Geneva — Ilze Brands Kehris is Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights heading the UN Human Rights Office in New York
Addressing an online event organized by the Danish Institute for Human Rights in conjunction with the Human Rights Council’s third inter-sessional meeting on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
A year into the COVID-19 crisis, countries across the globe continue to face alarming levels of pressure on their health and social services. Education and other essential rights, such as water and sanitation, have been severely compromised.
Inequalities and poverty have further deepened with devastating impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities. Many other rights have come under further pressure.
The crisis has required taking necessary and proportionate measures to contain the pandemic, but we have also seen the imposition of opportunistic or unintended restrictions on public freedoms, threats on privacy, curtailment of free speech, overreach of emergency powers and heavy-handed security responses.
It is essential that the pandemic is defeated with a sense of humanity that respects human dignity and human rights for all.
Importantly, going forward in the recovery process, we have a unique if not historic opportunity to change course and rebuild more sustainable, human rights based, socially just and equitable economies and societies as envisioned in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
This is also what the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights asks from all of us – stepped up and joint efforts to squarely place rights at the core of sustainable development.
Recovering better will require a new social contract that reduces inequalities and prioritises the realization of economic, social and cultural rights for all. Among the first steps to be taken by States should be to reverse the chronic underinvestment in public services.
Prioritizing resources to social protection, health, and education systems is an investment in the future sustainability of our societies.
Food, healthcare, education and social security cannot remain privileges only for those who can afford them; they are, and must be seen, as basic human rights to which all entitled, without discrimination.
This is a defining moment to see economic, social and cultural rights as legally binding commitments, as essential benchmarks for social policy, that are directly related to achieving a speedy and sustainable recovery.
To recover better, we will also need a global coordinated effort to secure equal access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines that can be distributed to all those who need it.
In this context, we must strengthen international cooperation and ensure development assistance and debt relief to reduce inequalities within and between countries and facilitate equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.
In building forward better, we need to reset our economies, as well as the global financial and debt architecture, to put the protection of human rights, including the right to development, at the heart of economic policies and choices.
The international financial institutions should be encouraged to promote fiscal and policy space for economic, social and cultural rights as an essential part of economic recovery and economic sustainability.
Our Office, OHCHR, has stepped up its work on economic and social rights and in support of the implementation of the SDGs, through its Surge Initiative. This initiative further strengthened the Office’s ability to work on human rights-based economics in support of State’s efforts to ‘build back better.’
The Surge team has worked with States to encourage transformative economies, providing advice on the human rights impact of economic reforms and austerity policies as well as strategies to secure ‘minimum core obligations’ on economic and social rights and link them up to national SDG and development plans.
In this context, OHCHR has provided seed funding to 20 field presences to reinforce sectoral analysis and interventions in the context of the UN COVID-19 response and recovery with the view to assessing those most vulnerably and ensuring that no one is left behind.
Disaggregated data is crucial to the realization of the international community’s promise to ‘leave no one behind’. It helps States, civil society and other partners to better understand and monitor progress for all groups and to develop evidence-based responses that considers, incorporates and benefits equitably all segments of society. National human rights institutions are a critical partner in these efforts.
We have also revamped the Universal Human Rights Index in a way to make it easier for States to see the linkages and synergies between specific human rights obligations and SDG commitments. This is aimed to facilitate efforts of States to work comprehensively toward achieving both agendas, keeping in view the current COVID-19 challenges.
In this context, OHCHR is also continuing its work on human rights indicators and promoting a human rights-based approach to data that expands disaggregation and strengthening collaboration between NHRIs and National Statistics Offices, including in Albania, Kenya, Kosovo, Liberia, Mexico, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Philippines and Uganda.
The Office is also continuing its work on human rights indicators, including for SDG 16 indicators, and to guide the UN’s socio-economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also high on the Office’s agenda is our work on civic space, providing technical assistance to Member States and stepping up cooperation with National Human Rights Institutions, civil society organisations and grassroots movements, including human rights-based COVID-19 response and recovery and implementation of the SDGs.
The recently launched first-ever UN System wide Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space will be a critical tool for UN Country Teams to support and strengthen civil society.
Furthermore, reports and COVID-19 guidance prepared by OHCHR, international human rights mechanisms and other partners such as the Danish Institute carry a wealth of information relevant to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and COVID-19 recovery.
Similarly, the Office will continue to support efforts to strengthen the engagement of National Human Rights Institutions in implementation and reporting on the 2030 Agenda as well as responding to the challenges of the pandemic through human rights approaches.
Recovering better will require concerted efforts to rebuild trust in the institutions of governance, with a renewed commitment to eliminating discrimination, promoting meaningful participation and accountability, and protecting fundamental freedoms. We need to reverse the worrying trend of shrinking civic space, and create platforms – including through the use of online platforms – for meaningful participation of those affected that will help us to draw on people’s unique experiences, resilience, insights, ideas and visions.
I look forward to listening to your views and practical experiences on how we can make this a reality – achieve the 17 sustainable development goals by 2030 on the basis of international human rights standards.
Ilze Brands Kehris is Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights heading the UN Human Rights Office in New York