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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
15 September 2023
Human rights are a global public good. They are not – and never have been – ‘nice-to-haves’ to be cherry picked at will.
Fifty-seven years ago, when the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted, this principle was cemented.
Member States expressed their firm conviction that the basic necessities of life – education, health, decent work, social security, an adequate standard of living, freedom from hunger, and enjoyment of science and culture – are not services or commodities, but human rights to be enjoyed by all.
And last year, the UN General Assembly finally recognized a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, a landmark resolution underscoring that a thriving planet is inseparable from well-being and human dignity.
Countries have agreed, just as they did when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, that without economic, social and cultural rights, people cannot fully participate in civil and political life.
That all rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social – are obligations of equal status and are universal, indivisible and interdependent.
And that having one without the other fractures, and divides.
The COVID-19 pandemic – and the global health and economic crises it triggered – exposed deep inequalities within and between countries, as well as decades of underinvestment in systems and services essential to upholding economic, social and cultural rights.
But COVID-19 also showed us what is possible when States invest in these systems, and it resoundingly demonstrated how essential they are.
Governments around the world poured billions into social security schemes, including universal basic income, ensuring a lifeline for people who lost their jobs or could not work.
They prohibited utilities disconnections.
They prevented evictions for people unable to afford bills.
Functioning health care and education systems became national and global priorities.
It should not take a global public health emergency for us all to realise the importance of economic, social and cultural rights.
Yet instead of learning from the pandemic, in too many contexts, these rights are still seen as optional extras or aspirations, not binding obligations, nor as a roadmap for a better future.
The promise of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights remains illusory for billions of people.
Globally, public spending on economic, social and cultural rights is woefully insufficient.
We need only to look at the numbers.
By 2030, 84 million children will be out of school and 300 million will not complete primary school and achieve minimal learning proficiency.
Last year, about two billion workers were in precarious informal employment, with no social security.
Almost 600 million people are projected to face hunger by 2030.
And, global poverty has risen for the first time in over 20 years. At current trends, by 2030, some 574 million people – nearly 7 per cent of the world’s population – will be trapped in extreme poverty.
The starkness of these statistics takes on a human face, especially when we consider the dramatic and disproportionate impact they have on the lives of women and girls.
These challenges go beyond borders and all other divides.
The report before the Council today outlines my Office’s priorities for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, and underscores the urgent need for action.
Without enhanced efforts to realise economic, social, and cultural rights, by individual States and through international cooperation, we have very little chance of achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 Agenda.
The Sustainable Development Agenda is a human rights agenda.
I have spoken this year about the concept of a human rights economy to help ensure that economic and social decision-making and policies are guided by and invest in human rights.
Human rights economies measure success not by the size of the GDP, but by the wellbeing of all people.
They ensure all children and young people learn in school, that each person has access to healthcare when they need it, that they have enough food on their table, and that social security is in reach for everyone.
They place human rights guardrails on tax policies, budgets, care support policies and more, and ensure measures to deliver fundamental rights, such as adequate housing, quality education, food, and a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, are ring-fenced against austerity measures.
They work to reduce inequalities, particularly from a gender perspective, and dismantle systemic discrimination and corruption.
They are about decent and fair work and working conditions – for all.
They prioritise resolute action on the triple planetary crisis, upholding our right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
And they enable active and meaningful participation and transparent decision-making, especially for groups and individuals who have been historically sidelined, women and girls among them.
Such economies can withstand the biggest and deepest of shocks.
Because putting people and the planet first is fundamental to our broader social and economic wellbeing, and to human progress.
My Office’s ambition is the same as my mandate: to contribute to making human rights a reality for everyone, everywhere.
The vision set out in this report seeks to help every country realise this objective.
Our approach will be driven by engagement in five key areas.
First, we will support States to meet their economic, social and cultural rights obligations, including through macroeconomic and fiscal policies that are consistent with the obligation to make use of maximum available resources.
Second, in response to the growing demand from countries to put the principle of leaving no one behind into action, we will reinforce States’ efforts to address the root causes of inequalities, and to prioritise the people and communities most affected by entrenched discrimination. This requires a particular lens from an age, gender and broader non-discrimination perspective.
Third, real progress on economic, social and cultural rights depends on efforts across society – from National Human Rights Institutions and civil society to businesses and parliaments. By strengthening the active and meaningful participation of all in policy and decision-making, countries can make gains in development, peace and security, and they can build social cohesion and trust.
Fourth, in support of the Secretary-General’s call for an urgent reshaping of the international financial architecture, including to address debt and conditions in investment and loan agreements, we will work with international financial and development finance institutions to integrate economic, social and cultural rights into their policies and operations and to promote international cooperation and resource mobilization for the fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights.
And finally, we will help States harness the power of data to increase understanding, address gaps and develop targeted, inclusive and effective socioeconomic policies – based on evidence.
To address inequalities and realize economic, social and cultural rights, there is much more my Office can and should do. And as the global challenges increase, so too do the calls from States for our support.
But to implement this vision and to scale up our work, we need more resources.
The report emphasises technical assistance, enhancing capacity, and providing legislative support to broaden fiscal space, tackle inequality, and alleviate poverty as some concrete examples of the ways that we can help Member States fulfil their commitments to economic, social and cultural rights.
With a strong team across the globe, we could provide context-specific and tailored support to Member States to turbocharge investment in these fundamental rights, and design effective socioeconomic systems that are rights-based, inclusive, fair and transparent, embedded within the broader human rights framework which is indivisible.
The vision highlighted in this report is a blueprint for action in the context of post-pandemic recovery, the current economic climate and our future.
We are committed to playing our part and count on your support, practical action and cooperation to improve the situation of economic, social and cultural rights of all people, everywhere.