U.N. Chief: ‘National Sovereignty Cannot Be a Pretext for Violating Human Rights’

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Newly sworn-in Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters at UN Headquarters, December 12, 2016 in New York City. Guterres will replace Ban Ki-moon of South Korea on January. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer/Getty

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres underscored the rights of migrants and refugees in remarks to the U.N. Human Rights Council Monday, insisting that national sovereignty has its limits.

“Sovereignty remains a bedrock principle of international relations,” Mr. Guterres declared during his address in Geneva. “But national sovereignty cannot be a pretext for violating human rights.”

“We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty,” he continued. “Human rights and national sovereignty go hand in hand. The promotion of human rights strengthens States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty.”

“Whether robbed of their dignity by war, repression or poverty, or simply dreaming of a better future, they rely on their irreducible rights – and they look to us to help uphold them,” he said, while adding that universal human rights for all – civil, cultural, economic, political and social — “are both the goal and the path.”

Speaking of the rights of migrants and refugees on three separate occasions, the United Nations chief also decried political movements that take advantage of people’s fears of the “other.”

“People are being left behind. Fears are growing. Divisions are widening,” lamented Guterres, who was formerly the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to the breaking point,” he said. “A perverse political arithmetic has taken hold: divide people to multiply votes. The rule of law is being eroded.”

“When we call out the rise of racism, white supremacy and other forms of extremism and issue the first-ever UN system-wide plan of action to combat hate speech, we are upholding human rights,” he insisted.

While declaring that “multilateralism must be more inclusive, more networked, and place human rights at its core,” Mr. Guterres said: “Our enduring challenge is to transform the ambitions of the Universal Declaration into real-world change on the ground.”

Last December, the U.N. Secretary-General made similar pronouncements in an interview with Italian media, insisting on the need for greater openness to migrants.

The number of people who are forcibly displaced is “shocking and harrowing,” he said. “Conflicts have become more complex, and combined with trends such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, and food insecurity, we can unfortunately anticipate that forced displacement and humanitarian needs will continue to increase.”

The way forward involves a move away from nationalism toward a more multilateral international society, he said.

“Contrary to what is often said, we need greater international solidarity and more multilateralism,” Guterres told La Stampa. “We need to work together to address issues of peace and security, to promote sustainable development, to advance human rights, to reduce inequalities and to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

“We need a universal system that respects international law and is organized around strong multilateral institutions. But this multilateralism needs to adapt to the challenges of today and tomorrow,” he added.

In its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations declared that everyone “has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” adding that everyone “has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The U.N. Declaration did not, however, propose a corresponding right to immigrate into any nation or an obligation to receive anyone wishing to enter, which depends on individual nations to determine.

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