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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Social Forum 2021 “Good practices, success stories, lessons learned and challenges in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic, with a special focus on international cooperation and solidarity, and from a human rights perspective”

11 October 2021

Opening statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

Geneva, 11 October 2021

Distinguished participants,

I am pleased to address this Social Forum.

For the past 18 months, we have been struggling with a crisis that no country was prepared for. And one that no country can respond to alone.

COVID-19 has certainly put to rest any doubts about how interconnected our lives are – as well as our rights. From the outset, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the existing reality of diverse and numerous human rights gaps.

It has shown us both how far we can go together – and how deep we can sink alone.

Nowhere is this more visible now than with the case of vaccine injustice – and people’s rights to life and health, to development and to share in the benefits of scientific progress.

The pace at which we gained scientific knowledge has been extraordinary, and countless lives have been saved. By August 2021, almost 5 billion vaccine doses had been administered, reaching almost 40% of the world population with at least one.

But the vaccine gap between rich and poor is a stark example of the severity of existing inequalities. More than 80% of the doses administered globally had gone to high- and upper-middle income countries, even though they account for less than half of the world’s population.

The lack of access to vaccines and medicines puts millions of lives in developing countries in immediate danger. It also poses a threat to people everywhere, as mutating forms of the virus may emerge among largely unvaccinated populations.

I cannot stress it enough: vaccines and medicines against COVID-19 must be considered as a global public good.

To make matters worse, the profound unfairness of unequal access to vaccines, together with underlying failures to invest in human rights-based protections is dividing the world into two blocs: countries anticipating further return to normality this year, and those economies that will still face recurring infections and rising death tolls.

The growing prospect of vastly divergent health and economic recoveries pose additional threats to people and their rights.

Over 100 million people are already being pushed into extreme poverty. Injustices and inequalities created by discrimination were a major cause of the economic, social and medical vulnerabilities to the pandemic. Those already most vulnerable were the most affected.

In that regard, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, including on racial and ethnic minorities, especially people of African Descent, must be addressed urgently.

COVID-19 has disrupted education, especially in poor countries. Many children have shifted to online learning, but almost 1/3 of the world's young people are unable to access the Internet, the majority of them girls. Two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have cut their public education budgets since the onset of the pandemic.

One in 4 health facilities globally lacks essential water services. In the Least Developed Countries, half of all health facilities have no clean water.

The pandemic has hit hardest in economic sectors where women are over represented, including hotel and food services. Women are also the majority of the millions of workers in the informal economy who have lost their jobs and livelihoods and were left with little access to social protection. Nevertheless, the majority of socioeconomic COVID-19 responses adopted by States are surprisingly gender-blind.

The challenges are greatest in developing countries, where the ability to respond to these multiple crises, is hampered by lack of fiscal space, years of austerity combined with massive debt servicing, high levels of informality and restricted policy space. With debt levels at historic highs when the crisis hit, UNCTAD estimated that developing countries needed $2.5trillion over the next 2 years to meet their external financing needs.

People must be able to participate in the decisions affecting their lives. Likewise, globally, all countries must have a voice and representation in decisions that affect their populations.

Colleagues and Friends,

The pandemic obliges us to re-imagine the making of healthy and resilient societies, both locally and globally.

It should unite us in solidarity.

Recovering better is a matter of conviction and collective action. And more: to me, it is our duty -- to present and future generations.

Only human-rights will bring effective responses, backed by strong and inclusive multilateral action, international cooperation and global coordination.

And we need to approach civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as what they are -- universal, indivisible and mutually reinforcing. The Right to Development and the right to a healthy environment are also vital in responding to the crisis and its impacts on millions of people worldwide.

Establishing a New Social Contract is about rebuilding public trust through stronger support for fundamental rights. To make that a reality, a New Global Deal aimed at a fairer multilateral system, is key, including through regulation of global finance.

Countries must not forget that the central role of the State during pandemics and other health emergencies is to mount a robust health response while upholding human rights. To respond and to build resilience, States should step up investments in health and social protection systems backed by multilateral, joined-up approaches based on solidarity. Developing countries need access to external financial support.

My dear Colleagues,

In essence: we need to construct a human rights economy that can address inequalities within and among nations and deliver a sound and sustainable future for people and planet.

I know the challenges are grave and that seems hard to achieve.

But if there is one thing I have learned in my trajectory is that when there’s a political will, indeed there is a way.

I call on States, international organizations, civil society and the private sector, to strengthen their political will and accelerate collective action in the common interests of humanity.

My Office will continue to support the creation of this political will, by bringing all stakeholders together to discuss human-rights based efforts to address global challenges. In these times of division and mistrust, spaces like the Social Forum, with an amplified voice for civil society, can build bridges to a better future for all.


The failures of many public health and socio-economic systems to cope with the disruptions of the pandemic are closely linked with failures in national and international policies which must be guided by the constant improvement of human well-being.

But the darkest hour comes before the dawn.

It is time to break longstanding cycles of deeply entrenched structural and systemic inequalities which tear people and nations apart.

The Secretary-General noted in Our Common Agenda that ‘in our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough’.

As he stressed that “now is the time to re-embrace global solidarity and find new ways to work together for the common good.”

In that spirit, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and the outcomes of this Social Forum.

Thank you.