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Address at the Sunrise Initiative, Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights

December 16, 2018       Lower Marine Campus, USP, Suva.

Your Excellencies and members of the Diplomatic Corps

The Representative of the Pacific Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Chitralekha Massey

Reverend James Bhagwan

Mr Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator

Distinguished Speakers/Presenters and Guests

Friends of OHCHR 

Members of the Media

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

Sunrise. It is a beautiful event in and of itself, one that can lure us from a most comfortable, dream-filled sleep and then inspire us to charge forward, determined to make the most of the day ahead. And of course, sunrise is the symbol of beginnings, carrying with it optimism and hope for a better future.  That undoubtedly was one of the goals of the drafters of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights when they took up their task 70 years ago. 

In response to the brutality of the early 20th century, culminating in the evils perpetrated during the Second World War, they endeavoured to create a document that stated unequivocally that ALL human beings are born free and equal, and to enunciate a set of global ethics or principles that would ensure that all people would in the future be protected when their human rights were threatened. 

The Declaration that they imagined and set out to create would allow everyone to hope of better days ahead. The Universal Declaration was, and is, a magnificent achievement.  However, that does not mean that threats to people’s human rights have diminished. Far from it. 

As we, people of the Pacific know only too well, one of the greatest challenges facing us today, which in some parts of the region jeopardizes our very existence, results from the impacts of climate change. 

To state just a few of the obstacles confronting us: 

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report projects For small islands a medium risk of “loss of livelihoods, coastal settlements, infrastructure, ecosystem services and economic stability,” in the near term (2030 - 2040), and a very high risk in the long term (2080 - 2100);

Major climate-related security concerns for the Pacific Islands include:

access to fresh water (due to changes in rainfall patterns and salt-water intrusion);

•       local food supply (damage to coral reefs, declining fisheries, and impacts on agriculture);

and infrastructure damage (through rising sea levels, other flooding, band storm damage).

In the face of such monumental, even existential, challenges, how have we reacted? In many ways – far too many, in fact, to outline here. However, at the top of any list must be Fiji’s presidency of COP23 of the UN Climate Change Convention, which ends in a matter of weeks, when we will pass the baton to Poland. 

As many observers have noted, as the first Small Island Developing State to lead the international community in the fight against climate change, Fiji has set the bar very high.  Our starting point was a refusal to accept that enough is being done to address the urgent need to cap global warming at the most ambitious target of the Paris Agreement – 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age.  Instead, as the president of COP23 and co-chair of the inaugural United Nations Oceans Conference, we have helped build a grand coalition of states, regions, communities, investors and ordinary citizens who are focused on working together to meet the climate challenge. 

We have introduced the talanoa concept, of respectful and inclusive decision-making, into the UN system, and at COP24 we will co-host with Poland a talanoa session between the world’s climate change ministers.  The essence of the talanoa is that it builds empathy and trust by sharing not only the achievements of countries and communities, but also by sharing challenges and initial failures. 

We have all achieved much by trial and error, and by sharing our experiences we build trust and enable a shared pathway together to save our future and that of the next generation. Most importantly, our stories will share journeys taken by people and communities to reduce the harm we do to our environment.  The talanoa stories we have shared this year, have brought people closer to the climate negotiations and discussions. 

Ultimately, the success of the United Nations and of the Universal Declaration depends on our ability to put people first. Now recognized as a world leader on climate change, Fiji will continue to exercise its moral authority to press the world’s nations to redouble their efforts to confront, and defeat, the global warming challenge. 

Of course, we have not travelled alone on this journey. Many nations, organisations and individuals have assisted our COP campaign, with financial, moral and practical support.  Among them is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the last 13 years, OHCHR has assisted Fiji, along with our Pacific neighbours, as we have endeavoured to deliver the promise of the Universal Declaration, a better future, to our people.  OHCHR has worked closely with Fiji at the Human Rights Council and the UN Climate Change Convention to promote better understanding of the human impacts of climate change and to advocate for the integration of human rights in climate action.  OHCHR supported Fiji, as the COP23 president, in organizing the first Presidency event on human rights during the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).   

Here at home, in August OHCHR signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pacific Islands Development Forum, paving the way for greater advocacy for human rights in the region. One focus of this work will be respect for the right to health, specifically mental health. 

Indeed a strong outcome of COP 23 was a request by the COP President, to the Director General of the World Health Organisation, to prepare a report on the health aspects of climate change to the COP 24 Presidency.  Such reports and steps help to build greater coherence within the UN institutions and family. 

Far from being simply an historical document, the Universal Declaration has spearheaded development of the entire international human rights framework, one that continues to respond to the needs of Pacific Islanders today in the face of climate change.  For example, in August this year Fiji acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of them the progeny of the Universal Declaration.  These twin covenants will provide a strong legal framework and guidance to Fiji to further advance the realization of rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, which have been in jeopardy due to climate change.  I am happy to note that these twin Covenants come into force in Fiji today. Congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to make this happen. 

This important step, together with Fiji’s election to the Human Rights Council, are especially  significant in the human rights journey that Fiji has undertaken, because they ensure a close and committed engagement with the human rights world and with multilateralism.  It must also be remembered that there continues to be a close and symbiotic relationship between human rights, the sustainable development goals and climate change. 

By working with us to respond to the climate challenge in a way that promotes and protects the human rights of our people, OHCHR and the entire UN human rights system is both helping the Pacific strive to attain sustainable development that leaves no one behind, while strengthening the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

I began my address with the analogy of the sun so let me conclude with the sun.  The Sun, inspires us and humbles us, because it is a sober reminder of our shared humanity as it selflessly rises every day for all of humanity regardless of geography, our race, the colour of our skin, religion or gender amongst other markers of difference.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights could draw its inspiration from the sun, its rays reaching out to the farthest of humanity beyond our differences and therein lies our shared responsibility.  

We thank you for this support, and look forward with hope and optimism, to the next seven decades of the Universal Declaration. 

May Almighty God bless you all and bless our beloved Nation – Fiji. Thank you and Vinaka Vakalevu.