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Strengthening social protection in the EU

Webinar Building Back Better:

Strengthening Social Protection in the European Union


Statement by

Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)


23 June 2020


Good morning. I would like to thank our distinguished guests and participants for taking part in this reflection on Building Back Better: Strengthening social protection in the European Union.

Why this webinar? We are all aware of the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacted on societies. It has shown just how interconnected we are. We have realized that our health systems are only as good as their weakest link. The global health crisis also has serious social and economic consequences, that are upending the lives of millions of people around the world.

But the crisis has also triggered calls for solidarity and social cohesion. There is a reckoning that something needs to change so that our systems work for everybody, and that we should avoid the devastating consequences of the response given to the 2008 economic crisis.

We need to seize this opportunity to build back better and we need to do so with a sense of urgency, seizing the momentum that has arisen. That is why we are here today.

People who were already in a precarious situation before the crisis struck have tended to be the hardest hit by the pandemic and its socio-economic impact. Poor people have worse health, live in worse conditions, and may not have been able to ‘self-isolate.’ As a result, they are more vulnerable to the disease. And when they do have access to health, which is not the case for everyone, it may not always be affordable.

We have also seen people fall through the cracks: the self-employed, homemakers, recently graduated students, or persons in between jobs. We have witnessed serious problems with support systems for older persons and persons with disabilities.

The crisis is also heavily gendered, both in impact and response. Women do more unpaid care work than men and more frequently find themselves in the informal economy which has received much less State attention than the formal economy.

There is no one size fits all response to overcome this crisis, but the normative and policy framework, as set out in international human rights law and labour standards and in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, can help to define an appropriate response.

Social protection is crucial for guaranteeing a life in dignity. Its core principles of universality, solidarity and equality are key to the enjoyment of all human rights.

The right to social protection is anchored in article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in the Social Security Minimum Standards Convention (1952), and in articles 9 and 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).

In 2012, ILO Recommendation No. 202 on Social Protection Floors was adopted. This recommendation built on the Bachelet Report, named after our High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet who chaired the Social Protection Floor Advisory Group. 

Then, in 2015, States adopted the Sustainable Development Agenda which includes several targets that relate to social protection (target 1.3.) – not to mention the cross-cutting commitment to leave no one behind.

At the global level, we are witnessing a growing political will to strengthen social protection as a tool against poverty and inequality. Therefore, we have before us an opportunity to build back better: an opportunity to shift gear and to fully mobilize the potential of social protection to help eradicate poverty and inequality. But for that, we need a people-centered response to COVID-19 that places people — and their rights — front and centre in the COVID-19 response and recovery. 

We have two distinguished panels today – with experts from the United Nations, the European Commission, national human rights institutions, EU social partners, and civil society.

The first panel will discuss gaps in the existing systems, as well as some initiatives that have worked well or are in the pipeline.

The second panel will dive into the principle of participation, which is a core principle of the human rights approach to any type of policymaking. Who needs to be at the table? We know by now that sustainable and effective solutions require broad participation, including by those who have traditionally been left behind. This poses a real challenge. Who are these constituencies? And how can they be heard?

I encourage you all to participate actively and I sincerely hope that today’s exchange will contribute to shaping inclusive, fairer and more resilient societies. Thank you.