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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High-level Conference: Together To Achieve Universal Social Protection By 2030

05 February 2019

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

5 February 2019

Distinguished Chairs,
Distinguished fellow panellists,
Colleagues, friends,

It is an honour to speak at this conference, and to participate in this effort to ensure social protection for every human being.

The Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is an exceptional initiative in support of one of the essential commitments of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The partnership has shown that social protection is an essential tool for reducing poverty and a fundamental human right.

What is the goal of development? It is to improve the well-being of every member of society. People are not simply the how of development – they need to be the why of development. They are what development is for. True development generates greater social justice, reducing inequalities, which erase the fundamental rights of those who are poor or marginalised.

This is the core message of the 2030 Agenda. It is about including everyone – with “no-one left behind” and indeed, a priority on reaching those furthest behind. It is about rooting out and correcting the causes of poverty – the multiple human rights violations that deprive people of power, of control over resources, of a voice in their government, economy and society.

The 2030 Agenda is a roadmap for practical and detailed measures, which seek to improve our support for the universal human rights of every person, including every individual’s right to development. It is an opportunity to defeat poverty, lift discrimination, level out power imbalances and realise rights.

Our work today will mostly focus on Sustainable Development Goal 1.3, which aims to implement social protection systems and measures for all -- and, particularly, to achieve substantial social protection coverage for the poor and marginalised.

SDG 1.3 flows directly from Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laying out the right to social security. That right includes access to adequate and affordable health-care and income security – for the elderly, unemployed, sick, injured; for people with disabilities, in need of maternity care, or in other situations of vulnerability, so that they can retain their fundamental dignity.

These are profound and foundational commitments. ILO has done a tremendous job in researching and showing evidence that even the poorest countries can afford a universal social protection system, through the social protection floor approach. For example, an ILO study from 2017 indicated that a social protection system including allowances for all children; maternity benefits for all women with newborns; benefits for all persons with severe disabilities; and universal old-age pensions costs on average just 1.6 per cent of GDP.

A range of developing countries have already established universal social protection, and many of our speakers today have experience of setting up measures for social protection in resource-challenged situations -- as I do. We can speak to the very powerful effect these systems can have in curbing poverty and marginalisation, reinvigorating the economy, and upholding human dignity.

There are also wide-ranging ripple effects, which extend across society. Human rights are the drivers of peace, security, confidence, resilience, and public trust. Inclusive, participatory societies benefit from the skills of everyone; and when essential services are provided, such as adequate and accessible health care, education and housing, everyone reaps massive economic, political and social benefits.

Conversely, societies which exclude groups of people from essential opportunities and resources are holding back the ability of the entire nation to develop to its full potential. These violations of fundamental economic, social and cultural rights breed grievances and tensions that are deeply corrosive of social harmony and can give rise to conflict.


821 million people go hungry every day, according to FAO. Youth unemployment is rising: 70 million young people were unemployed in 2017. Short-sighted austerity measures are eroding social protection systems, with short-term cost-saving measures, that ignore human rights obligations and commitments to realise the SDGs.

We need to encourage national leaders to ring-fence budgets to ensure that rights are promoted, and that essential services remain accessible even in the case of budget cuts. To take one example, social protection measures are essential to combatting youth unemployment -- generating access to further education, improving skills relevant to labour markets and securing rights to health, food, water and sanitation, education and housing.

Another example: social protection can enable people with disabilities to gain independence and greater participation in society, including their employability. But only 27 per cent of persons with severe disabilities worldwide receive a disability benefit.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s children – 1.3 billion – are not covered by social protection measures. 71 per cent of our fellow human beings are either not protected, or only partially protected, by social security systems.

Even in countries with universal pension coverage, the level of benefits is often insufficient to push older people out of poverty. This is particularly true for older women who have invested years of their lives in caring for children and older parents. Social protection policies also need to promote equality between women and men, instead of deepening the imbalances between them.

The numbers are disturbing and signal that we must urgently step up our efforts to get back on track is we want to achieve the SDGs, particularly zero hunger, decent work and universal social protection.

I wholeheartedly join you in calling on governments, civil society organizations and social and development partners to join this Global Partnership, and to work towards truly universal social protection. We can afford to enable everyone to live in dignity and enjoy this fundamental human right; we have the tools. My Office stands ready to support you in this vital endeavour.