Third Plenary Session of the 10th World Human Rights Cities Forum

Welcome to the third plenary session of the 10th World Human Rights Cities Forum, co-organized by UNESCO and United Cities and Local Governments.  My name is Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO.  I want to thank the City of Gwangju for hosting this very important event. For this session, we will discuss “Local Governments Building the Post COVID-19 World: Public Services and Human Rights Challenges.”

Cities are at the vanguard of defending and safeguarding human rights as they are at the front lines of the manifold challenges besetting our contemporary societies – rapid urbanization, human mobility, climate change, rising poverty and inequalities, and now as if we didn’t have enough, the COVID-19 pandemic. The crucial role of cities was once again demonstrated during this crisis, where the local responses called for the need to prioritize the most vulnerable groups, or those that have been most affected, including women and youth. During the crisis, cities have been at the forefront to provide services to save lives and to save livelihoods. Action had to be strengthened given that even prior to the pandemic, socioeconomic inequalities were on the rise, and they have been manifestly magnified during the current juncture.

Over the years, local governments have made progress in advancing economic, social and cultural rights through the development of inclusive social policies and the delivery of public services, including in the areas of education, health and economic security. In a highly unequal world, the commitment of local governments in protecting and promoting human rights, and delivering on those services, is now needed more than ever. 

The commitment to “localize” human rights, including through the promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals, should be at the heart of every human rights cities’ mandate. But human rights in its broader sense including the right to socioeconomic development. I want to quote Amartya Sen here, who said: “Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy”, and it has to be people-centred.

UNESCO has made strides in advancing a global narrative of how cities can contribute to the goals through the SDGs and the Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda. Through the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities, a global platform of more than 500 cities around the world, UNESCO promotes the significance of the human face of urbanization in today’s world. The cities act with a common voice that strive to fight against the social ills that arise from current social transformations.  This has focused also in promoting gender equality and youth empowerment as essential ingredients for urban inclusion and have set a pioneering example of global solidarity and cooperation among local and regional governments.

Once more in the current juncture, we should focus on women and youth. We should avoid a lost generation as a major casualty of the Covid crisis.

But we know that the COVID has had a huge impact on our lives, and on our cities. UNESCO’s data on the access to employment and financial services in a number of Sub-Saharan African cities is huge – and the impact is more felt with the most vulnerable.  70% of the population had difficulty with access to employment services while 54% had difficulties with access to financial services. In addition to these barriers to accessibility, discrimination was prevalent among the population surveyed during COVID-19 with social status as the most widely reported discriminatory factors at 24% of the responses, followed closely by political identification at 21% of those who responded to our call.

This really calls for renewed action against discrimination and cities again play a crucial role in ensuring that people are free from this evil, from racism and violence, which, just like socio-economic inequalities, tend to be compounded in times of crisis. We cannot ignore for example the very unfair burden that has fallen on women’s shoulders, be it as health staff, as caregivers or as the so called “essential workers”.

Even worse, as victims of unacceptable levels of violence, women have really been at the core of this agenda. In the twelve months before the pandemic, gender-based violence affected 243 million women and girls. The pandemic actually exacerbated this growing problem exposing women to threats to their personal integrity.  With aggravating factors such as isolation, financial and food insecurity, unemployment, and the impossibility of escaping from their abusers, this number has increased massively. Only days after the lockdown measures, domestic and intimate partner violence increased from 30% to 50% in certain countries according to UN Women. Actually they didn’t have the services to counter this threat, even the security services. One of the most striking facts is that women have been affected 1.8 times more from the pandemic, considering the economic impact when you compare them with men, increasing of course their initial status of vulnerability. It is a well-known vicious cycle of women being more vulnerable, so in times of shock, things can only get worse.

Therefore, we need cities to focus on gender-based responses to the crisis. Differently from the 2008 financial crisis, this time, the sectors that are more hardest hit are overrepresenting women. There are 527 million women workers in accommodation and food services, real estate, manufacturing and retail trade, and 42% of women in informal economy work in these sectors too. Many women and girls among the rising UN estimate of 214 million people who will be living in poverty. Girls are also more affected by school closures and many will never come back.

So, human rights issues are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic.  Now, more than ever, it is important to recognize the magnitude of its adverse effects on the protection and promotion of universal human rights, and to collectively reflect on the way forward.

Today, local human rights measures are mainly focused on mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in exacerbating existing social issues, with local governments worldwide showcasing their creativity and determination through their best response practices.

However, beyond mobilizing local efforts, it is equally important to be able to analyze with a careful eye, an open mind and an innovative lens the adverse effects of the crisis on the most vulnerable groups and evaluate the various modes of recourse that can be taken to protect them. Thus, we can move forward from this pandemic to build the “next new normal” that will be better if we take the right decisions and if we prioritize again, the vulnerable groups. I cannot emphasize how much we really need to prioritize the vulnerable groups.

This is an unprecedented time for the international community and must be handled with the utmost solidarity, collaboration and innovation. As we engage in a critical dialogue about our challenges and efforts during the crisis, let us encourage one another to be resilient and to uphold the support of empowerment of citizens. 

It is in this regard that we must mobilize our resources and work together in order to use our collective synergies to effectively rebuild the world in the aftermath of COVID-19.  If we want to build back better, we know where the efforts should be put, and include the social inclusion dimensions, through a human rights-based approach at the center. UNESCO stands ready to build partnerships, starting with the City of Gwangju, as well as the other actors in the Forum to advance this agenda. Let us take concrete action and work collaboratively through our networks. It is through partnerships towards our common goal of inclusive urban governance that the best interest of humankind will be served.

Once again, I warmly welcome you to the third plenary session of the 10th World Human Rights Cities Forum.  May it be purposeful, productive and progressive for all of us. 

Thank you very much.

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