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20th SwissFoundations Symposium
Keynote statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

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2 June 2021

Dr. Richard Brogle,
Dr. Lukas von Orelli,
Ms. Katharina Guggi,
Esteemed members of Swiss Foundations,

I am grateful for the invitation to address this important gathering, considered the largest philanthropy event in Switzerland.

For over a year now, we have been facing challenges we still struggle to fully comprehend.

A devastating virus that has claimed over 3.5 million lives worldwide and kept families and friends apart for months or more. A socio-economic crisis not seen for generations. A health emergency that cannot be met with denial and misinformation. The ultimate revelation of an unacceptable pandemic of inequality and discrimination.

In the midst of so many uncertainties, one thing is clear: rarely have we seen such a powerful demonstration of the value of human rights.

COVID-19 and its impacts have been both feeding off and exacerbating gaps in human rights protection. Those who were already in the most vulnerable situations -- whose voices have been historically and systematically silenced – have suffered the worst impacts.

That includes women and girls, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, LGBTI people, migrants and refugees, people with disabilities, and those deprived of their liberty, among other groups.

Indeed, the pandemic risks reversing hard-won gains in development and gender equality and has pushed us further off track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

It forces a reckoning with injustice, inequalities and entrenched discrimination of every type, as well as environmental degradation and other challenges.

These are issues we badly need to fix.

Every major crisis can be an opening for transformative change. To my mind, COVID-19 has laid bare where changes need to be made and what those changes need to be.

We stand now at a crossroads.

With so many sectors of every nation's economy and society shattered by the multiple and overlapping impacts of the pandemic, rebuilding is urgent. That requires huge investments and gives every society a choice:

To struggle to get back to a so-called normal that actually brought us here in the first place.

To make disorganised, partial efforts that may result in even worse systems than before.

Or, to use the lessons of this crisis to recover better, correcting dysfunctional systems and norms, and leading to better policies and more cohesive, more resilient societies.


To me, there is no question here. What we face is an imperative.

Recovering better is a duty. One that is, in fact, also very doable.

We already have a vaccine against injustice, poverty, inequality, conflict, underdevelopment, and environmental catastrophe. It is a vaccine made up of measures we developed after previous global shocks, including two World Wars, a pandemic and financial crises.

This vaccine is called human rights.

We need to anchor our efforts in human rights, building a new social contract with opportunities for all, as encouraged by the Secretary General in his “Call to Action for Human Rights".

Allow me to outline three main lessons that my Office has learned through our work in the context of the pandemic.

First, as I mentioned earlier today, COVID-19 zeroed in on the social and economic fractures created by gaps in human rights protection. These long-standing failures to eradicate discrimination, address inequalities and prioritize the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights are what have made societies so vulnerable.

The second lesson highlighted by pandemic is the power of human rights-based policies and measures. To make it clear: we must ground COVID-19 response efforts in human rights because human rights-based solutions are effective.

In some countries, we have seen the practical, life-saving relief provided by investments on accessible health care and social protections, shielding people from the worst impacts of the economic and social aftershocks.

The New Social Contract called for by the Secretary-General must tackle the roots of inequality.

And it can do so by combating discrimination, establishing universally accessible services, including quality education, and giving equal opportunities to all.

By prioritizing systems that that realise the right to social protection and health to all, including universal health coverage. Systems that will make us more resilient to the challenges we will undoubtedly still face, including the climate emergency.

By encouraging meaningful public participation in the development of policies that will be more effective because they will be based on the realities and needs of the population.

And I will stress this once again: vaccines against COVID-19 must be distributed as a global public good.

I am concerned to see how historical inequities, both within and between countries, are being repeated in vaccine distribution.

Vaccines must reach everyone; they must be affordable and accessible.

It is evident that we will only be safe when everyone is safe.

However, as we saw, profound inequalities, including in access to health care, have been a serious problem even before the pandemic.

In repairing the damage that has been done, we must recover into just, sustainable and environmentally friendly economies and respect for the human rights of every member of society.

That is the overall meaning of recovering better.

And, finally, the third lesson is that our world will be stronger and more resilient with solidarity and mutual cooperation. Without these international, and multisector bonds, the poorest will be set further back and everyone, to varying degrees, will continue to suffer.

It has become clearer and clearer that an unprecedented crisis requires unprecedented cooperation.

We need the active participation of all sectors of society.

Solidarity is the word we must constantly refer to; it is the fundamental force behind all response and recovery actions.

In that regard, dear friends, I could not stress enough the importance of philanthropy in these times.

Indeed, foundations can play a key role in the worldwide effort to recover better.

By focusing on transformations needed to create long-term positive human rights changes.

And by supporting civil society organizations and human rights defenders in a worrying context of shrinking civic space.

Indeed, the philanthropic community has demonstrated great flexibility and agility, both in terms of the global health response, and also in supporting community-based organizations, keeping them alive in a critical time. Your contribution to maintaining civic space has been invaluable.

Lastly, I invite you to bring a human rights-based approach into your grant-making. This is something that the Human Rights Funders Network, along with other Funders associations, has been striving to implement. Now, more than ever, civil society organizations, activists and the communities most affected by the pandemic should have a say in the prioritization of needs to be addressed and the allocation of grant-making resources.

Dear friends,

With your innovative approaches, foundations can also be key actors in delivering the 2030 global agenda.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, as well as his previous call for enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and the private sector, provide new grounds for public- private partnerships.

I will give you an example: last September 2020, the United Nations Development Programme, the UN Global Compact and the International Chamber of Commerce established the COVID-19 Private Sector Global Facility, bringing together public and private sector partners to help local communities recover better from the pandemic, initially in Colombia, Ghana, the Philippines and Turkey.


Economic, social and cultural rights are essential to human dignity.

COVID-19 has also shown us the essentiality of the 2030 Agenda, which is grounded in human rights.

The effects of decades of underinvestment in public services have been even more explicit now.

The pandemic exploited deficiencies in healthcare, social protection, housing, sanitation, decent work conditions and education systems. It made those deficiencies far worse – shattering entire sectors of the global economy; throwing millions of people into poverty; pushing health-care systems towards breakdown; and depriving millions of children of education. And it demonstrated how badly those human rights protection gaps harm not only the individuals directly affected – but also, more broadly, all of society.

The 2030 Agenda is our blueprint to address these pressing challenges.

Achieving it, especially as we recover from COVID-19, requires social and economic transformations in the direction of greater inclusion and equality, especially gender equality.

In that sense, public investments in these areas are essential for the collective interest and for good governance.

They lay the groundwork for a strong rights-based recovery that puts people at the centre.

Moreover, they are critical to the transition to sustainable development and carbon neutrality, in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.

Dear friends,

This has been a time of human tragedy, with intense economic and social upheaval.

Recovering better from it, as we must, calls for scaling up of cross-sector alliances.

That includes those between us at the UN and you, the philanthropic community.

Let us work together to advance the human rights agenda and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

That is how we can ensure that no one is left behind.

I trust you will join us.

Thank you.