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Social protection

Human rights are key to ensuring no one is left behind

12 September 2023

A doctor examines a young patient. © Getty Images

“Too many people worldwide cannot afford basic goods or access basic services and are trapped in abject poverty, often for generations. Current economic systems are simply unjust, discriminatory and not sustainable,” said UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, during a speech earlier this year on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR provides for the right to social security and the right to development and is the cornerstone of sustainable development.

Yet global poverty has increased for the first time in 20 years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and other crises. Socio-economic inequalities have deepened within and among countries, with millions of people pushed deeper into poverty and more countries struggling under debt distress. As a result, much of the progress in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has been stalled or erased.

Pradeep Wagle, Chief of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section at UN Human Rights, said the provision of social protection, the right to development and working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are key to eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities and making sure we leave no one behind.

“Poverty and inequality are not inevitable, they are political choices,” said Wagle. “The pandemic and other complex global crises have demonstrated that economic, social and cultural rights are essential to sustainable development and to human dignity.”

The right to social security is recognized in numerous human rights instruments, including the UDHR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Social security enables other rights

Social security is also an enabling right that makes it possible to realize other human rights such as the right to food, housing, an adequate standard of living, and education and health, especially by disadvantaged and marginalized people.

Wagle said States have obligations to realize the right to social security to the maximum that their resources allow, through national efforts and international cooperation and by establishing comprehensive universal social security systems based on human rights norms and principles and ensuring the availability, accessibility and adequacy of benefits and services.

For Wagle, the right to social security and the right to development are key to redressing the structural injustice and inequalities within and among countries.

Cambodia’s Equity Card allows poor households to access social assistance benefits so that families can afford food and health. © GIZ-ISPH/Coner

Cambodia’s Equity Card allows poor households to access social assistance benefits so that families can afford food and health. © GIZ-ISPH/Coner

Social protection is a central area of work for UN Human Rights. The Office provides guidance to States on comprehensive universal social protection systems, encouraging them to adopt social protection schemes that focus on reaching the most marginalized and integrate human rights in decision-making related to economic policies, investment decisions, consumer choices and business models.

The right to social security is still out of reach for many, particularly those most in need and the most disadvantaged sections of society, including children, women and girls, older people, people with disabilities and the poor:

  • 53.1% of the global population is not covered by social security benefits.
  • 71.1 % of people in need do not get social assistance.
  • 78% of persons with severe disabilities do not receive disability benefits.
  • 65% of children do not enjoy effective access to social protection.
  • 59% of women giving birth do not receive maternity benefits.

For Mamataj, a 38-year old woman who lives in a slum in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, social security has been a means of staying out of poverty and creating a dignified life for herself and her daughter.

Mamataj became disabled after a cooking accident that pushed her deeper into poverty and social exclusion. She struggled to pay for her household expenses and her daughter’s school and ended up relying on friends and community members to survive.

Thanks to disability benefits from the government’s social security payments, she gained independence and can feed herself and her daughter.

“This cash made my life tranquil, and now I can save for my daughter's future,” said Mamataj.

Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, the right to development and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment all build on each other. This is the meaning of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.

UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk

Right to development

The UN Declaration on the Right to Development defines development beyond Gross Domestic Product as a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process aimed at the improvement of the well-being of all.

The Declaration, which builds on the UDHR, promotes civic space by calling on every member of society to participate in and contribute to development. It also demands equality of opportunity and fair distribution of development benefits to address growing inequality within and among countries.

“The right to development puts people at the centre of the development process, so that development is aimed at improving the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals,” said Ayuush Bat-Erdene, Chief of the Right to Development Section at UN Human Rights.

This includes building institutional and financial capacity that allows the design of public budgets to support social security with a focus on the most marginalized.

Bat-Erdene said the multiple crises that we are facing today show the world needs stronger and more ambitious actions towards operationalizing the right to development and achieving its transformative vision, which informs the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.

Addressing the Human Rights Council this week, Türk noted that the Declaration sets out rights and duties on the part of States to forge development for the well-being of all, and said the draft International Covenant on the Right to Development had been submitted to the Council for further action.

Human rights can rescue the SDGs

The SDG Summit on 18-19 September 2023 provides a critical opportunity to deliver a global plan on ways to accelerate SDG implementation.

Convened during the UN General Assembly, the Summit will mark the half-way point to the deadline set for achieving the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.

Marcella Favretto, Chief of Sustainable Development at UN Human Rights, said the world was already off track, but that the pandemic, the climate emergency, the energy crisis and wars have compounded the situation.

Favretto said the 2030 Agenda is firmly anchored in human rights and that human rights are the critical levers to accelerate progress.

“Human rights are relevant across all the 17 SDGs, they are vital to realizing the central promise of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind and reach those furthest behind first. The only way to deliver on the 2030 Agenda as it was envisioned is through a human rights-based approach and in an inclusive and participatory manner.”