UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri receives the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award

Acceptance speech by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award 2016 ceremony


UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri receives the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award 2016. Photo: UN Women
UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri receives the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award 2016. Photo: UN Women

President & Executive Director Hausman,

Madam Chair,

Distinguished UNA members,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a dream come true for me to be here to receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award 2016 by the United Nations Association (UNA), in this city made sacred by its commitment to the United Nations, to a shared multicultural world and common responsibility to a sustainable development destiny.

Indeed, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt has been my Shero since I was a little girl in distant Delhi long before the internet age. And when I came into contact with the UN in 1981 she became a real Person of Inspiration as I held my first copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in my hands in Geneva soon after my arrival there as India's representative to the Human Rights Commission.

As the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and through her leadership role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in 1948, she was instrumental in building the confidence of communities, nations and the international community in women’s strategic leadership and their consensus building abilities.  In the midst of a global war and unimagined suffering and upheaval, the drafting committee was heeding the call of the time - planning for peace and preparing to define a global standard by which the rights, freedoms, equality, dignity of and justice for all human beings would be defined and upheld.

What I have always admired and sought to emulate in my humble way is Mrs. Roosevelt’s sensitivity and concern for the vulnerable and underprivileged - leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest first philosophy which the 2030 Agenda now embodies. She was a true believer in the United Nations and its mission of peace and security, human rights promotion and protection, poverty eradication and development and humanitarian action and in the United States of America’s leadership and support to the United Nations' global project and so am I.

During my years working in and at the UN, I have come to believe in the power of ideas to change the world for the better. This is one place where every day transformative ideas can be and are seeded, new ideals courageously aspired to in different fields and the world convened around them for deliberation and action. They take on the form of international conferences, agreements, resolutions and declarations, programmes and initiatives for global public good.  Though not all of them take root and grow branches, nor are all agreements implemented, some do thrive and make the world a better place for all.  It is also the UN's task to see through their implementation and hold Member States accountable. This is the faith in the power of possibility of the UN that I have imbibed from Eleanor Roosevelt along with a very practical result orientation.

I have also learned like her to combine active political mobilization - both as a delegate and as a UN official - with Member States and governments with social justice activism in partnership with civil society, thought leadership and substantive knowledge with eloquent and unrelenting advocacy and movement building. Eleanor's campaigns for women’s and civil rights as well as children’s causes, and her pioneering role as one of the first public figures of the day to embrace the media as a tool for advocacy and change has always influenced me. It is therefore a privilege to have her mantle fall on me through this Award.

Long-live the partnership between the United Nations & the UNA-USA

Another reason I value the Award is because I believe that more than any country in the world the U.S.A. is and should be a pathfinder, moral leader and an essential partner supporting the UN in the fulfillment of its mandates on a variety of critical global issues – human rights, sustainable development, peace and security, humanitarian action, refugees and migration, health, and climate change – to list a few.  U.S.A. Governments have to be influenced at all levels and public opinion built. And UNA-USA championed by Eleanor, has been doing just that over 70 years with distinction including here in San Diego - sharing the UN's mandates, informing, educating, inspiring and mobilizing the public and communicating the work, actions and results so that they realize the big stakes for the U.S.A. in the world and for the world in the U.S.A. It is about inculcating in the great nation and people of the U.S.A. the credo of global citizenship and universal values that this country itself so nobly represents.

Symbolic recognition of global citizenship

The Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award is an enduring symbol of what we must continue to hold as important and essential in daily life – individual and collective dignity and freedom for all.  It is imbued with a strong sense of service to our ideals and our fellow humans, a testament to the woman and her work. It serves as a reminder that, “The world of the future is in our making. Tomorrow is now”[1], and we are global citizens thinking beyond our borders, but acting locally to achieve our global good.

With Mrs. Roosevelt’s example and the impressive and life-changing actions she and others contributed to the realization of the UN in mind, I am deeply appreciative of the honour extended to me, by the San Diego Chapter of the United States - United Nations Association, as the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award 2016.

I look upon this award as a recognition of my long association with the UN 's human rights, development, peace and security, and gender equality ideals and agenda, and my ability to intercede in and shape global norms and standard setting in these areas over 35 years, pushing the frontiers and challenging governments and all other stakeholders to prioritize this and make a difference - as a UN official and as India’s representative to several UN bodies as well as in the field in places like Sri Lanka and Bosnia Herzegovina.

Let me turn now to my journey to this moment: formative years in human rights & and as a gender equality advocate

My feminist mother - a farmer’s daughter, a century ago escaped child marriage and her father sent her away to an orphanage school to educate her and then she went on to the prestigious Elphinstone College in Mumbai to become one of the first postgraduates in her state in India.  She and my equally feminist father brought me and my sisters up to "stand on our own feet", seek "self-realization" in personal, professional and spiritual life - which to my mind is the essence of human rights and gender equality and the empowerment of women as well.  My elder sister Indira, who went on to become the head of India's IRS, was a powerful force, feeding my self-belief - nudging me with positive thinking to seek my dreams and fulfill my potential.

I was taught through my upbringing, education, debating and voracious reading including of Hindu scriptures, the Bible, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo, the modern philosophers Bertrand Russel and H.G. Wells and humanist poets like Tagore, the fundamentals of human rights.  As a girl and young woman I was deeply influenced by the pioneers of the feminist movement - Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir.  It is then that I came to believe that every human being – girl or boy, woman or man - has equal rights to the full development of the capabilities inherent in them, to the freedom to make choices in life and to seize opportunities, the right to a life of security and dignity, free from want, fear and violence of all kinds - physical, emotional and psychological. I also realized that it means standing up for the human rights of others and promoting a culture of respect.

When I joined the Indian Foreign Service as a 21-year old it gave me an enabling environment to flourish. I met and married another very influential feminist in my life - my husband and soulmate Hardeep who has defied the odds of physical separation which our careers imposed, to always be a telepathic and empathetic partner and friend.

We have been blessed in our two daughters, Himayani and Tilottama, who inspire me with their intelligence, talent, love, courage and resilience. My family has always supported my missions, taught me how to nurture sensitive, caring, human rights advocates and feminists and be strong in the face of the many slings and arrows of adversity that life throws in our way as human beings and as women.

In my life and work I have been deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his assertions of Satyagraha or the insistence on Truth - on human rights, equality, dignity of all beings, fundamental freedoms - and Ahimsa or nonviolence and Swami Vivekananda's inspirational exhortations to the youth to "Arise, Awake and Stop not till the Goal is reached".  This has defined my single-minded and indefatigable pursuit to success of whatever I seek to do in and through the UN.

My understanding of human rights comes from India's colonial experience - I was born only a few years after India's independence and grew up on the stories of our freedom struggle and also Mahatma Gandhi's fight against racism.  I also celebrate India's ability to continue to keep its tryst with secular and democratic polity and commitment to social justice.  However, I observed in my own country how whilst we had won freedom from foreign rule and the human right to govern ourselves and become the world's largest democracy we were far from realizing the noble goals of freedom from abject poverty, inequality, discrimination and violence on the basis of gender, caste or class - all of which Mahatma Gandhi described as the worst forms of deprivation of human rights and injustice we had fought against.

I saw so much poverty, hunger and injustice around me and what it did to the enjoyment of other rights that I remain convinced that poverty eradication and economic development along with addressing inequality and social injustice is crucial to enabling people to claim and realize their human rights particularly in developing countries. Good governance, rule of law and the integrity of democratic institutions are essential. Social protection is also an imperative. I do believe and have acted in the belief that all human rights - political, civil, economic, social, must be addressed together, are indivisible and interdependent and everyone irrespective of their gender, age, status, ethnicity, race, disability or location is an equal right holder and entitled to enjoy these rights.

My involvement with the global human rights discourse and policy making began in earnest in 1981 when I became the Human Rights Officer at the Indian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. The Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) had just come into being, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted in 1989) and the Convention against Torture (adopted in 1984) were the two major conventions being negotiated. I was able to engage vigorously in what was then a very sensitive, cultural (child rights) and political (torture) intergovernmental negotiations territory.

I also got deeply engaged in the UN Human Rights Commission, its subcommissions and treaty bodies for consciousness raising, standard setting and monitoring of the issues of minority rights, racism, bonded labour, child labour, indigenous peoples’ rights, fascism and xenophobia, and situations of gross violations of human rights around the world. I believed that the United Nations is the global guardian of human rights upholding universal values that all governments must subscribe to and help their citizens realize.  I also was involved in the discourse relating to the intersection between human rights and development and took part in the negotiations on the Declaration on the Right to Development of individuals, communities and countries.

I was also involved in addressing the ethnic crisis and the resulting human rights situation in Sri Lanka. I supported the passage of a resolution in the Human Rights Sub-commission on minorities drawing attention to the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and when I was posted there for four crucial years from 1984 to 1988, I was involved in humanitarian action and diplomacy leading up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord and the Indian peacekeeping operations thereafter. As the Indian Ambassador accredited to Bosnia from Hungary, I worked closely with the UN SRSG and liaised with the Indian contingent - the largest in the International Police task force involved in peacebuilding.

Although I have dealt with UN related issues for over 35 years, I directly joined the UN 14 years ago through the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as Director of the flagship Division of Trade in Goods, Services and Commodities of UNCTAD and then as Acting Deputy Secretary-General. We worked to create a level playing field for developing countries and equitable multilateral economic, trading, investment, technological and information systems, rules of international relations and for eradication of poverty as a gross violation of human rights and violence.

Other issues I became involved with and am still very much interested in and working on, from a gender equality perspective, are advocacy for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDs), Landlocked - poorest and most disadvantaged countries on the planet - and was instrumental in preparations for the Fourth LDC Conference which adopted the historic 10-Year Istanbul Programme of Action for LDCs development and their early graduation.

The most precious part of my mission in the UN began when I joined UN Women as Assistant Secretary-General and deputy to President Bachelet at the inception and it was nothing short of "a tryst with destiny."  With her and later with Madame Phumzile, we built this only 21st century UN institution from the ground up.  I had the privilege of sculpting its greatest normative achievements to date:

  • CSW 57 focused on ending violence against women (EVAW) and the global plan of implementation – defining the why, what and how of EVAW;
  • CSW 58 reviewed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and provided an assessment and a segue into a twin track approach in the 2030 Agenda – i) a standalone SDG and ii) mainstreaming gender equality and the empowerment of women (GEWE) throughout the agenda;
  • CSW 59 marked the 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action by assessing implementation of the platform - 168 countries including the USA reported - and showed we are all guilty, no one has managed to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women (GEWE), and that slow and uneven progress persists with danger of regression. With the current pace of action, it will take another century to achieve GEWE! Member States therefore committed to full accelerated and effective implementation.
  • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognized and affirmed gender equality as a precondition for the realization of sustainable development and also defined it as a comprehensive, transformative and universal Sustainable Development Goal - SDG 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” with targets on ending all forms of discrimination, violence, harmful practices, valuing, redistributing and provisioning of unpaid care and domestic work of women and girls, equal participation and leadership of women in political public and economic life, women's equal access, ownership and control over productive resources and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive rights. The 2030 Agenda declared that justice for women and girls and their human rights matter because they are half of humanity, and their needs and agency must be prioritized.
  • CW 60 adopted a road map on the gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Gender Equality Compact adopted last year. This must now guide Member States and the UN system to bolster efforts for making the SDGs a reality for all.

One of my major achievements at UN Women has been to turn GEWE from purely a social issue in the minds of governments to one which is to be prioritized and mainstreamed in all key areas - political, social, economic, financial, environmental and in all sectors.

  • To turn the perception of women as vulnerable objects to recognizing the differential impact on and special needs of women and girls of different policies and actions and the importance of tapping their subject-hood, agency and leadership.
  • We also managed to convince the developing countries that GEWE is a universal agenda which they should own - not a Western hothouse plant that would wither in their political and cultural contexts. The G77 at their 50th Anniversary Summit in Bolivia for the first time adopted a Declaration prioritizing GEWE.
  • Through UN Women’s work governments have made GEWE a matter of highest political engagement and an all of government commitment. Witness the convening of the first-ever in history summit on committing to implementation of the Gender Equality Compact in Beijing and the 2030 Agenda on 27 September 2015, convened by UN Women and the President of China with nearly 70 Heads of State / Government from all continents making commitments.

It has also been my privilege to steer UN Women’s engagement with other major intergovernmental processes such as the Rio + 20 Conference where we were able to prioritize GEWE in the three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social.

I worked through the last five conference of the parties (COPs) till COP 21, where the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to ensure that not only is development possible in a sustainable manner which does not further negatively impact our climate and environment, but it can and must also take into account the needs and harness contributions of women and girls.

My work continues on the larger human rights front, prioritizing and mainstreaming GEWE and women's human rights through UN Women’s work with treaty bodies including the CEDAW Committee to engage with Member States, civil society and the private sector to promote the implementation of CEDAW and yoke it to the achievement of SDGs for women and girls. I also engage with the Human Rights Council appointed Special Rapporteurs and mechanisms.

With the women and peace and security agenda, I have led UN Women in brokering historic agreements to place women at the peace table, allowing women a voice and an active role in preventing, mediating, negotiating and building peace. The UN Security Council resolutions 2122 (2013) and 2242 (2015) strengthen women’s roles in the peace process and in the post-conflict situations as well as providing recourse to address the challenges faced by women and girls in such difficult situations.

The High-level Review and Global Study on UN Security Council resolution 1325 20 years after its implementation provided a sound analysis of the persistent challenges and obstacles still faced by women in conflict and post-conflict situations. It was noted in the Global Study that when women participate in peace processes, the probability of peace agreements lasting at least two years increases by 20 per cent, and lasting 15 years by 35 per cent.

Through the work of UN Women, we have encouraged and enlarged the role for female peacekeepers and provide gender-sensitive training to all peacekeepers preparing to deploy to active and post-conflict areas.  Ensuring women’s active participation in the peace process is an imperative for achieving the peaceful and inclusive societies we aspire to as we work to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Also, through the various advocacy campaigns that I have been involved in developing and promoting – Planet 50-50: Step it up for gender equality, HeForShe, UNiTE and the LEAPS Framework on Youth and Gender Equality -  UN Women has sought to educate, involve, give voice to and empower women and girls, men and boys, and youth to encourage and unite with all stakeholders especially non-gender equality advocates as well as convert the unconverted and to raise the profile of the gender equality agenda individually and globally. Guiding and being a part of this work has been tremendous in reminding me of what is at stake and motivating me to press on to make this most important mission possible.

Similarly, I am reminded that to those who have been given much, much is expected. My work as a human rights and gender equality advocate brings with it both challenge and triumph. A challenge which I work to eradicate daily and one of the prevailing injustices of all time is violence against women. This is an injustice I feel deeply about particularly the suffering brought about by violence against women and girls in all its forms. It is the worst violation of human rights and manifestation of male domination and aggression.

I have seen the tragedy and suffering it brings to women and girls among my close relatives and friends, and to those I visit in crisis and violence response centres around the globe.  No one is free from the scourge and the intergenerational impact can be devastating as it perpetuates the cycle of violence and spirals into larger conflict in society.  We are all called upon to lend our voices and actions to end this pandemic which challenges our humanity and brings such heavy costs to society, economy and country.

Just last month on 19 September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly convened a high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, an issue of concern to all of us as global development practitioners and as individuals concerned by the plight of our fellow humans and thinking of the impact such transitions will have on our economies, lives, safety and security. I am also committed to supporting the campaign to fight the growing xenophobia and intolerance of diversity, including as part of the UN Secretary-General’s Together Campaign.

Even within these discussions, I guided UN Women’s work to ensure that the voices, needs and rights of individual women and girls caught up in these life-changing and globally redefining migrations would be taken into consideration. For the past year, UN Women has been the chair of the inter-agency Global Migration Group (GMG) and I have had the responsibility of leading our work on this front to ensure that human rights-based and gender equality-based approaches to migration and refugee policies were incorporated into the migration work undertaken by the group collectively and by the individual agencies. This was also our contribution the New York Declaration, the outcome document of the high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants – providing a much needed gender perspective.

"One Humanity, Shared Responsibility"

I take this opportunity to focus on our call to act for people, planet and prosperity as set out in the global development plan, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. 

As you know, this ambitious plan which places gender equality and the empowerment of women as a central action and objective to the achievement of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) which embody and uphold human rights, needs all of us – governments, civil society, academia, regional organizations, private sector and individuals – wherever we are situated to take action for the greater good.

This event’s theme of "One Humanity, Shared Responsibility" is an apt reminder that for all intents and purposes we have to act in tandem for the greater good.  Whether we are discussing the global dimensions of development such as migration, climate change, peace and security, and safe habitats, or determining within our schools, companies and local government how to distribute limited resources we cannot fail to remember the human element in the larger discourse and we cannot continue with policies and practices which impair, prevent and disrupt the ability of women and girls to contribute effectively and benefit equally.  Statistics consistently demonstrate that the realization of a girl’s right to education results in better informed and educated labour force, improved birth rates and child mortality rates, and a greater likelihood of improved conditions for families and communities.

Empowering women and girls to take their rightful place as coequals in shaping the decisions that impact their lives, families and communities; access to economic and productive resources, including land rights; to determine their sexual and reproductive health and rights; and to live lives free of violence, discrimination and inequality is a must if we are to create the dynamic, inclusive, safe, sustainable and responsible environment where no one is left behind and all can contribute and benefit.

I am reminded of a quote from one of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi - “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man's injustice to woman."[2]  Shared responsibility means fostering and recognizing women's strength, talent and potential and working to establish gender parity in leadership and decision-making at all levels latest by 2030.  This is what Eleanor Roosevelt would have demanded. Eleanor Roosevelt showed her remarkable character and used her strengths to envision and empower humanity. As a visionary, I believe that she would today be an advocate of the new global agenda we have set ourselves as it builds on and furthers the work of the UDHR to lift all humanity.  As we work out how to implement the 2030 Agenda and overcome the challenges, we can draw inspiration from the insight Mrs. Roosevelt provides.

“Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.’”[3]

I agree with her and am encouraged by this award. I pledge to continue to work for the promotion and protection of the human rights of all people, for the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other normative commitments the international community has made with the UN's support.

Finally let me end with an evocative prayer I used to sing as a school girl at Mater Dei Convent in Delhi and which remains so relevant to our troubled world.  It is a feminist take from Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel Prize winning epic poem Geetanjali (refers to Mother Goddess rather than Father God only) and to my world rather than my country.

Into that heaven of freedom Mother mine let my world now awake,

Where the mind is without fear,

Where the head is held high,

Where knowledge is free,

Let my world now awake

Where the World is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,

Where the mind reaches out to the depths of truth,

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,

Towards peace, prosperity and harmony with nature,

Where reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,

Into that heaven of freedom Mother mine let my world now awake.

Thank you.



[1] http://unfoundationblog.org/10-inspiring-eleanor-roosevelt-quotes/

[2] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mahatma_Gandhi

[3] http://unfoundationblog.org/10-inspiring-eleanor-roosevelt-quotes/