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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

9th annual Skoll World Forum: An Introduction to UN Human Rights

07 April 2022

Delivered by

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Greetings to all of you. I'm glad to have this opportunity to contribute to an important  and lively conversation. Globally, human rights are under serious threat, and strong and visionary activism can bring huge benefit to our world, and humanity's future.

Today, remarkable progress that has been made over decades in every region – in decreasing conflict between States; reducing poverty; and expanding access to education and other rights – is in jeopardy. 

The Russian Federation's military attack on Ukraine is putting at risk tens of millions of lives. Heightened nuclear threat underscore the risks to all humanity.

Depleted by the pandemic, divided by growing polarisation, undermined by growing environmental harm and disregard of the rule of law, and corroded by digital disinformation, hatred and distortions of democracy, many societies are evolving – or plunging – into increased repression and violence; rising poverty; anger; and violent tensions.

But every major crisis is an opening for transformative change. In my view, both the pandemic and climate change have been – and continue to be – a very stark demonstration of where those changes need to be made and what they should be.

They force us to a reckon with injustice, inequalities and entrenched discrimination of every type. And they make it clear how badly we need to fix them.

Fortunately, we have a vaccine.

I don't only mean the medical vaccines that have the power to safeguard us from the worst impacts of COVID-19 – if world leaders act in solidarity to enable their distribution and accessibility for all human beings.

I mean a vaccine against injustice. A vaccine against poverty and inequalities. A vaccine against tensions and conflict; underdevelopment; and environmental catastrophe. This vaccine was developed after horrific global shocks, including two World Wars and a devastating global financial crisis.

Human rights are that vaccine.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was agreed in 1948, and the great body of subsequent international human rights treaties, laws and recommendations, constitute very practical and focused guidance to shape policy that prevents and resolves crisis.

These human rights norms are a tested, and immediately actionable, body of guidance for us to rebuild from the pandemic; effectively address climate change; and advance more peaceful societies in which development benefits everyone.

Let me briefly outline a few of the areas for action in terms of social justice, racial justice, gender justice and inequalities.

The past year has been a catastrophe for people with low incomes, women and discriminated peoples and minorities across the world. Globally, more than 120 million people have fallen into extreme poverty.  There has never been so explicit and conclusive a lesson in the practical value of human rights. COVID-19 has very clearly demonstrated that inequalities and discrimination – on the basis of gender, race or any other characteristic – do not only harm the individuals who they directly target. They create shock waves which ripple across the whole of society.

Women have lost income at far higher rates than men, because of the low-status and poorly protected jobs they are often obliged to take, and they have been exposed to shocking rates of violence within the home.

Workers from minority communities – who are often over-represented in customer-facing work in retail, hospitality and health-care – were deemed "essential" but treated, in essence, as though they were disposable. Even in some of the world’s richest countries, the mortality rate of people from minority groups has been triple that of the overall population.

For children, virtually every parameter of wellbeing and future freedom has declined dramatically. Child hunger, isolation, abuse, poverty and forced marriage have sharply increased, while children's access to essential services – including education, health, nutrition and protection – has decreased. The pandemic is unravelling years of precious progress.

In terms of the right to education, personal safety, basic economic security, decent work, adequate shelter and food, and of course, the right to health, the damage that is being done to human rights is of a magnitude and speed the world has rarely seen.

Generation upon generation of deprivation and injustice shaped the fractures that both the pandemic and our global environmental crises have amplified. Discrimination, brutality and harassment on the basis of race or sex are deeply embedded in our societies, and they will not go away with a few empty gestures.

From my own experience and from the lessons of history, I am convinced that everyone's participation in decision-making is not only a right; it is also key to rebuilding a safer and more peaceful world.

Last year my Office issued an Agenda for Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality, focusing on Africans and people of African descent.  Its purpose is to end systemic racism, end impunity for violations by law enforcement officials, ensure the voices of people of African descent are heard, and repair the legacies of the past. States have the primary responsibility to concretely advance the anti-racism agenda. But if we are to successfully dismantle systemic racism, we also need greater activism to ensure that all voices can be heard, and can help to shape policy.

Social protections are another key issue.  We need to change the economic approaches that have produced such unbearable social costs, tearing apart the fabric of our societies and amplifying mistrust towards institutions.  It is clear that everyone will benefit in a world where all children and all adults have their basic needs met – where unemployment, injury, ill-health, old age or disability do not signal misery and hardship; where people are not left unprotected in times of crisis and disaster.

The pandemic has also generated a sharply rising global economic divergence. Developing and least-developed countries are not recovering at the same rapid pace as the developed world – in part due to vaccine inequity, which is morally, politically and economically unacceptable.

Other factors in this global economic divergence include debt burdens; capital flight and corruption. We're already seeing that high debt service payments are crowding out investment in rights – such as health, social protection, a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and education – that are essential to sustainable recovery. A recent study1 indicated that reductions in social spending are likely in 83 out of 189 countries by 2023 – potentially affecting the human rights of 2.3 billion people.

Thank you.