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Seminar on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: on the road to the European Union Social Summit

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Right

3 May 2021

Greetings to all of you. This is a welcome initiative, and it confirms Portugal's consistent leadership on economic, social and cultural rights issues over the past 20 years.

It was Portugal that ably steered the talks which led to adoption of the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 2008, that achievement has enabled victims to seek justice for violations of their economic, social and cultural rights at the international level. And it has brought more balance to the international system to protect and promote all human rights.

Economic, social and cultural rights are essential to human dignity. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vital role they play in upholding a sound society and resilient, sustainable economy.

The pandemic exploited deficiencies in health-care, social protection, housing, sanitation, decent work conditions and education systems. It made those deficiencies far worse – shattering entire sectors of the global economy; throwing millions of people into poverty; pushing health-care systems towards breakdown; and depriving millions of children of education. And it demonstrated how badly those human rights protection gaps harm not only the individuals directly affected – but also, more broadly, all of society.

As the Human Rights Council's Resolution 46/10 asserts, to ensure a more resilient recovery, the current crisis can, and should, become the catalyst for a transformative advancement of economic, social and cultural rights – beginning now.

In the coming months, States will inevitably be making massive investments in rebuilding economies and societies.  I urge policy-makers to invest considerable resources in quality public services, including comprehensive health and social systems.

Universal social protection is a key lever that facilitates access to health care, protects people against poverty, and ensures that future generations can thrive. It also helps to protect women – half the population – from shouldering an incapacitating and  disproportionate burden of care work. This unpaid burden of care suffered by many women  has increased sharply over the past 15 months, with heavy long-term impact on women’s access to formal employment, decent wages and proper social security protections in the future. Addressing these challenges is not a special favour – it is an investment in better functioning economies, and a fundamental human right.

International human rights law is clear that States must use maximum available resources to advance economic, social and cultural rights, and that budgets for essential goods and services should be ring-fenced. This may require progressive taxation, measures to strengthen capacity to collect taxes and to fight tax evasion, and steps to tackle corruption.

I view it as crucial for the European Union to exercise collective leadership in  combatting inequalities and ensuring that no one is left behind, within and outside its borders. Ensuring that countries both within and outside the European Union can step up their health and social protection systems, including their access to vaccines, is among the most sound investments the EU can make.

I welcome the recent adoption of the Action Plan on implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. I encourage you to draw upon the content and guidance of the international human rights law system in your efforts.  I urge comprehensive and meaningful participation by all key actors in drawing up and implementing its measures – including employers’ and workers’ representatives, and  civil society, but also – and crucially - local authorities and national human rights institutions. I also encourage the inclusion of clear and time-bound targets and ensure that this work is made accountable to the public.

My hope is that, based on this momentum, we can ensure that social protection, health and other economic, social and cultural rights are no longer viewed as theoretical aspirations, but treated and guaranteed as the rights they are.

I look forward to your expert discussions.