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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Bachelet calls for stronger support for social protections, free press and public participation in decisions

22 February 2021

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46th session of the Human Rights Council
Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 22 February 2021

President of the General Assembly,
President of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies, Friends,

Last year brought us an exceptionally clear picture of our countries, communities and world.

The pandemic ripped the mask off the deadly realities of discrimination; deep inequalities; and chronic under-funding for essential services and rights, all largely ignored by many policy-makers. It demonstrated how severely the neglect of human rights endangers societies. And it also showed us the profound protective value of human rights-based approaches.

Today, the medical impact of the pandemic is far from over – and its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people have only just begun. The global rise in extreme poverty, accelerating inequalities; setbacks to women's rights and equality; to education and opportunities for children and young people; and to the Sustainable Development Agenda are shocks that could shake the foundations of societies.

We must now urgently act on the clarity of 2020 vision, as we face year two of COVID-19.   

To combat the pandemic, we need to acknowledge and repair the fractures that have undermined the resilience of our societies.

We need to prepare our recovery – because now, as States extend massive efforts to shore up and rebuild, we have the possibility of rebuilding better, more inclusive systems, which address root causes and prepare us to meet the challenges we will certainly face.

This means prioritising the construction or reinforcement of systems to deliver the right to health and the right to social protection – vital investments in social support for all that in many cases have been corroded by decades of austerity.

It means eliminating every form of discrimination – the costly, humiliating, unprincipled and entirely counterproductive systems and stereotypes, which harm health, generate injustice, and prevent women, people from ethnic, religious or caste minorities and many others from contributing to societies in full enjoyment of their rights.

It means encouraging meaningful public participation to build policies that are more effective, because they are grounded in people's realities and needs.

It means marshalling the full operational capacity of every UN body to support States; working in solidarity to uphold good governance, the right to development, democracy, and all other human rights.

Because I think we all realise that the use of force will not end this pandemic. Sending critics to jail will not end this pandemic. Illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms, the overreach of emergency powers and unnecessary or excessive use of force are not just unhelpful and unprincipled. They deter public participation in decision-making, which is the foundation of sound policy-making.

What will end this pandemic – and accelerate a durable and resilient recovery – is the effective application of human rights principles, based on public trust. And to build trust, there must be transparent, accountable and inclusive government, grounded in a free press, effective democratic institutions and the public's meaningful participation in policy.  

I am convinced that every country – as well as the UN and other international partners – should be investing in much stronger support for these essential pillars, as well as for genuinely free and independent civil society organisations.


Over the past year, we have been fortunate to be able to count on the Secretary-General's determined support, and particularly, the Call to Action for Human Rights framework which he presented at this Council a year ago. This has been a remarkably timely roadmap for our work with States and UN partners, highlighting women's equality; a broad, participative civic space; and the rights of young people and future generation.

Over the past year, our Office has engaged with our partners in well over 90 States (to provide detailed, practical and targeted guidance for country response and preparedness policies.

We have developed an extensive body of guidance, human rights indicators and a Checklist for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Socio-Economic Country Responses, to guide the work of UN Country Teams.

We have increased our capacity and support to States on economic recovery strategies, including options to better curb inequalities, and get back on track to meet the SDGs, by expanding the fiscal space.

But this is not just about OHCHR's efforts. I ask Member States to take a clear look at their own record, in terms of the real impact of their efforts to end discrimination, redress inequalities, and ensure that all their people have the freedom to participate fully in decisions.

With despair and suffering escalating in every region, now is the time to bring people real hope that there will be swift, meaningful and positive change.

Thank you.