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Speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Child Rights Connect - General Assembly 2020

25 June 2020


Speech by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

25 June 2020


I’m delighted to be speaking with you today. The pandemic has changed many things about the ways we work – but it has not shaken our common determination to advance the protection and promotion of children’s rights.

The relationship between Child Rights Connect and my Office spans several decades. It includes engagement with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and in international fora such as the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the High-Level Political Forum. Above all, it is about creating impact on the ground, so that all children can enjoy their human rights and no child is left behind.

We are fortunate to be able to count on this strong, foundational partnership as the world's children face new, and very dangerous, challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastating short-, medium- and long-term consequences for children and their rights. It threatens to set back the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals, which go to the heart of children’s rights, their well-being and their development.

UNICEF has reported that unless there is urgent action to protect families from the economic impacts of the pandemic, the number of children living below national poverty lines in low- and middle-income countries could increase by 15 per cent in 2020, reaching 672 million.

The World Food Programme estimates that the number of young children suffering acute malnutrition could increase by 10 million this year –a 20 per cent increase in global rates.

The pandemic has also disrupted the right to education. Last month, around 1.6 billion children were reportedly unable to physically attend schools. Many States have instituted a shift to online distance learning – but with almost one-third of the world's young people unable to access the Internet, this heightens the risk of many children falling behind. The closure of schools, together with the broader socio-economic impact of the epidemic, also increases children's exposure to the threat of domestic violence,  child labour, child marriage, and female genital mutilation.

COVID-19 also poses a significant threat to children’s rights to survival and development, and to the highest attainable standard of health. Access to key services have been disrupted, including health-care and vaccinations, as well as key services for children with disabilities. The effects of the pandemic on early childhood development also place very young children at risk of devastating physical, socioemotional, and cognitive consequences over their lifetimes.

Child deaths could also increase due to financial hardship and the global economic downturn resulting from the pandemic. There are also some children who lack regular access to nutritious food during lockdown or because of financial hardship related to COVID-19. For example, 368.5 million children in 143 countries normally rely on school meals for daily nutritious meals.

Children in communities that are especially vulnerable to the pandemic have already been badly impacted. They include members of indigenous peoples and marginalised racial or religious minorities; migrants; people in conflict zones; and people in poverty, who may be living in sub-standard and over-crowded housing conditions.

This very grim picture – which I have only sketched out – clearly demonstrates how COVID intersects with social and economic inequalities, and discrimination, to create grave impacts on children today. It will also affect their future. In  an extensive ILO survey, around half of young students report a likely delay in the completion of their current studies, while 10 per cent expect to be unable to complete them at all – and  on a standardized scale of mental well-being, more than half have become vulnerable to anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic.

The case for rebuilding much more resilient societies could not be more clear. States need to take immediate action to better protect children now, and in the coming months and years. We need to build back better, in order to be better prepared for future crises.

Last month's appeal by the Secretary-General on protecting the rights of children during and after COVID-19, called for the expansion of social protection programmes to reach the most vulnerable children, and efforts to ensure continuity and equitable access to child-centred services, from schooling, nutrition programmes, immunization and other maternal and newborn care to and community-based child protection programmes. It encouraged practical support to parents and caregivers, including communicating with children, managing the mental health of all family members, and tools to help support learning.

My Office is working with other UN partners to advance a child rights-based and multi-sectoral response to the pandemic, both by the UN and by Member States. We need to see more disaggregated and transparent information, and greater solidarity – with strengthened support to developing countries, in particular to social and child protection systems. We need to promote social policies that do a better job of reducing inequalities, and assist authorities to develop planning for better social and child protection services in the future.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has also issued an important statement on the impact of COVID-19 on children, calling on States to protect the rights of children by prioritizing child protection, health care, water, sanitation and birth registration services; releasing children from all forms of detention, whenever possible.

The pandemic and accompanying recession have an impact on the availability of resources. But we cannot afford to de-prioritise children's rights.  In all decisions concerning children, the focus must remain the best interests of the child. Health-care for children; their education; and advancing their economic and social rights are essential in themselves – but they are also drivers for more sustainable, more successful societies.

States' responses to COVID-19 need to adopt an effective, child rights-based approach that emphasises those in most vulnerable situations, while advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Civil society has a key role to play here. We need the full engagement of civil society to identify gaps in child protection; to advocate better solutions on the ground; and to help support children and protect and promote their rights.

We also need to listen to children. They should be informed, in "child-friendly" language; and they should be involved in discussions concerning policies regarding COVID-19. Child participation is also a critical element of building back better. This means consulting children, listening to them, and incorporating their views into responses. Civil society has a crucial role to play in supporting children through these processes.

It is also important that the lessons learned on protecting children’s rights in this pandemic are applied to other crises, including the climate crisis. This is a topic which is of critical concern to children and young people, and an area in which child and youth advocates have lead the way in recent years. We look forward to hearing from child advocates – including, if possible from the Child Rights Connect network – during the Human Rights Council's forthcoming discussion of children's rights in relation to a healthy environment.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for your invaluable contributions to the rights of children around the world. Working in very different, and sometimes very challenging, contexts, you continue to advance our understanding of children's rights on the ground, and the solutions to those issues. All of us can stand up for human rights – and you are doing that.

Standing up for other people's human rights means pushing back when we see discrimination or abuse, and stepping forward when the right to access essential services are being ignored.

It means resisting the urge to hate, which seems to be growing in many societies, and speaking up for justice.

Your actions are helping to change your societies, and our world. They bind our societies to fundamental values of decency, fairness and understanding, and they flow into deeper mutual confidence and respect.

I look forward to your questions