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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by UN Human Rights Chief on human rights economy

20 April 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


New York

Dear Participants and students,

I'm very gratified to be speaking at the New School, which has championed so many fresh ideas for social change.

I'd like to hark back to the boldness and clarity of past speakers and teachers at this institution – people like Hannah Arendt, John Maynard Keynes, Margaret Mead, Frank Lloyd Wright – as we approach one of the defining questions of our generation: how to build economies that advance human rights, human dignity, peace and justice.

It's urgent. People are in want; in need; in trouble. Our planet is being battered, and so are we.

Countries in every region are experiencing poverty levels not seen in a generation, and a global food crisis of unprecedented dimensions. An estimated 345.2 million people will go hungry this year – more than double the number in 2020. This is truly grave, since hunger, especially in children, has profound run-on effects on health and education levels in the longer term. By 2030, if current trends continue, 574 million people – 7 per cent of the world’s population – will be trapped in extreme poverty. On this and most other Sustainable Development Goals, our progress has been sharply eroded.

Our climate emergency is accelerating, with far too little work done to transform the economic drivers of warming, pollution, and the destruction of biodiversity. Many of the countries most affected by increasing famines, droughts and massive storms – as well as by rising poverty – can take no adequate action on any of these fronts, because they are also hamstrung by debt. More than half of the world’s poorest countries are in full-blown debt distress, or nearing it, with global inflation, higher interest rates, and a potential banking crisis making the situation even worse.

This means preventable death; preventable misery; preventable under-development; and preventable grievances, violence and conflict.

It is not a landscape that any one of us would want to live in, or hand over to our children and future generations.

And we don't have to.

The world’s leading economies can leverage policies that would turn this situation around.

This is not a fairy tale. It can be done, pragmatically, through concrete changes in what we prioritize and how.

Let us recall a time, not long ago, whose darkness and horror exceeded even our own – and the decisions that leaders took then, which brought the world more hope, well-being and justice.

It was 75 years ago. World War Two had just ended. In the space of just 20 years, two World Wars had been fought at the cost of millions of lives, and many devastated countries. The most abominable system of mass murder had been deployed against millions of people, through the Holocaust. The atomic bomb had brought death of a new kind and scale. Economic depression of a scale unknown to humanity had impoverished people and countries everywhere. Almost every country in the Global South was being drained of resources by continuing colonial occupation, their people unfairly deprived of education, opportunities, representation and rights.  And as the Second World War ended, millions upon millions of people were on the move – forced to leave their homes and take root in completely unfamiliar, challenging places.

In that landscape of destruction, poverty and instability, countries from every region came together to make decisions that changed the world.

They established the United Nations, with a Charter that vowed "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights… and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom".

Then they came up with a map. A text that laid out, for themselves and for future generations, the path away from war and towards justice. The 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mapped out the policies that would lead to more fair, more equal, and therefore more resilient societies.

It set out civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights.

The right to live free from any form of discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture.

The rights to education and to adequate food; healthcare; life-long social protections; and housing.

Freedom of expression, opinion, and the right to privacy. Freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of religion or belief.

The right to fair and just conditions of work. To fair trial and to equal protection of the law. To participate, freely and meaningfully, in public affairs.

These and other rights, inherent in every one of us embody values that every country shares and professes to respecting. Over the past 75 years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has guided tremendous progress – helping societies to deal with problems so deep they seemed intractable, and rebuilding new kinds of relationships between social actors, based on greater equality and trust.

Many structures that maintained severe racial and gender discrimination were dismantled. Massive advances were made in education and health.

The need for governments and institutions that listen to, inform and fully and meaningfully include people in decision-making became clearer.

Countries took back their independence.

And people were able to exercise their rights. Perhaps most important of all, the Universal Declaration inspired vibrant, creative, powerful activism and solidarity, empowering people to demand their rights and to engage actively in their communities and societies.

Nobody would claim that the Universal Declaration has been universally respected. An unhelpful dichotomy between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, claimed to reflect ideological divisions, and hampered progress. Many élite groups resisted the fundamental call to equal rights and freedoms. Every country's human rights record is, and has been, flawed.

Still, this text – and the body of law and treaties that have built on its foundation – did influence Governments to a considerable degree. And by leading to greater investment in life-long social protections; wider access to health-care and education of quality; systems to end the use of torture; and greater equality in every sphere of life, they led to a more inclusive, more participative, more responsive, more healthy and successful social contract between governments and the people.

They delivered a broader range of choices to individuals.

And they created the conditions for greater social harmony and peace within, and also between, States.

Now we're in 2023. We cannot afford a dimming of this powerful, luminous text. Our world is being shaken by crises. And like our forebears 75 years ago, we can – we must – take action to reverse this rising misery, confusion and turmoil.

Building on the lessons they learned, and the steps they mapped out, we can build more resilient societies by investing in human dignity and justice.

We need to learn, from the pandemic, the importance of universal healthcare and social protections. And we must ensure that all care and support systems respond to people’s needs regardless of age, race, gender, disabilities or any other characteristic.

We need to learn, from our repeated experiences of economic stagnation and recession -- people’s rising fear for the future of their families – that resources which should be considered common goods need to be invested for the common good.

We need to give the highest possible priority to implementing a green economy that can meet the challenges posed by climate change, and uphold everyone's right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment. And we need that shift to be a just transition that does not trade away vital labour and social rights.

We need economic policies, such as taxation and budget policies, that address and redress the extreme inequalities within countries – and between countries – that the pandemic has accelerated.

Because let me remind you: that poverty, those inequalities, these unequal costs of climate change are not only unjust; they also give rise to instability and violence, nationally and globally, that affect us all. This is ultimately about preventing crises.

A human rights economy will deliver better results for people and planet, because, beyond profit, it is grounded in everybody’s rights. Its policies direct a wind of powerful energy to achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda – which is a human rights agenda – and coherently address the social and environmental issues that matter deeply to every human being on this Earth.

Instead of developing elaborate loopholes to free the wealthy from fair taxation, the human rights economy directs investment to address and redress barriers to equality, justice and sustainability.

Instead of favouring the private interests of monied lobbies, it builds in maximum space for inclusive participation and social dialogue, and invests maximum available resources in advancing human rights, notably social protections, universal education and healthcare, food, housing, as well as delivering an adequate standard of living to all.

It seeks to eradicate the corruption, illicit financial flows and tax evasion which rob the people of their rightful share of resources. And it ensures that business operations do no harm, through human rights due diligence. I hope this will also include addressing limits to consumption and harmful marketing. Tobacco, fossil fuel, plastics and baby milk industries have demonstrated their disregard for human rights.

Measurement of economic success needs to expanded beyond the blunt instrument of Gross Domestic Product, to assess how well the economy delivers on people's rights. That measurement also needs to be disaggregated to make sure that discrimination, and other forms of structural inequality, are clearly visible and can be addressed. I know that some of you have extensive expertise on this, and I hope that you can offer us your thoughts. I also hope very much that at next year's Summit of the Future, world leaders will agree on complementary measures to GDP.

Globally, human rights-based economic policy must include putting in place human rights guardrails for international financial and development institutions, so that governments are not forced to undercut investments in rights to repay their foreign debt. Today’s financial institutions were not developed to protect the rights and vital interests of people in developing countries. They, alongside Governments and all economic decision-makers, must now recognize that essential investments in advancing people’s rights need to be protected – not undermined by austerity policies.

The human rights economy will build greater social harmony. For example, when people are able to follow the money through transparent and accountable budget decision-making, their scrutiny – and resulting dialogue – generate more effective policies and greater trust in government.

It will contribute to greater prosperity. I want to be clear about this: the human rights economy will not shrink economies; it will grow them, through measures that diminish inequalities of opportunities and resources and enable everyone to contribute fully to the whole. Experience has repeatedly demonstrated that human rights measures are not a net cost but an investment, and it is clear to me that a human rights economy will bring about greater and more inclusive prosperity.

A human rights economy is also one that builds peace, because it addresses so many of the root causes of grievance and conflict. Studies have repeatedly shown that human rights violations by police forces, persistent unemployment and economic deprivation contribute to radicalisation and violent extremism. Following extensive review, the World Bank concluded in 2018 that “for all countries, addressing inequalities and exclusion, making institutions more inclusive, and ensuring that development strategies are risk-informed are central to preventing the fraying of the social fabric that could erupt into crisis.”

I am one among many who can testify to this truth. Working at the UN Refugee Agency and in other areas of the UN, I've given 30 years of my career to situations where human rights have been wronged. Situations where people have been forced to flee, in chaos, by conflict or deprivation – and to the rickety remedial or palliative actions that need to be taken just to keep them sheltered and alive.

Now, as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, my work goes beyond fixing what is broken. It is about building forward; building trust; helping countries to set up the structures and systems that will ensure fairness, shared prosperity, mutual respect – and therefore stability.

It is a mindset: the State, and the economy, exist to serve the people. This model of governance – and economics – weaves the fabric of societies that are cohesive, and of nations that can work together. I believe this was the vision that led Hernán Santa Cruz, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to insist so emphatically on the importance of advancing both economic and social rights, and civil and political rights – indivisibly and universally.

This year’s 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be a new turning point, inspiring a new commitment to uphold and advance human rights in every sphere of human endeavour.

I view this human rights economy as a participative project. For example, it would be useful to collect and analyse, more systematically, disaggregated data on the impact of human rights measures in a stronger, more resilient and broadly-based economy. We also need to look more deeply and specifically at human rights budgeting, and other ways to better analyse gaps and challenges, so that policy makers can design policies and institutional practices that uphold human rights. The national budget is among the most important economic policy tools to advance human rights and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. But in many countries budget documents do not reflect human rights standards and obligations in their financial content.

On these and many other issues, we need your help. Every one of us has a role to play in bringing this vision to reality. A multi-pronged but coherent and integrated strategy must count on the viewpoints and efforts of everyone, from academics to activists, from policy-makers to the private sector. We need your expertise; your probing questions; your energy; and your support.

Thank you.