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Quo Vadis Europa summer course
International University Menéndez Pelayo, Santander, Spain


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Keynote by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

28 July 2021

Greetings to all of you, and my thanks to High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell for this invitation.

Foreign policy analysts often suggest that there is some kind of competition between a principled engagement in favour of human rights, and the hard realities of economic, geostrategic or security interests.

But genuine commitment to human rights is clearly key to promoting, not only the interests of the EU, but also global peace, security and stability.

I welcome the EU's commitment to placing human rights at the heart of a strengthened, rules-based multilateralism. As stated in the recent EU Communication on multilateralism, in supporting and promoting democracy and human rights around the world, the EU is a 'natural ally' of the UN.

As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted at the European Parliament last month, we need an inclusive multilateralism, that may be driven by States but which is rooted in open, frequent and genuine interaction with youth, with women, local authorities, the private sector and civil society.

My Office is keen to deepen our relations with the EU, to advance these goals.

Particularly now, at this crucial time in world affairs, I am convinced that grounding our analysis of events in the human rights framework, and adopting a human rights approach to policy, are the two key levers that will build more resilient societies.

For the past 18 months, we have been living through an immensely challenging cascade of crises. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, its multiple social and economic ramifications have been magnified by underlying fractures and weaknesses in our societies. And although in some countries, the medical pandemic appears now to be diminishing, that may be temporary – while other, far-reaching economic and social tidal waves continue.

We need to see clearly the extent of the damage, and we need to grasp what the drivers of these harms have been. We need that clarity because it is absolutely urgent to see and learn the lessons of COVID-19 before our societies are frayed beyond repair. And then we need to rebuild – and rebuild differently.

We need more effective systems, more inclusive institutions, and policies that respect and honour the dignity and rights of every member of society – so that all of us can be stronger, Everyone here has heard the slogan Build Back Better: in some circles, it has become a kind of meaningless chant. But yes, we need to build back. And going back to the old normality is not what any society should wish for, or aim for. We need to do better.

In other words, this is exactly the right time to consider the role of the EU as a promotor of values and democracy in the world. It is, perhaps, a pivotal moment in the history of the world; in the history of Europe; and in the history of human rights.

Warning signs were flashing well before the pandemic began. At a time when unprecedented advances were within reach – in terms of eradicating poverty, dismantling discrimination and ensuring sustainable development within inclusive societies – global challenges to human rights, and to our planet, loomed large.

Large parts of the world were already marked by war, violence and displacement; by discrimination and inequalities of every kind; and by corruption and the abuse of power.

Our environment was being openly and irreparably damaged. Crackdowns on fundamental freedoms were and are shutting down the civic space in numerous societies, often powered by digital surveillance tools. Through its Protect Defenders programme, the EU has extended a lifeline to thousands of activists around the world whose rights are being trampled upon. Protecting civic space and media freedom and upholding the rule of law also inside the EU will be key to the EU's credibility as a global human rights actor.

Xenophobia, racism and religious and ethnic prejudice and hatred had broken out of the dark corners where they had been confined by several decades of human rights progress. Stoked by demagogues who were capitalising on the anxieties of citizens who felt ill-served and disregarded by their governments, we were seeing rising intolerance and hatred, including within the European Union.

All of those human rights challenges were weakening the fabric of society. And when COVID-19 arrived, it raced through these lines of fracture, which continue to accelerate and amplify its harms.

For people in vulnerable situations – who have been disproportionately exposed to contagion and death, to loss of livelihoods, education, essential services and heightened discrimination – every aspect of life has been affected.

We have seen sharply increased maternal mortality. Decreased child innoculations. In 2020, in South Asia alone, disruptions in health services due to the pandemic may have contributed to 228,000 additional child deaths and around 11,000 additional maternal deaths.Children from low-income families have been unable to follow online-only classes and have fallen out of school. Child labour and child trafficking appear to be increasing very significantly. Women have disproportionately lost jobs and seen their care burdens increase. People of African descent or from minority ethnic or religious communities are facing sharply rising hardship and discrimination.

Everywhere we look we see a decline of historic proportions – perhaps as much as a ten-year setback in precious advances towards essential human rights goals. But here is a key point: in many places, we're still not looking for this information.

For example, the majority of policies adopted by States to respond to the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 are surprisingly gender-blind. According to UNDP and UN Women, only about 13 per cent of the policies they surveyed have addressed the specific issues underpinning economic security for women.

To be effective, it is essential that any response to the unprecedented magnitude of what has happened must consider the disproportionate impacts on specific groups. But in many, perhaps most countries, we have no disaggregated data. We cannot see the impacts, and we cannot embed these realities in policy responses. Governments are forcing themselves to act as though their populations are homogenous, regardless of income, geography, economic context or massive social barriers such as systematic discrimination. These data gaps have serious consequences on peoples' lives.

Moreover, COVID-19 is further weakening statistical capacity. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, 9 out of 10 national statistical offices have seen funding cuts due to the pandemic. Seventy-three countries have asked for external support in addressing new data challenges such as remote data collection.

So here is the first point that I hope you will consider: to achieve policy-making that actively addresses the many kinds of damage being done by COVID-19, we need accurate and disaggregated data. In fact, we need that data to intersect the factors and multiple layers of deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination that create vulnerability. What is happening with older Black women? What is happening with Roma children – indeed, Roma children with disabilities, and Roma girls?

I used to make policy; I was the President of my country, as well as a Minister for Defence and Minister for Health. I'm fully aware of the challenges involved in developing human rights indicators. And I'll tell you what is probably happening with those people. For all of them, we have no data, and so there are no policies addressing their specific issues, and they're continuing to be pushed further and further behind.

This isn't good enough. It's harming all of us. We need societies to come together to rebuild a more resilient, cohesive and inclusive social fabric – not one that is more tattered, more fragile and festering with grievances. Our UN Human Rights Office continues to strengthen institutional linkages and collaboration between national human rights institutions andnational statistical systems, to make human rights count for everyone. We also advocate the broadest possible use of human rights indicators for policy, and we have done considerable work to develop relevant and usable tools.

But this is work that requires stronger international support. When my speech today is posted on our website, I'll ask for a link to some resources on that topic to be added, for your review.

Second point: we're seeing that unequal access to vaccines, together with underlying failures by countries to invest in human rights-based protections, are driving the growing prospect of vastly divergent recoveries – both across Europe and across the world.

Again, this is a trend that will not only harm potentially millions of people: it will harm us all. Areas where COVID-19 run rampant will breed increasing numbers of viral variants, until one or several of them escape the vaccine barriers that protect wealthy countries.

Just as climate change cannot be addressed in just one country, so too the pandemic demonstrates that we need coordinated, flexible, multilateral policies. The European Union must use its leverage as a global actor to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines for all.

We need a broader understanding of global public goods – the increasing set of shared concerns on which humanity's well-being and rights depend. We need to demonstrate solidarity, working together to manage shared challenges in ways that fairly distribute burdens and costs. both recognise and act on our common interests, including the universality of human dignity and human rights – because solidarity is in our self-interest.

We also need to more effectively embed long-term thinking into both national and international governance mechanisms, to protect the sustainability of human life and rights in the future, without leaving anyone behind.

Let me discuss some specifics.

We need to help rebuild public trust within societies where marginalization and injustice are dangerously eroding cohesion and stability. This may mean rebuilding the credibility of institutions. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 16, the human rights framework binds States to ensure that institutions are accountable, participatory, inclusive, and provide pathways for everyone to claim their rights.

We need solid systems that effectively deliver access to quality health-care, far-reaching social protections, decent work, clean water, shelter and other fundamental rights that help keep everyone safe.

We need to target and obliterate all instances of discrimination that hold people back and create long-lasting grievances. Fighting discrimination and ensuring respect for diversity in all its forms – gender, ethnicity, culture, belief or migration status – does not drive us apart. It brings us together.

The rights to freedom of speech, information and meaningful scrutiny; the broadest possible civic space; and the ability to peacefully protest are essential to ensuring that institutions adequately respond to the people they should be serving. There is no short-cut for the right to raise your voice and voice your needs and opinions; there is no justification for eroding these fundamental civic freedoms.

Transparency, participation and non-discrimination also need to be embedded in the governance of public resources– particularly in a context such as today's, when shrinking fiscal resources, combined with growing need for social spending, create difficult trade-offs in public decision-making.

The best investment a country can make is to allocate public money to realizing human rights. This may mean pursuing progressive taxation and redirecting resources to marginalized groups to reduce inequalities.

It may very likely mean financing for development, in international solidarity.

It will certainly mean investing in the human right to a healthy environment, in a world that is cleaner and greener, while also building new economic systems that address inequalities, and which are more inclusive and more fair. I encourage the EU and its Member States to support global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment, including by the General Assembly. I also urge the integration of human rights in processes to implement multilateral environmental agreements, such as the UNFCCC and the Biodiversity Convention.

Because what we are facing in 2021 is a turning point: a generational opportunity to depart from models that have generated inequalities and fragility, and steer our world towards a more inclusive future.

Human rights norms are our guide to this future. They build societies that are stronger and safer because they are clear-eyed, respectful and fair.

The past 18 months have amply demonstrated this. We have seen that social protection measures can maintain a functioning economy and save millions of people from long-term social exclusion. They enabled people to stay alive and meet basic rights. That is the essence of the right to social security: loss of income or illness should not lead to destitution.
We must learn from this pandemic that advancing human rights is not only the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do.

I welcome the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020 – 2024), with its increased emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights; more emphasis on the link between human rights and the environment; principled support for democracy; and stronger focus on maximizing the benefits of digital technologies while minimizing their risks.

In a world that is acutely threatened by climate harms, inequalities and polarising divisions, we need to act in unified defence of human rights principles, before those principles are so eroded, attacked and diminished that they give way.

Seventy-five years ago, the creation of the United Nations brought hope to people who had been battered by warfare, genocide, deprivation and exploitation.

Like the European Union, the United Nations was conceived to enable the peaceful settlement of disputes, principled resistance against tyranny, the equality of every individual and a fair distribution of resource benefits.

This vision and this promise are just as important today – and just as effective. They remind us that this continent in particular has faced even worse calamities in the past – and overcome them.

We don't have to stand by and watch rights being eroded. There are alternatives to indifference, passivity and worry. We can speak up for the values of decent, compassionate societies. We can join others to call for better leadership, better laws and greater respect for human dignity. We can all stand up – individually, jointly, locally - to make a global commitment to human rights, ready to withstand any and every global challenge.

Thank you