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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human Rights Council’s 3rd intersessional meeting for dialogue and cooperation on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

14 January 2021

14 January 2021 (3 p.m. – 5 p.m. CET)

Oral statement by Ms. Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

It is a privilege to join you in this third intersessional meeting for dialogue and cooperation on human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On behalf of High Commissioner Bachelet, I congratulate H.E. Mr. Sek Wannamethee, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Thailand, on his appointment as Chair of this meeting. I also welcome the Honourable Minister of Health and Social Welfare of Kerala State in India, Hon. Ms. Shailaja, and the distinguished panellists, including the Vice President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Ms. Keva Bain, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of The Bahamas.


The COVID-19 pandemic is not only an enormous human rights challenge – it is a human rights crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated alarming levels of poverty and inequalities, as its impacts are stratified along wealth, income, gender, race, ethnicity, and other social divides.  We know that this can quickly lead to instability, begetting other human rights violations.

Warnings of ‘unsustainable’ levels of inequalities have been made for a long time. The pandemic has made clear that we now stand at a critical juncture which requires urgent action to prevent our social fabric from eroding further.

Responses to the pandemic have demonstrated what is possible when political resolve exists. We have seen examples of governments taking swift action to protect fundamental rights – by extending healthcare, reinforcing social safety nets, and instituting policies to protect people from health and economic ripple effects. 

We need this kind of political will to ‘build forward better’.

Indeed, the COVID-19 recovery represents a historic opportunity for all Member States to build a new social contract based on human rights and equal opportunities for all. This is also a key objective in the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, which underscores that rights must be at the core of sustainable development.
Progress on SDG 10 and SDG 16 – the focus of this meeting – is essential to this end. I wish to convey two key messages in this regard.

(First,) SDG 10, addressing inequalities and building a new social contract, will require renewed commitment to economic and social rights, including investing the maximum of available resources in the realization of these rights.
This calls for a departure from approaches that see those rights as only optional or aspirational, as for close to 90% of Member States these rights are legally binding commitments, recognizing that healthy and peaceful societies rests on the realization of the full spectrum of human rights.

In the COVID recovery, we must shift away from economic policies that concentrate wealth, and the chronic underinvestment in public services that generates inequalities. This is not a time for austerity measures. Governments need to mobilize domestic resources, but international cooperation and the Secretary-General’s New Global Deal of a fair globalization are also required. This includes a global coordinated effort to secure that the COVID-19 vaccines are affordable and accessible to all without discrimination.

(Second,) SDG 16, rebuilding trust in our institutions for a peaceful, just and equitable recovery, requires stronger protection of fundamental freedoms.

Millions of people currently feel left out of the decisions that affect their lives. We need to reverse the closing down of civil society space and protect fundamental freedoms, including in the context of COVID-19.

Protecting peoples’ rights to express their views and grievances, and ensuring meaningful and inclusive participation of all groups in the shaping of policies and decisions affecting them, is the best formula at a time of growing pressure on social cohesion. To this end, disaggregated data to better understand and monitor progress for all groups and to develop evidence-based responses must be at the centre of renewed efforts to ‘leave no one behind’ and curb discrimination.

To support Member States, our Office, in close partnership with UN colleagues, is providing technical assistance to guide human rights-based and gender responsive economic recovery to the pandemic in the field.  We have worked to integrate human rights into the UN’s response to COVID-19, developing a checklist and carrying out a review of the UN socio-economic response plans. 

Through our Surge Initiative, we have also deployed economists to provide advice, including on addressing inequalities in the design of social protection systems, and on maintaining fiscal space to meet minimum core obligations of economic and social rights. And we continue to promote a human rights-based approach to data, including by strengthening collaboration between NHRIs and National Statistics Offices.


Allow me to conclude by restating that the international human rights framework provides the strongest basis on which to rebuild the social contract, address the deepening inequalities at global and national levels, and get us back on track to achieve the 2030 Agenda. 

I look forward to your views and practical experience on how we can rebuild with rights at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery.

Thank you.