Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
22 September 2020
Greetings. This is a time of crisis and a time to emphasize human rights.
It is time to reconsider the benefits that human rights measures can provide in preventing greater harm, repairing the harm done, and building back better, more resilient systems in the future.
It is a time to reboot our fundamental commitment that regardless of political or economic system, people's human rights should form the basis of policy.
And it is an opportunity to shape coalitions and partnerships that can drive that work – starting now.
COVID-19 is exposing the inadequacy of social, economic and political models. In every region of the world, the pandemic has been charged by profound inequalities and injustices. It is expanding those human rights protection gaps across all of society – amplifying the damage that they do to us all.
Who is being worst affected by COVID-19?
Poor people, who are more likely to live and work in conditions which make it impossible to shield from the virus. Members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, whose rights are already obstructed and denied by multi-dimensional, structural racism. Indigenous peoples. Older people, especially those housed in collective care-homes where the rights and dignity of each individual may not be fully upheld. And all too often, the burden of caring for the sick – and the job-losses linked to the COVID-19 recession – are being borne by women and girls.
In other words, people whose voices are silenced – and whose interests are rarely served by the political and economic processes in their societies – are those who are worst harmed by the medical and social impacts of COVID 19.
But in driving increasing job losses, hunger, the loss of precious educational opportunities and many other development setbacks, this crisis – coupled with the growing climate catastrophe – is multiplying tensions, displacement, and the risk of local and regional conflicts.
COVID-19 is hitting societies at their core. Medically, socially, politically, economically, all of society is hurt.
I see two clear lessons from this pandemic.
One: the harm being done by this virus is powered and amplified by long-term failures to uphold human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.
Two: the fragility of our systems, and our susceptibility to shocks, stems from failure to grasp the need for solidarity, based on the basic human rights of every human being.
We live on one planet. Just as our problems are shared, so must our solutions be devised and carried out. This presents us with a choice.
We can watch, passively, as inequalities soar and grievances deepen; as suffering and hunger drive more and more people into forced displacement; and as xenophobia and the politics of blame and hatred weaken our capacity to effect multilateral, coordinated solutions.
Or we can grasp the need to work together, and build back better paradigms, in which global solidarity is seen as a value in the interests of every State, and progress towards universal health care, universal social protection and other fundamental human rights are seen, not as costs, but as investments in justice for all.
For me, the choice is clear. At this 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations – at a time of global disaster and great challenges – I choose to build on that commitment to fundamental and universal rights, and our experience of common action in the cause of shared goals.
I choose to respond to this pandemic by helping to build societies that ensure a more fair distribution of resources, more responsive and accountable governance, and greater respect for the dignity and rights of all their members.
I believe we share these goals.
A year ago, the UN General Assembly proclaimed a Decade of Action for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, because progress towards its agreed objectives was flagging.
That Decade of Action is even more urgently needed now.
It is clear today that the world has not invested sufficiently in resilience – in the universal human rights which can help to protect individuals and communities from the worst harms.
Our humanitarian colleagues see the results of these failures every day – as we do.
As the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said recently, "Inequality damages everyone. It is a brake on human development and opportunities, and is associated with unfair international relations – but also with economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime and poor physical and mental health."
He called for a New Social Contract, "to ensure economic and social justice and respect for human rights".
All of us here today need to meet this moment by taking a stand in favour of that work of rebuilding societies and economies that uphold the dignity, equality and rights of every person.
Because, as we can now all see, very plainly – this is in everyone's interests.
Because it is the right thing to do.
And because it acknowledges the reality of our shared vulnerability, our shared humanity, and our shared future.
Your deliberations at this Forum can help turn the tide and forge new and effective global partnerships.
Thank you for standing up for human rights.