2021 Human Rights Day: Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights

Annually, December 10 is observed as International Human Rights Day. It is set aside to honour the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Also on this day in 1996, Former South African President, Nelson Mandela signed into law a new constitution for South Africa. The new constitution legally-established racial equality and consigned apartheid to history.

The past two years have demonstrated, all too painfully, the intolerable cost of soaring inequalities. Inequalities that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly 73 years ago on 10 December 1948, sought to eradicate in its effort to pave a path to a better world.

The decades since then has seen some very significant progress – gradual, uneven progress, with frequent set-backs, but definite progress nonetheless.

The world as a whole grew richer, and people lived longer. More children went to school, and more women were able to gain a greater measure of autonomy. More people in more countries had more opportunities to break the shackles of poverty, class, caste and gender.

However, over the past twenty years, since 2001, a succession of global shocks have undermined that progress. And the onset of this devastating pandemic in 2020 has laid bare many of our failures to consolidate the advances we had made.

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Inequalities have fuelled the pandemic, and continue to do so. In turn, the pandemic has fed a frightening rise in inequalities, leading to disproportionate transmission and death rates in the most marginalized communities, as well as contributing to soaring poverty levels, increased hunger, and plummeting living standards. These in turn risk fuelling grievances, social unrest and even full-blown conflict.

Women, low-income and informal workers, younger and older people, and those with disabilities, as well as members of ethnic, racial and religious minorities and indigenous peoples are among those hit hardest, creating even greater age, gender and racial inequalities.

Inequalities have widened both within and between countries, with most developed economies forecast to grow in 2022, while the lowest-income countries are projected to endure continued recession, pushing their people even further behind.

This divergence has been aggravated by shockingly unequal vaccine coverage – by 1 December, barely 8% of adults had received one dose of vaccine in low-income families, compared to 65% in high-income countries – and by shortfalls in social protections, which in the developed world kept many people afloat during the worst months of the crisis.

In Europe, for example, according to the IMF at least 54 million jobs were supported between March and October 2020, keeping people and companies from going under. Such assistance was less available in other regions, especially in Subsaharan Africa.

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The environmental crisis is further worsening discrimination, marginalization, and inequity. A total of 389 climate-related disasters were recorded in 2020 – resulting in the deaths of more than 15,000 people, affecting 98 million others, and inflicting $171 billion in economic damage.

Climate-related migration is also on the rise. Actions to address these crises are not sufficient to avert these devastating human rights consequences, with affected communities often shut out of environmental decision-making processes where their input is essential.

The Common Agenda set out by the UN Secretary-General in September 2021 calls for renewed solidarity between peoples and future generations; a new social contract anchored in human rights; better management of critical issues involving peace, development, health and our planet; and a revitalised multilateralism that can meet the challenges of our times.

This is an agenda of action – and an agenda of rights.

It means moving from the temporary pandemic measures to shore up health care and income protection to long-term investments in universal social protections – including universal health coverage – as well as decent housing, decent work, and access to quality education. It also means investment to bridge the digital divide.

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It means decisive action to uphold climate justice and the universal human right to a healthy environment.

It means empowering people everywhere to speak up freely, and protecting civic space so that individuals can meaningfully participate in decisions that may have a dramatic impact on their lives.

Equality is at the heart of human rights, and at the heart of the solutions required to carry us through this period of global crisis. That doesn’t mean we must all look the same, think the same or act the same.

Quite the opposite. It means that we embrace our diversity and demand that we are all treated without any kind of discrimination.

Equality is about empathy and solidarity and about understanding that, as a common humanity, our only way forward is to work together for the common good.

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