Discussing Human Rights, Rule of Law and the renewed social contract in the COVID-19 reality

Discussing Human Rights, Rule of Law and the renewed social contract in the COVID-19 reality

Posted On June 29, 2020

© UNDP Somalia

As prepared for delivery



Ladies and Gentlemen,


I would like to warmly welcome all of you to this virtual meeting -- a first for the Annual Meeting on Rule of Law and Human Rights. 

After 12 years of gathering in New York in person, we now connect from all corners of the planet.

This global network of Member states, United Nations and UNDP staff, public servants, NGOs, and individuals represents our collective commitment to strengthen the Rule of Law and Human Rights as we work towards the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs and secure a new “social contract”.

I would like to extend a particular welcome to our distinguished speakers from Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Armenia, Sri Lanka, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

I would also like to take a moment to thank those who directly contribute to UNDP’s ability to implement comprehensive rule of law and human rights programmes: the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, and Japan.

Current “State of Affairs” and Challenges

Let me start with a reflection on the challenges that lie before us.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking the very foundations of our societies. It is exposing inequalities, weak health and social security systems and the digital divide.

It is also complicating our existing governance, human rights and security challenges.

We have seen governance by coercion, control and consent in various combinations.

And violence against women has spiked dramatically in the wake of global lockdowns.

Indeed, structural discrimination was starkly illustrated by the disproportionate impact of the virus on marginalized groups.

It shows that the enjoyment of rights is neither a “given” -- nor is it equal.

It is clear that tough choices had to be made but obligations to respect human rights and the rule of law remain in place. This is not purely a legal requirement but a value-based approach which grounds the well-being of our societies.

And we must remember that the pandemic did not occur in a vacuum.

We were already seeing searing divisions in the political discourse; racism and exclusion; and the erosion of trust.

In particular, I see three main trends in this area:  

1.      Firstly, voter turnout has fallen by  a massive 10 per cent since the beginning of the 1990s -- some may argue that the public is “voting with its feet” when it comes to expressing faith in the electoral process. At the same time, there are positive developments -- one global poll suggests that trust in government has risen by 11 points to an all-time high of 65 per cent during the pandemic.

2.      Secondly, we have seen increasing demands for socio-economic justice and accountability for human rights violations. In 2018 and 2019 alone, millions of people in more than 60 countries -- from Chile to Sudan to France -- came on to the streets to make their voices heard on a range of social, economic and political concerns. As UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report put it, inequality was a common thread. And the current anti-racism protests worldwide have brought calls for accountability, justice and the rule of law to the very forefront of our thinking.

3. And thirdly, conflicts and instability in many parts of the world intensified continuing to cause untold human suffering. And forced displacement continued to reach new record numbers in 2019 -- nearly 80 million people. 

It could be said that the COVID-19 crisis has played out in this “theatre of risks”.

“The Way Forward”

So, as we move forward from the pandemic and support the socio-economic recovery, we are at a critical turning point – which I believe we must turn into a positive “tipping point”.

We must influence change in a direction which is transformational for people and the planet.

It is clear that securing the rule of law and human rights is key to achieving the transformational change we need -- based on principles of trust, accountability and justice. This ultimately means forging a new, more inclusive “social contract”.

In this context, UNDP has a mandate through the 2030 Agenda to support people-centred justice; reduce violence -- and build inclusive and effective institutions. 

This is also the foundation on which we have built successive Global Programmes on Strengthening the Rule of Law and Human Rights

Examples of how UNDP’s work is contributing to Progress

So, I would like to share some examples of how UNDP’s works to achieve our objectives.

·         Firstly, we continue to strengthen national human rights systems

This work is an important part of our commitment to the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action on Human Rights.

-We work closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions.

-In 2019, UNDP supported over 50 National Human Rights Institutions to provide better service to communities and oversee governments. 

And our support resulted in a number of notable outcomes. To take a few examples:

-In Ukraine, the number of people expressing trust in the Office of the Ombudsperson rose by 17 percentage points from 2018 to 2019.

-In Mali, joint efforts with OHCHR enabled the National Human Rights Commission to monitor places of detention and to ensure that human rights challenges are taken into account by the government.

We also know that the private sector is key to increasing respect for human rights, including labour rights. 

We are committed to supporting responsible business through the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. And tomorrow, 30 June 2020, we will be launching a global effort on business and human rights -- capitalizing on the important work we have been undertaking in the Asia-Pacific region to date.

·         Secondly, we are strongly committed to supporting the rule of law and sustaining peace efforts – we do this by leveraging our “integrator” function. 

For instance:

We remain heavily invested in supporting the Global Focal Point for the Rule of Law with the Department of Peace Operations.

-We have a strong partnership with UN High Commissioner for Refugees – and in 2019, we made a pledge to the Global Refugee Forum to support displaced people in 20 countries.

-Thanks to support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, we began a new initiative on gender justice with UN Women in 2019.

-In 2019, we supported joint engagements with peace operations capacities in 13 contexts -- for instance in Haiti and the Central African Republic. I am pleased that we will be hearing from these two countries in the next session.

-And with the Peace Building Fund and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, we will be targeting armed violence reduction at country-level in 2020.

·         Thirdly, we are committed to prioritizing innovation – including using digital technology in the rule of law and human rights arenas. Notably, service provision during the pandemic has been enabled by the adaptability of online platforms and apps.

-For example, in Pakistan, UNDP and Peshawar High Court are establishing 14 “virtual courts” to ensure the timely hearing of civil and criminal cases.

-Or in the Kyrgyz Republic, where we partnered with private pro bono lawyers and tech companies to provide free legal aid online and to support survivors of Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) during the quarantine.

We also remain mindful of the need to ensure such new systems are based on human rights – and take privacy considerations into account.

In a wider sense, through our Digital Strategy, UNDP is committed to improving access and overcoming the digital divide at a time when women are 20 per cent less likely to own a smartphone in low- and middle-income countries than men.

At the same time, we know that connectivity is more important than ever to access life-saving information and justice services.


In closing, UNDP remains driven to remove the barriers which people face in realizing their rights -- and support institutions to modernize, expand access and ensure that services are provided without discrimination.

To this end, UNDP’s partners help us shape priorities and magnify our impact -- from UN partners to national institutions to civil society.

Therefore, we look forward to hearing the eye-opening and innovative contributions to Reimagining the Rule of Law & The Future We Want. The consultations are a chance for us to work even more closely together to shape that brighter future.

And making those right choices as we recover from COVID-19 could be the “tipping points” that transform our planet and our societies for the better – changes that help advance a new “social contract” fully based on accountability, trust and justice.