I am glad to be present at the opening of these important discussions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a harsh and clear lesson in the universality and indivisibility of all human rights. The pandemic has demonstrated in particular that economic, social and cultural rights are not only fundamental to human dignity – they are essential to every country’s stability and sustainable development. If not taken seriously, we know they can have devastating consequences for people, first and foremost – but we also know that they will also fuel mistrust in State institutions; social unrest; violence; and even conflict.
By further undermining what was already patchy realisation of the rights to health, education, adequate housing and decent work – among others – the pandemic caused the vicious cycles of increasing poverty, and deepening grievances, to spin faster and bite deeper.
It exposed the extent of inequalities across every society. In almost every country and region, it made those inequalities worse. And it laid bare deep global inequities in the current economic and financial architecture.
According to the UN Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance, 60 per cent of workers around the world have lower real incomes than before the pandemic. Yet, the pandemic made it abundantly clear that it was them, and the care economy, that saved us and ensured our basic services. We all know how much we depended on them – but now they have lower incomes than before. There isn’t a display of gratitude there.
We know that women have been hit worst, partly because of their over-representation in sectors, such as tourism, accommodation and food services, which suffered disproportionate impact. According to ILO, women’s employment fell by 4.2% worldwide, compared to a 3% decrease for men.
Inflation – ignited by the pandemic, then exacerbated by the war in Europe – has sent the price of basic foodstuffs skyrocketing to unbearable levels for many families: a silent tragedy.
By the end of 2021, hunger was affecting 828 million people, according to a report by WFP, FAO, IFAD, UNICEF and WHO – an increase of 150 million since the onset of the pandemic. More than four years of progress against poverty has been erased. Instead of ending extreme poverty by 2030, as was planned through the Sustainable Development Agenda, DESA estimates that 600 million people – one in every 14 people in the world – could be living in extreme poverty in 2030.
And yet the real numbers are probably worse.
The routine definition of poverty as earning anything under $1.90 a day fails to grasp the real costs of meeting essential needs. I welcome the focus of Session 3 of this workshop on measuring and eliminating global poverty through a more realistic and human rights-based definition of who, exactly, is poor.
Meanwhile, deepening national debt, and the zig-zags of commodity markets, continue to restrict tightly the fiscal space for national policies to promote broader access to quality education, healthcare and social protection.
And yet, Sustainable Development Goal 10 specifically targets the need to reduce inequalities within and between countries. Its indicators include:
- By 2030, income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population should be higher than the national average.
- Ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action.
- Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality.
This situation is a recipe for social breakdown and conflict – both within and between societies. We urgently need robust and effective corrective measures.
It is time to grasp fully that economic growth on its own will not redress the structural injustices that underlie our failure to achieve progress on the SDGs. We need to dismantle the architecture of inequalities, and rebuild our economies with an architecture that enhances human rights – and therefore facilitates trust in government; sustainable development; and peace.
We need to advance a sound recovery, by building economies that promote people’s rights and well-being.
A human rights economy seeks to redress root causes and structural barriers to equality, justice, and sustainability, by prioritizing investment in economic, social and cultural rights.
It delivers maximum social protection, and quality education and healthcare for all.
Access to justice and rule of law.
Effective climate and environmental action.
Fundamental freedoms, and the broadest possible civic space.
It ensures that business models and economic policies are guided by human rights standards.
It enables an integrated and mission-oriented combination of socio-economic policies that advance each and every SDG goal and target, including in particular by ending discrimination against women and girls, as well as racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities. We know that such discrimination causes cascading society-wide and intergenerational harm.
And by making these investments, a human rights economy also advances a more fair distribution of resources that reduces inequalities within and between countries.
I applaud efforts to ensure more inclusive, networked multilateral decision-making, and to reform the global financial architecture, which by the way was also mentioned in the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report.
Countries should not have to prioritise the fulfilment of conditionalities by international financial institutions or credit rating agencies at the expense of their people’s rights. Human rights must be seen as inherent to countries’ legal frameworks and integral to sound development, peace and the rule of law. I welcome recent proposals for innovative reforms of the global financial architecture, such as Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Bridgetown initiative.
To support countries and societies to build human rights enhancing economies, my Office will strengthen our efforts to provide technical support on economic, social and cultural rights and to mainstream human rights standards, principles and policies across every action by governments and by the United Nations system.
Addressing structural barriers and ensuring the realisation of human rights requires investment in the operational capacity of my Office, so that we can meet the needs and technical cooperation requests that we get from States and partners – particularly on economic, social and cultural rights.
This should include support for the design of more redistributive fiscal policies and efforts to put an end to corruption and illicit financial flows – which we know siphons money away from public spending. It also includes support for participative, inclusive, transparent and accountable budget processes that allow the public and civil society to “follow the money” – bolstering trust in government, and ensuring that policies will be more effective and advance people’s rights.
By way of example, my Office is currently working with the authorities in Kenya and South Africa to enhance human rights budgeting, with an emphasis on social protection.
But we know that a lot more can be done. I count on your support in strengthening the work of my Office and the Human Rights Council in promoting and protecting economic, social and cultural rights.
The 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year is a reminder that we need to ensure the same emphasis on all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development.
I recognize that cultural rights, in particular, have not received sufficient attention. With additional support, my Office would be able to step up much needed work on key aspects of cultural rights, such as the right of everyone to participate in cultural life, the preservation of cultural heritage and the enjoyment of the benefits of scientific progress.
This three-day meeting provides an opportunity to question our current economic models and policies, and to find new ways to advance the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. Looking at the gaps that have been exposed and deepened by the pandemic, I hope that people and planet will unequivocally be at the centre of national and global economies and policies from now on.
We must truly learn from our recent experience: there is absolutely no time to lose.