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Pandemic policies for economic, social and cultural rights

49th session of the Human Rights Council

Panel discussion on the importance of robust public policies and services for the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic recovery

22 March 2022

Opening statement by Ms. Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Distinguished President of the Council,

Excellencies,

Colleagues and friends,

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the achievement of economic, social and cultural rights even more urgent.

Due to the pandemic, more than 350 million jobs have been lost.[1] The number of extremely poor increased by between 119 million and 124 million in 2020 only.[2] World hunger is on the rise with approximately 820 million people suffering from hunger and 2 billion being food insecure.[3]

The most affected are the poorest and most marginalized segments of the population, including women, children, migrants, indigenous peoples, internally displaced persons, persons with disabilities, older persons, ethnic and racial minorities and those living in conflict-affected areas.

Access to health care, work, education, housing and other essential services in some countries, already inadequate prior to the pandemic, has been seriously compromised.

According to the 2019 data, only 22 per cent of the unemployed worldwide received unemployment benefits and 28 per cent of persons with severe disabilities disability benefits. Effective access to social protection was guaranteed to 35 per cent of children worldwide while merely 41 per cent of women giving birth obtained maternity benefits.[4]

At the same time, gaps in social protection and insufficient benefits have contributed to exacerbating deep-seated inequalities, with informal workers, most of them women, often excluded from protection.

Women's and girls' unpaid care work increased dramatically during the pandemic, making up for States' shortcomings in providing essential public services.

Excellencies,

There could not be a better time to discuss the crucial role public policies and services can play to advance the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

The report of the Secretary General (A/HRC/49/28) provides an overview of the impact of the pandemic on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as of the unprecedented measures adopted by States to mitigate them.

Among others, Finland, Malawi, Namibia, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Thailand and the United States of America have expanded their social assistance programmes by introducing new cash transfers targeting those who are typically excluded, such as informal workers, freelancers and self-employed, including those working in the gig economy.

Others, such as Argentina and Bolivia, have mobilized domestic resources moving towards more progressive taxation systems to create adequate fiscal space for social protection.

The report underscores how human rights norms and principles offer guidance for the design and delivery of inclusive public policies and services and for the move away from temporary and ad-hoc measures towards longer-term public policies and adequately resourced services for health, social protection, education, food, water and sanitation and housing.

Investing in economic, social and cultural rights is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. It is vital for economic prosperity and political stability. It is essential for a renewed social contract between Governments and its people, key for rebuilding trust and for the recovery itself.

Our Office is actively supporting countries in ensuring that all people, including the most marginalized, receive the support they need throughout and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

In Paraguay and Uruguay, we helped expand social protection coverage, including by accounting for women and girls' unpaid care work.

And in Cambodia, our country office jointly with United Nations partners, has supported the design of a human rights-based social protection system, prioritization of healthcare budgets and civil society participation.

We need to learn the hard lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: it is essential that States support each other in building better and stronger public services, such as universal social protection and health care.

Investing in those essential services pays off in the short-term – by mitigating impact – and in the long term, by nurturing human development, economic productivity and resilience, fostering institutions so that they are able to withstand future shocks and respond effectively to crises.

Our Office stands ready to support member states efforts, including through the development of guidelines on a human rights-based approach to building, financing and implementing inclusive public policies and services in the areas of health and social protection.

I wish you productive and enriching discussions.

[1] https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_824098/lang--en/index.htm

[2] https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-09/SG-Policy-Brief-on-Jobs-and-Social-Protection-Sept%202021.pdf, p. 4.

[3] https://www.fao.org/3/cb4474en/cb4474en.pdf

[4] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/24978Report_of_the_SG_on_SDG_Progress_2019.pdf, p. 58