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Social Forum: Good Practices, Success Stories, Lessons Learned and Current Challenges in Combating Poverty and Inequalities

Opening of the Social Forum, 8 October 2020, 10:00-10:30
Virtual -- Room XX, Palais des Nations, Geneva
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

Distinguished panellists,

It is a pleasure to join you today. 

The Social Forum is a unique space for the Human Rights Council. It enables a vibrant dialogue with multiple stakeholders including civil society organisations and grassroots movements to advance the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

I welcome this year’s focus on combatting poverty and inequalities. I look forward to hearing the outcomes of your inclusive discussions.

Rampant poverty, pervasive inequalities and structural discrimination are some of the biggest challenges of our times, leaving scars in every society, across all realms of life.

These are human rights violations.

To be addressed effectively, they require measures grounded in human rights principles.

They need the cooperation and participation of all.

And they demand bold public policies at all levels -- policies that must include the voices and perspectives of those most affected.   

If that was not clear before, COVID-19 has brought it home.

Even before the pandemic, the world was off track to meet many of the Sustainable Development Goals, beginning with the very first one: to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030.

Natural disasters, increasingly severe and frequent due to the climate emergency, exacerbate poverty.

And now, accompanying the health crisis, we are faced with “the deepest global recession since World War II, and the broadest collapse in incomes since 1870”, as warned by the Secretary-General.

As we enter this Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs, we may witness the first rise in global poverty since 1998, undoing decades of progress and pushing more than 100 million people into extreme poverty.

For most of the world’s people, the human right to social protection is but a distant dream.  Seventy-one per cent of today’s global population have no social security coverage, or only partial and inadequate coverage -- including almost two-thirds of the world's children. Global figures count 1.6 billion informal workers and 0.4 billion precarious workers, representing 61 percent of its total global workforce. Women, who comprise the majority in the informal economy, are frequently deprived of social protections.

The pandemic, and the economic downturn that has followed, are hitting these people very hard, exposing social and global injustices. They have exacerbated intersecting and deep-rooted inequalities within countries, and asymmetries among them.

COVID-19 is a global threat -- and for many low and middle-income countries, foreign debt increases their burdens, undermines their ability to respond, and reduces their fiscal space to deliver on basic socio-economic rights including food and water, health and education.

Poorer nations are also facing collapsing trade, falling remittances, capital flight and currency depreciation.

Moreover, the inequalities among nations could be further aggravated if a global recession dries up   already constrained international development assistance.

These extraordinary challenges are making it harder to keep yet another promise of the SDGs: to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

COVID-19 exposed, exacerbated and fed off pre-existing, systemic inequalities and structural discrimination.

We have seen its disparaging effects on people’s access to health care.

And we have seen millions lose their livelihoods -- at the same time we have witnessed the extraordinary growth of the already extraordinary wealth of a handful.

People in vulnerable situations, whose voices have been systematically silenced and whose interests are rarely served, are the worst affected by COVID-19, whether its health or socio-economic impacts.

Women and girls, not due to any inherent fragility, but exactly because of longstanding discrimination and inequality. People living in poverty. People of African descent and members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, whose rights have been denied for far too long by structural racism. Indigenous peoples. People with disabilities. Older people, especially those in care-homes. Migrants and refugees.


COVID-19 has brought to the fore the inequality pandemic overlooked by many.

It is time to stop looking the other way.

We cannot want – or accept -- going back to a so-called normality that made our societies so vulnerable, so fragile, so unequal – and so unjust.   

Building back better is about reversing longstanding cycles of poverty and inequalities.

It is about strengthening our commitment to all human rights for all and to the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is about keeping a promise that we have, so far, fallen short of: to leave no one behind.

The decisions we make now are crucial.

To fulfil this most fundamental promise. To build a fairer and more equal world for present and future generations. A world that is free from poverty and from hunger. Free from want and from fear.

To achieve this, we need global solidarity – and an urgent paradigm shift.

As the Secretary-General said, we need a “New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all.”

All of us -- international organizations, national and local authorities, development partners, civil society, the private sector  and others -- must address underlying issues that perpetuate poverty and inequalities.

That means taking action and supporting measures that create the conditions to overcome these challenges and removing obstacles that stand in the way.

Here I am referring to a more inclusive global governance; better regulations on finance, trade and investment; debt relief; progressive tax systems; tackling corruption, tax abuse and illicit financial flows; promoting transformative change and productive capacities to enable least developed countries and small island developing States to overcome challenges to fight poverty while fighting climate change; development cooperation; and access to medicines and vaccines.

And I cannot stress this enough: any vaccine against COVID-19 must be distributed as a global public good.

I also talking about universal social protection, including universal health coverage. Social protections that enable access to health care and education, protect the right to housing and food, and shield people from extreme poverty. Policies that establish inclusive, participatory processes and ensure equal opportunities for all, including through affirmative action to address structural conditions that sustain inequality.

Protecting people’s right to development, with fair distribution of the benefits of progress, and fulfilling their economic and social rights, as well as their civil, political and cultural rights, helps preserve and rebuild public confidence in institutions. It promotes social justice and peace.

Everywhere, the pivotal role of civil society must be highlighted. For raising awareness, promoting accountability and providing a platform for free, active and meaningful participation in decisions that affect people’s lives -- at the local, national and international levels.


The pandemic has brought us to a crossroads.

From a devastating tragedy, we have the chance to change course.

In a speech addressing the AIDS pandemic in 2005, Nelson Mandela asked:

"When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?"

We know the path we need to take.

I trust your discussions will be a step in the right direction.

With that in mind, I wish you a fruitful session.

Thank you.