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EU needs to reinvent itself to win fight against poverty
by Olivier De Schutter
Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
 
Jan. 2021
 
The European Union must boldly rethink its socio-economic governance if it is to live up to its commitment to eradicate poverty, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said at the end of an official visit to the EU’s institutions on Friday.
 
“While the EU has made recent progress in the eradication of poverty, it should not fall into complacency,” said Olivier De Schutter. “Its own commitment to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020 was largely missed. Since the EU has experienced steady economic and employment growth until very recently, the only explanation for this failure is that the benefits have not been evenly distributed. This is a defeat for social rights.”
 
One in five people, or 21.1 percent of the population, was at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2019: this represents a total of 92.4 million people. A total of 19.4 million children, representing 23.1 percent, live in poverty across the Union, and 20.4 million workers live at risk of poverty. Women are disproportionately represented among the poor. Eighty-five percent of lone-parent families are led by women, and 40.3 percent of them are at risk of poverty.
 
The crisis triggered by the COVID-19 has affected many Europeans who had never experienced poverty before. “I have spoken with people who have experienced hunger for the first time, who have been exposed because they are homeless, and who are maltreated and abused because of poverty,” said De Schutter.
 
“The EU can play an important role in galvanizing Member States' anti-poverty efforts, notably through the yearly recommendations it issues to its Member States. But instead of prioritizing investments in healthcare, education, and social protection, these recommendations have often imposed budgetary cuts in the name of cost-efficiency. Since 2009, Member States have only decreased their investments in these areas critical for poverty reduction,” the UN expert noted.
 
The European Green Deal was presented at the end of 2019 by President von der Leyen as the new EU growth strategy. “The fight against poverty is the missing piece of this Green Deal. The Green Deal is supposed to combine environmental and social objectives, but as long as this good intention is not translated into concrete actions, millions will continue to struggle for a decent standard of living in a society that leaves them behind.”
 
De Schutter also highlighted that the inability of the EU to address the "race to the bottom” of Member States in the fields of taxation and worker protections undermines its anti-poverty efforts.
 
“Member States compete with each other in very unhelpful ways. They race to the bottom by lowering taxes, wages, and worker protections because they think that's how they can attract investors and improve external cost competitiveness. But undermining social rights not only violates international obligations, it is bad for enterprises, workers, and public coffers alike. Between €160-190 billion are lost each year from tax competition alone. This results in shifting the tax burden from large corporations and wealthy individuals onto workers and consumers.”
 
From 25 November to 28 January, the UN expert met with representatives from institutions such as the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament, the European Labor Authority, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Fundamental Rights Agency, the European Central Bank and the European Investment Bank, as well as national or local representatives from France, Spain, Italy, and Romania. He spoke with numerous civil society organisations representing younger and older adults, Roma populations, migrants, children, people with disabilities, as well as with people affected by poverty across these groups, and with social workers and social partners.
 
“I was impressed by the dedication of the officials with whom I met," De Schutter said. "But goodwill is not enough. If Europe wants to lead the way towards inclusive societies, it needs a bold EU-wide anti-poverty strategy that commits to reducing poverty by 50 percent equally across Member States by 2030.
 
“The current crisis is the chance for Europe to reinvent itself by placing social justice at its core. The presentation of the Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, which should include the Child Guarantee and a proposal to ensure adequate minimum incomes schemes are available across the EU, is an opportunity that should not be wasted." http://bit.ly/3cXEMA5 http://www.srpoverty.org/
 
* Sep. 2020: A rights-based approach to social protection in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery: http://www.srpoverty.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/covid19.pdf


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The world faces a pandemic of human rights abuses in the wake of Covid-19
by António Guterres
Secretary General of the United Nations
 
From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic almost one year ago, it was clear that our world faced far more than a public health emergency. The biggest international crisis in generations quickly morphed into an economic and social crisis. One year on, another stark fact is tragically evident: our world is facing a pandemic of human rights abuses.
 
Covid-19 has deepened preexisting divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, and opened up new fractures, including faultlines in human rights. The pandemic has revealed the interconnectedness of our human family – and of the full spectrum of human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social. When any one of these rights is under attack, others are at risk.
 
The virus has thrived because poverty, discrimination, the destruction of our natural environment and other human rights failures have created enormous fragilities in our societies. The lives of hundreds of millions of families have been turned upside down – with lost jobs, crushing debt and steep falls in income.
 
Frontline workers, people with disabilities, older people, women, girls and minorities have been especially hard hit. In a matter of months, progress on gender equality has been set back decades. Most essential frontline workers are women, and in many countries are often from racially and ethnically marginalised groups.
 
Most of the increased burden of care in the home is taken on by women. Violence against women and girls in all forms has rocketed, from online abuse to domestic violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation and child marriage.
 
Extreme poverty is rising. Young people are struggling, out of school and often with limited access to technology.
 
The latest moral outrage is the failure to ensure equity in vaccination efforts. Just 10 countries have administered more than 75% of all Covid-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose.
 
If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in parts of the global south, it will mutate again and again. New variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and potentially threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics. This could prolong the pandemic significantly, enabling the virus to come back to plague the global north – and delay the world’s economic recovery.
 
The virus is also infecting political and civil rights, and further shrinking civic space. Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organisations.
 
Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists – even medical professionals – have been detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticising government responses to the pandemic. Pandemic-related restrictions have been used to subvert electoral processes and weaken opposition voices.
 
At times, access to life-saving Covid-19 information has been concealed while deadly misinformation has been amplified – even by those in power.
 
Extremists – including white supremacists and neo-Nazis – have exploited the pandemic to boost their ranks through social polarisation and political and cultural manipulation.
 
The pandemic has also made peace efforts more difficult, constraining the ability to conduct negotiations, exacerbating humanitarian needs and undermining progress on other conflict-related human rights challenges.
 
Covid-19 has reinforced two fundamental truths about human rights. First, human rights violations harm us all. Second, human rights are universal and protect us all.
 
An effective response to the pandemic must be based on solidarity and cooperation. Divisive approaches, authoritarianism and nationalism make no sense against a global threat. With the pandemic shining a spotlight on human rights, recovery provides an opportunity to generate momentum for transformation. To succeed, our approaches must have a human rights lens.
 
The sustainable development goals – which are underpinned by human rights – provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies, including the imperative of healthcare for everyone.
 
The recovery must also respect the rights of future generations, enhancing climate action to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and protecting biodiversity. My Call to Action for Human Rights spells out the central role of human rights in crisis response, gender equality, public participation, climate justice and sustainable development.
 
This is not a time to neglect human rights; it is a time when, more than ever, human rights are needed to navigate this crisis in a way that will allow us to achieve inclusive and sustainable development and greater peace.
 
We are all in this together. The virus threatens everyone. Human rights uplift everyone. By respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and equitable solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow.


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