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Conference: Human Rights and Development

Agence Française de Développement

Keynote by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

10 December 2021

Greetings to all of you, and my thanks to the Agence Française de Développement for putting together this important meeting.

This is a time of escalating inequalities, with dramatic setbacks to achievement of environmental commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals, accompanied by rising conflicts and severe social tensions. We badly need to forge strong new bonds between the full range of stakeholders, in every region, for action that is effective because it is based on shared and tested principles.

Inequalities have fuelled the pandemic – and in turn, the pandemic is driving greater increases in inequalities.

Over 100 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty. More than 2.3 billion people are living in conditions of food insecurity. And within this context of increasing suffering, women; low-income and informal workers; young people; and members of ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples have been the hardest hit. In other words, the pandemic is creating even greater age, gender and racial inequalities.

I am also particularly concerned about the pandemic's devastating impacts on children's rights. After school closures and economic recession, many of the poorest children may never return to education – which could perpetuate generational inequalities for years to come.

Debt is also sharply reducing many countries' ability to act. Globally, over half of least developed and low-income countries are in, or approaching, intense debt distress1 . Factors include unprecedented capital flight; plunging commodity prices; and decreased revenues from taxes, tourism and remittances. We're already seeing that high debt service payments are crowding out investment in rights – such as health, social protection, a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and education – that are essential to sustainable recovery. A recent study2 indicates that social spending reductions are likely in 83 out of 189 countries by 2023 – potentially affecting the human rights of 2.3 billion people.

We need to change the economic approaches that have produced these unbearable social costs, tearing apart the fabric of our societies and amplifying mistrust towards institutions.

We have seen that investing in rights – for example, health, education and social protection – produces strong benefits for the economy and society. It is time to act on that knowledge.

To recover from the biggest development setback in our lifetime, we need  an economy that is people- and planet-centred and which works for everyone.

Human rights law – including gender equality,  the rights to health, education and social protection, and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – They guide us to expand fiscal space by taking action to stem corruption and by emphasising more redistributive and socially fair taxation.

They lead us to abandon chronic underfunding of essential services and prioritise universal health care, social protection, quality education and other human rights.

They lead us to new policies of transparency, accountability, justice and dialogue that broaden the civic space, leading to more free and meaningful participation and unlocking public trust.

This is not just a job for States. The private sector, international finance institutions and all other development actors are essential to advancing this more resilient and For businesses, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, human rights due diligence – all along the supply chain – should be used to address risks generated by global challenges and shape relevant responses.  I take this opportunity to acknowledge France’s Duty of Vigilance law of 24 March 2017 – to date, the most far-reaching legislation to address the need for effective measures to prevent human rights risks throughout supply chains.

I also want to emphasise the need for development banks to direct their financing to support for human rights – including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable  environment – with robust human rights impact assessments. In this context, I commend the Finance in Common initiative – headquartered at the Agence Française de Développement – which groups more than 500 development banks and other stakeholders in an effort to drive principled development projects.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has committed all UN bodies to advance Our Common Agenda, a broad-based framework, anchored in human rights, that will advance human development, and a renewed social contract, in equality and inclusion.  

This is the way ahead – to a world that is more resilient, more fair, more respectful of rights and more equal.


1.  International Monetary Fund. 2021. Fiscal Monitor Database of Country Fiscal Measures in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Washington, DC, July. https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/imf-and-covid19/Fiscal-Policies-Database-in-Response-to-COVID-19