Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, QC delivered a statement to the 49th regular session on the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on March 2.
“I am honoured to represent the Commonwealth at this eminent Council,” said the secretary-general. “Our family of 54 nations – home to more than 2.5 billion people, 60 per cent of whom are under the age of 30 – is bound by history, tradition and shared values.
“Human rights are enshrined in our charter – both as a central obligation, and as a cornerstone of our wider commitment to peace, democracy and championing the most vulnerable.
“I can say with my hand on my heart, that our devotion to human rights is more than an abstract pledge. It is alive in our work – and our determination for the Commonwealth to be a force for good in the world. Because human rights put people front and centre, compelling us to consider the most vulnerable and focus our efforts on those who are suffering most.”
The secretary-general noted that one year ago, when she addressed the Human Rights Council, she described the pandemic as a human rights emergency.
“This has been borne out directly: in the threat to life, health and livelihoods. And it has been borne out more broadly: in the exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities and inequalities; in new forms of exclusion; and in the intensification of exposure to harm or violence, especially amongst women, girls and marginalised groups.
“The reality is that every kind of global emergency is a human rights emergency. And it follows that human rights must be at the heart both of our immediate response – and at the heart of our long-term efforts to build back better, stronger, fairer and more resilient.”
She affirmed that for the pandemic, it means urgent action to ensure equitable access to vaccines across the world, as the fastest way out of the acute phase of the crisis, and it means long-term support for all nations to build strong, resilient, high quality health services to which everyone has access.
The secretary-general said the focus is at the heart of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed last month between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Health Organization (WHO).
“By working together, we can deliver more for our member states,” she said. “For the climate emergency, it means a commitment to a rights-based response.”
The secretary-general highly commended the Human Rights Council for adopting the resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. “The task now is to follow this with concrete action. In this, you will always find a willing partner in me, and the whole Commonwealth Secretariat.
“And it means we need to scale up our commitment to tackling the ongoing emergency of violence against women and girls. I have called this the hidden pandemic.”
“It is an intolerable fact that one in three women globally will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime – with calls to available helplines increasing five-fold during the pandemic.
“So I invite everybody, within and beyond our family of nations, to join our Commonwealth Says No More Campaign,” she said, explaining that the flagship campaign is a unique platform linking government, business, civil society and citizens, in a bid to end domestic and sexual violence once and for all.
The secretary-general also said that cutting across all of their work – from COVID, to climate change and tackling violence – is a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).