United Nations – High-level segment of the Human Rights Council – Speech by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian (Geneva, 24 February 2020)



Seventy-five years ago, we began building a new system of cooperation between states from the ruins of a world which had twice allowed itself to be drawn into the downward spiral of war. The aim wasn’t simply to prevent war from returning by giving the international community a new structure. It was also to put a certain idea of mankind, its dignity and its rights at the heart of our relations. And to give this idea the strength of our collective commitment. Together we’ve succeeded in building an edifice of rights, agreed by everyone and dedicated to everyone. And we created institutions to promote the application of these rights in all circumstances.

Today, as you know, in every region of the world, these achievements are threatened. In crisis zones, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are on the rise, with an unprecedented cost for civilians. The Syria conflict, which has killed at least half a million people since it began, provides us with a further illustration of this through the regime’s explosion of violence against its own people in Idlib. The offensive launched by its allies’ pro-regime forces in December last year has already killed some 400 civilians and displaced nearly a million others. In defiance of international humanitarian law, the strikes deliberately target hospitals, health centres – 70 of which have had to close – schools and shelters. In other crisis theatres there have been many violations of international humanitarian law.

Even outside these war zones, the universality and primacy of human rights are increasingly disputed, occasionally even denied in the name of supposedly higher imperatives. As if merely invoking the sovereignty of states or cultural realities somehow prevented all women and men from belonging to a humanity to which inalienable, imprescriptible rights are attached.

And while these principles are in decline, those who defend them are threatened with increasing regularity, at times physically so. Over the past 20 years, more than 3,500 rights defenders have been killed; there were over 300 in 2019 alone, while 200 others were imprisoned. Since the beginning of January six journalists have died, and 229 of their colleagues are currently behind bars.

Institutions and the very principle of multilateralism are exposed to unprecedented attempts at destabilization. France won’t resign itself to seeing fundamental rights flouted, democracy weakened or multilateralism dismantled. On the contrary, we’ll continue to defend human rights by every means and in every forum where our voice can be heard. This is why France is putting forward its candidacy for the Human Rights Council for the 2021-2023 term. Several priorities will guide our action.

Firstly, the promotion of women’s and girls’ rights.

Fighting for the universality of human rights means this first and foremost, because defending human rights necessarily involves defending women’s rights. I’m repeating this obvious fact because, 25 years after the Beijing Conference, equality between women and men is still far from being achieved, and some rights are in decline – I’m thinking in particular of sexual and reproductive rights. France will continue the work begun to combat violence carried out against women and to ensure genuine equality between women and men, all over the world. From 7 to 10 July, Paris will be hosting the Generation Equality Forum, which will enable us to identify innovative measures to further women’s rights in practice.

Our second priority will be to protect those who, often at risk to their own lives, defend human rights.

I’ve recalled the dangers currently facing those brave women and men of conviction. France will always stand with them on the front line; the French President made this pledge in 2018 during the Human Rights Defenders World Summit. France speaks to everyone – that’s our tradition and our strength. We’ll continue to argue for an end to the degrading treatment and unjustified prosecution they are subject to, and, if necessary, for their release. We did so last year, in particular in the conflict in Ukraine, to secure the release of Oleg Sentsov. We’ll continue to do so for others like Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is being held in Iran.

Finally, protecting the fundamentals of democracy will be our third priority.
Freedom of expression, press freedom, the right to inform and be informed: these are all essential freedoms and rights, all pillars of democratic life. France has played an active role in recent years in offering its protection to journalists threatened in their countries, and it intends to continue doing so. We call on everyone to mobilize to protect those whose exercise of the right to inform makes them targets.

In the framework of the Alliance for Multilateralism, France also champions the International Partnership on Information and Democracy. This initiative, created with Reporters Without Borders, aims to protect citizens’ access to free, plural and reliable information in the face of mass disinformation phenomena, respond to the weakening of professional journalism and denounce the political controls imposed on the media in many countries.

At the Human Rights Council, France will also continue all the other battles essential to the defence of human rights.

We are convinced this is a necessary precondition for restoring social relationships in crisis solution situations, and we’ll continue to fight impunity, especially in Syria. We intend to continue supporting the anti-impunity mechanisms set up by the United Nations, particularly the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, whose evidence-gathering work is essential for preparing future prosecutions against those responsible for the most serious crimes. We’ll also continue working towards a referral to the International Criminal Court. And we’ll ensure that the perpetrators of chemical attacks are prosecuted.

That’s the ambition we’ll be upholding at the Human Rights Council so that we can play our full role there, defend the resources and independence of the Office of the [United Nations] High Commissioner for Human Rights, and fight against the reprisals threatened against those working alongside the United Nations to protect those rights.

Thank you for listening./.

Translation courtesy of the French Embassy in the UK.