Header image for news printout

High Level Dialogue on the Future of the International Human Rights Cities Movement
Theme: Human rights principles to "build forward fairer": from local policies to collective actions

Opening remarks

7 October 2021

Excellencies, dear Mayors,
Ladies and gentlemen,

What an extraordinary year and a half it has been!

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world - especially on human rights. According to the World Bank, it may have pushed up to 115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. These figures may rise to 150 million in 2021.1 COVID-19 has had consequences for employment and the right to an adequate standard of living. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has noted that working hours equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs were lost in the fourth quarter of 2020, compared to one year earlier.2

Even prior to the pandemic, disrespect and attacks on human rights had slowly eroded the trust of people in their governments. Inequalities within and between nations have increased. And we were already off-track in meeting our commitments to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

But there is a silver lining, a historic and perhaps unique opportunity to rethink and recalibrate for a better future anchored in human rights.

In order to re-build fairer and more equal societies, we must address the underlying weaknesses in our social and economic systems highlighted by the pandemic. This is at the heart of the aspiration to rebuild a new social contract” and embrace a comprehensive vision of human rights, as called for by the UN Secretary-General in “Our Common Agenda” released last month.

This Agenda lays the ground for our common work in a number of crucial areas: strengthening global solidarity; correcting a glaring blind spot in how we measure economic prosperity and progress; thinking ahead to deliver more for young people and succeeding generations. 

The Secretary-General also calls for “a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system to bring about more participation, representation and meaningful efforts to build forward better, and will seek to have an “Advisory Group on Local and Regional Governments” which clearly have a vital role to play.

But we must move beyond words. Quickly. Decisively. Indeed, we have already witnessed many positive initiatives and examples of cities adopting human rights-based policies across the pandemic response and recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important the right to adequate housing is important for the dignity and safety of all. Yet many people had a hard time paying their rents and mortgages because of the impact of the pandemic on their salaries and income. In various parts of the world, local governments put in place measures to avoid evictions; examples include the eviction moratorium introduced in New York and rental payment exemption in Kuala Lumpur.  

COVID-19 has also heavily impacted the right to livelihood and food worldwide. To mitigate this impact, in Senegal, local governments supplied food baskets to marginalized or poor families with items produced by local women farmers who could not sell their products because of movement restrictions. In Liberia, the government provided students staying at home during the crisis with home meals in lieu to those that they would receive at school, an approach that was used during Ebola alongside their neighbour Sierra Leone.

Hearing and learning about the experiences of cities, local and regional governments is therefore essential.

How are you dealing with poverty, inequalities and discriminations locally? How are you achieving results in promoting and protecting the human rights of your constituencies? How do you address issues that have been so central to the COVID-19 responses, such as the rights to health, social protection, housing, water and sanitation, even when resources or legal capacities may be lacking?

The event today is a great opportunity to explore such efforts and experiences in applying rights-based approaches to pandemic response and recovery. It is also an opportunity to link different discussions, such as those taking place at the UN, its Human Rights Council, at the World Human Rights Forum and at local levels.

Together with UCLG, we look forward to strengthening our collective efforts - UN Human Rights, Mayors, local governments and their networks - to take the human rights cities movement to the next level. 

We look forward to continued close exchange and collaboration! 

Thank you.

1 World Bank, Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020: Reversals of Fortune (Washington, D.C., 2020), p. 21 in HC report to the ECOSOC, E/2020/63

2 “ILO monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work, seventh edition”, 25 January 2021. Available at www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/briefingnote/ wcms_767028.pdf in HC report to the ECOSCOC, E/2020/63