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New social contract needed to combat ‘inequality pandemic’: Guterres

“I am pleased to join you to celebrate the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest leaders of our time, a moral giant whose legacy continues to guide us today”, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message to the virtual General Assembly commemoration.

Quoting Madiba – as he’s known affectionately by South Africans – Mr. Guterres said: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest”.

Maintaining that “inequality damages everyone”, the UN chief said it was “a brake on human development and opportunities”.

Discrimination is not only associated with unfair international relations, he added, but also with economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime and poor physical and mental health.

“The answer lies in a New Social Contract, to ensure economic and social justice and respect for human rights”, stressed the UN chief.

Congratulations in order

During the tribute, the Secretary-General extended his “warmest congratulations” to Marianna Vardinoyannis of Greece and Morissana Kouyate of Guinea, the 2020 laureates of the UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize for their long-standing commitment to human rights, access to health care, and the empowerment of women, girls and the most vulnerable in society.

“I commend them for advancing the United Nations’ mission and carrying on the extraordinary legacy of Nelson Mandela”, he asserted.


‘Persistent’ racist plague

Mr. Guterres called “the persistent plague of racism” an “abomination” that violates the UN Charter, “insults our core values” and must be combatted “in all its manifestations”.

In remembering the first democratically elected South African President and global civil rights icon, “let us recall that we all have a part to play in the quest for a better future of dignity, opportunity and prosperity for all people on a healthy planet”, he concluded.

‘Eradicate racism’

Meanwhile, General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, explained that the annual day was established in 2009 to mark Mr. Mandela’s birthday, 18 July, and salute his remarkable life.  

“This Day provides us with a moment to reflect upon the contribution of Nelson Mandela to our world, and to re-affirm our collective commitment to eradicate racism and racial discrimination in every context”, he said. 

As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Assembly president urged everyone to “take inspiration from our esteemed Laureates and honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela, by serving your community in pursuit of a more equal, just, and peaceful future as set out in the Charter of the United Nations”.

Rise in women prisoners and COVID measures, ‘making sentences worse’

In a debate about conditions in detention and how to do more to protect female detainees during the COVID-19 crisis, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, warned that overcrowding had led to serious harm.

“Globally, women represent between two and 10 per cent of prison populations, but their numbers are increasing rapidly – more rapidly than the increase of male prisoners”, said Georgette Gagnon, head of field operations and technical cooperation at OHCHR. 

“Many women detainees face inhuman and degrading treatment during arrest, interrogation and in custody, including being stripped; invasive body searches; rape and threats of rape; so-called ‘virginity testing’; and other acts, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature.”

Transmission prevention fallout

Speakers at the Geneva forum on Wednesday noted that the pandemic continued to represent a threat to inmates’ physical and mental health, and that measures to stop transmission were making their sentences “much harsher”.

The pandemic has “put the spotlight on the systemic challenges that have plagued prisons for decades”, said Sven Pfeiffer from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

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“Overcrowding, coupled with poor prison conditions and a lack of management capacity and resources are key obstacles for compliance with international standards”, he added.

Only six per cent or less of the global prison population had been released to reduce the risk of COVID transmission, said Olivia Rope, Director of Policy and International Advocacy at NGO Penal Reform International.

In a call for urgent and systemic reform, she appealed to governments to apply internationally agreed minimum standards for people in detention, known as the Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules.  

The past decade had seen rising awareness of the needs of women prisoners as a distinct group thanks to the Bangkok Rules, Ms Rope continued, while there had also been some reforms to solitary confinement conditions, better healthcare and training for prison staff, thanks to the Mandela Rules.  

Dignity for prisoners

But “more long-term, systemic reform” is needed that was rooted in the international standards that guided authorities on the practicalities of a human rights-based approach, that respected the dignity of persons detained, Ms. Rope maintained.

Some speakers stressed that the uptick in female prisoners was not owing to an increase in criminality, but rather to political decisions.

Others noted that investing in the proper treatment of prisoners had been proven to reduce re-offending upon release. 

Skills for reintegration 

UNODC’s Mr. Pfeiffer, meanwhile, insisted on the need to tackle the issue of prisoners’ rights from a gender perspective that left no-one behind.

Highlighting the agency’s Global Prison Challenges Programme and field-based projects with more than 40 Member States, he explained how women prisoners in Bolivia learned construction, metal work and carpentry – skills that they could apply once released. 

These measures are in line with the framework of Sustainable Development Goal 16 of “promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies”, which recognises that overcrowded prisons cannot protect society from crime and rehabilitate offenders, UNODC said.  

‘Turn the tide’ across a turbulent world, UN chief urges key development forum 

While acknowledging that the planet was not on track last year to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, he told the start of the Ministerial Segment of the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) that today “our world is in turmoil”. 

In addition to unacceptably high levels of poverty; a rapidly worsening climate emergency; persistent gender inequality; and massive gaps in financing, the UN chief called COVID-19 “another massive global challenge”. 

The gravity of the crisis should not be lost on anyone — UN chief

Pointing to more than 12 million infections, 550,000 deaths, hundreds of millions of jobs lost and the sharpest decline in per capita income since 1870, the top UN official bemoaned that “some 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by year’s end – double the number at risk before the crisis”.

“The gravity of the crisis should not be lost on anyone”, he said, “and the impacts of this pandemic are falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable”.

“Although “we desperately need to leap ahead, COVID-19…is taking us further away from the SDGs”, the UN chief commented.

Turning around

The Secretary-General cited inequalities within and between countries; a lack of resiliency investments; and disregard for the natural environment as some of the reasons sparking the “devasting impacts” of the COVID-19 crisis. 

And although “we have yet to take the SDGs seriously”, he maintained, that “we can turn this around”. 

“With the 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development], and the SDGs, we have an enduring and unifying vision; a framework to guide our decisions as we look to respond and recover better”, upheld the UN chief.

New normal

The world cannot go back to “the previous so-called normal”, Mr. Guterres acknowledged, stressing the need for SDG-inspired solutions. 

“We must rise to meet the moment”, he said, urging the HLPF to “share experiences, understand what works and can replicated” and renew determination for multilateral responses to help turn the tide globally.

The HLPF aims to chart a clearer path for countries to better recover, share experiences and fend off challenges in pursuing the Global Goals, while sharing strategies to tackle the pandemic and help countries meet their commitments by 2030.

Multi-dimensional challenges

According to Mona Juul, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), under whose auspices the meeting is being held, the pandemic is “not only a threat to our health, but a human crisis of multiple dimensions”.

After a week of expert-level discussions, she noted the setbacks caused by COVID-19, and encouraged a response in alignment with the 2030 Agenda “if we hope to accelerate and maintain social and economic progress”.

The ECOSOC head spelled out: “Global leadership must be strengthened in all areas” and we must galvanize our responses both individually and collectively “to work together better, and ensure that this decade ushers a new era of peace and prosperity for all”.

She elaborated on some of the steps needed, including sharing economic benefits, revamping social protection programmes, delivering universal health care for all, empowering women and girls, listening to youth and halting the reversal of gains made by the most vulnerable groups of countries.

“We must find the way to leverage political will, to ensure evidence-based decision-making”, she underscored. “The recovery phase from the pandemic represents an opportunity for all levels of government to build back more inclusive, equal, resilient and sustainable societies”.

In closing, Ms. Juul commended the participants and the 47 countries that presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) on concrete plans of action to meet the 2030 challenge. 

‘Collective efforts’

General Assembly President, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, called for “collective efforts to accelerate action and carve out transformative pathways to ensure that we leave no one behind”.

“Humanity cannot survive these multiple parallel crises if we do not work together with full respect for all peoples and all life on this planet”, he stressed, pushing for “a whole of Agenda approach”. 

The Assembly president elaborated on the need to provide social protection, protect human rights, promote health and invest in infrastructure while prioritizing education, clean water and sanitation. 

Financing progress

And progress requires financing. 

“We must work to alleviate the impact on the well-being and livelihoods of people in developing countries and build back better to bolster their economies”, he advised, underlining the need to “uphold our commitments to finance sustainable development efforts”.     

Creating vital fiscal space for investments to guarantee sustainable development for countries in need requires “improved governance, fair tax systems and a renewed commitment to eliminate illicit financial flows”, the UN official stated.

“Make no mistake, durable solutions emanate from strong political will and resilient institutions”, he explained and building economies with decent work for all is “the foundation” of an inclusive future.

“This is a moment of reckoning”, concluded the Assembly president. “Now is the time to build back better, to step up our ambition and translate the Global Goals into local action… to create the future we want”.

Voices of youth

On behalf of youth speakers, Farai Mubaiwa, Co-Founder of the Afrika Matters Initiative (AMI) and the lead at South Africa’s Youth Employment Service, spoke about what she identified as other pandemics, including femicide, which “ravages women and girls across Member States”; the plight of black bodies globally; and the human impact on climate change.

Calling young people “the leaders of today” who are “actively changing their communities for the better”, Ms. Mubaiwa declared that “youth inclusion is no longer a debate, it is a necessity” to confront what lies ahead. 

Meanwhile, in her keynote statement, youth speaker Tina Hocevar, Vice-President of the European Youth Forum, counselled against a future that goes back to “normal”, saying that it had never worked “for the majority of us, nor for our planet”.

In looking ahead, she advised participants instead to embrace change with compasses “set on promoting fairness, equity, integrity, human dignity and human worth”.

UNAMID/Amin Ismail
A High-Level Sudan Partnership Conference in Berlin acknowledged young people, especially women and girls, as drivers of change for a democratic, free and peaceful country.

‘Women Rise for All’ to shape leadership in pandemic response and recovery

“Over the past months, people around the world have come to see what many of us already knew: women’s leadership makes a profound difference”, Amina Mohammed said on Tuesday.

“The evidence has shown — in country after country — how governments led by women are more effective in flattening the curve and positioning for economic recovery.”

Ms. Mohammed was addressing Women Rise for All, a virtual gathering of influential women from across different regions, sectors and generations, to examine how their leadership is shaping pandemic response and recovery that benefits all people.

“We want to shape the way we define leadership. And ensure that we emerge from this pandemic with women leading, in equal numbers, and equal partnership”, she explained.

‘Silver lining’ in the crisis

Women’s proven leadership has emerged as a “silver lining” in the pandemic, one of the world’s leading advocates for the rights of women and children told the gathering.

Graça Machel believes it was no accident that countries with women Heads of State—such as New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Taiwan—have been comparatively successful in beating back the deadly new coronavirus.

“This crisis has brought to light an undeniable truth: that the leadership of women is essential for us to effectively recreate the world…that is more human-centred, that is more equal; a world in which such social justice is the goal”, she said in her keynote address.

For former Mozambican minister Ms. Machel, the pandemic must also lead to a re-examining of dominant value systems as the world cannot return to how it was prior to the crisis.

“We must live on a planet where materialism, greed, inequalities no longer divide the human family”, she stated.

Solidarity for all

Women Rise for All was launched on social media in April, to support the UN Secretary-General’s call for solidarity and urgent action during the pandemic.

Coronavirus Portal & News Updates

Readers can find information and guidance on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) from the UN, World Health Organization and UN agencies here. For daily news updates from UN News, click here.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 12.9 million cases of COVID-19 globally, and more than 560,000 deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported.

Even in the midst of this “devastating crisis”, there is an opportunity to build a better world that works for all, according to Ms. Mohammed.

“That will only be possible when we recognize the value of women front and centre, together leading the way and rising for all”, she said

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