

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

75th session of the UN General Assembly

25 September 2020

Excellencies, friends.

In this very unusual General Assembly – the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, at a time of global pandemic and deepening economic crisis - we are reminded that the core purpose of the United Nations is to support governance in the interests of all States and all Peoples, in accordance with the Charter and human rights.

Only the most skillful governance – domestically and multilaterally – can succeed in addressing the challenges that the world and every nation now face. The Secretary-General’s opening remarks have placed “participation” at the very heart of this governance challenge. Participation is a human right that crosses my Office’s mandate. Protecting and respecting the right to participation is a legal obligation for every Member State. But it is also a major asset to governments, even if not always recognized as such.

To be “meaningful and effective” participation must not be merely formal or tokenistic; it must have an actual impact on decisions; and be timely and sustained. And, crucially, participation must be inclusive, extending participation most especially to marginalized and vulnerable groups.

Let me share five messages.

First, participation is an essential principle of governance. As a former head of government, I recognize that it may be challenging to embrace multiple, and critical, voices. But participation ensures better policies and outcomes. It allows grievances to be aired and understood – helping to heal wounds and undo injustices. It empowers communities and facilitates compromises and partnerships. It guarantees communities a place throughout policy formulation, planning, implementation, and oversight. It builds trust.

Second, participation is key to achieving the core purposes of the United Nations. It is central to sustainable development, and to prevention of conflict and human rights violations, reducing tensions and increasing resilience. Participation is intrinsic to securing the core “Leave No One Behind” principle of Agenda 2030. minorities, the very poor and many others – have a right to participate in shaping the decisions that affect all our lives; and when they do, their communities and all of society benefit. Participation is central to the struggle to realize economic, social and cultural rights and combat the inequalities that are root causes of today’s crises of governance.

My third message is that not only is participation itself a human right, it also supports and is dependent on other rights that are collectively essential to effective governance, development and peace. Participation is anchored by freedoms of expression, association and the right to peaceful assembly. Participation is at the heart of the right to non-discrimination which is central to overcoming the inequality and failure to realize economic, social and cultural rights that are root causes of today’s governance crises.

Fourth, when people are prevented from participating in shaping decisions that affect them, the consequences for governance can be severe.

In every region, we see indigenous peoples and marginalised ethnic and religious minorities excluded from decisions about the economy, about the provision of vital services to which they have a right, and about systems of justice and policing. This locks them into to generational cycles of poor services, poor-quality jobs, inadequate justice systems and policing that is repressive and punitive – generating deepening grievances, and harming all of society.

When youth participation – in person or online – is not recognized and translated into policy decisions that address youth unemployment, in some cases of 30% or more, this deepens broader fractures in a country’s social, economic, and political spheres.

When women and girls are excluded from meaningfully participating in national politics, the boardrooms of companies, community leadership or every other form of decision-making about society, we see economies, development and peace suffer.

From COVID-19 to climate change, our societies face an ultimatum: we must transform our economies and the provision of essential services. And successful transformation can only be achieved with the meaningful participation of the people whose lives will be affected.

This brings me to my fifth and final message: strengthening participation is a concern of deep global urgency. Our world is at a governance cross-roads. The pandemic has zeroed in on, exposed and found fuel in the inequalities that result from weak governance of development, climate change and peace and security. The continued surge of protest movements across the world reflects these socio-economic and political crises – and inadequate prior opportunities for participation. No government can afford to ignore these powerful demands for change.

I draw your attention to the long-standing work by my Office and many other UN entities to support participation. We have issued guidance on participation in public affairs, as well as online and with respect to new technologies, and in the context of COVID-19. I also commend the role of national human rights institutions and the deeply valuable contributions of hundreds of thousands of civil society groups.

Above all, I appeal to heads of government to strengthen meaningful and effective participation, which is such an essential part of overcoming the governance challenge that we all face.

Thank you.