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The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis for human rights and development

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Photo: Julien Behal / The Elders

Mary Robinson highlights the need to uphold the rights of the most vulnerable in an address to the UN Human Rights Council.

This speech was delivered virtually at the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 1 March 2021.

Madam President of the Human Rights Council, Madam High Commissioner, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to join you today for this important and timely debate on the rights of the child, and how these can be protected and strengthened as the world continues to grapple with the deadly impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am only sorry that we cannot meet together in Geneva, as I have done so many times before, both as High Commissioner myself and in the role I hold today as Chair of The Elders, the group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice and human rights.

The past twelve months have been devastating for millions of people across the world, in terms of health, security, prosperity and dignity.

COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on existing inequalities and in many cases exacerbated the damage wrought to the social fabric and the life chances and health of the most vulnerable in our societies, including children.

I am particularly concerned about the risks to the health and livelihoods of girls who have been forced to quit school and are then increasingly vulnerable to child pregnancy and child marriage.

The Elders engaged very much on the child marriage issue and helped to build the Girls Not Brides network which has addressed this issue.

One of the members of that network, the charity Save The Children, has warned that 2020 was a year of “irreversible setbacks and lost progress” for girls, with 500,000 more girls at risk of being forced into child marriage and 1 million more estimated to have become pregnant.

This constitutes not just a health crisis but a massive denial of human rights.

As we have heard already today, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals exist precisely to uphold and strengthen the rights of the most vulnerable.

Long before the pandemic struck, heads of state and ministers would dutifully recite their commitment to “leave no-one behind” at events such as this in Geneva, or the High Level Political Forum in New York.

But with less than a decade to go before the targets are supposed to be reached, we are still lagging dangerously behind.

For leaders and policymakers, the responsibility is clear: prioritise resources and define frameworks and processes across government to implement the Goals.

But those of us in civil society have an equally important responsibility: to shine a spotlight on abuses, support grassroots activists in their local and national endeavours, amplify their voices and identify practical steps to deliver tangible change.

The rights of children are so precious and so deserving of attention precisely because children invariably lack the political agency to defend themselves.

This does not mean they are passive victims though!

Recently, I was speaking to a courageous child activist from India who is part of a collective in her community to defend girls’ rights and raise awareness of the harm caused by child marriage, domestic abuse and other forms of discrimination. Her principled resilience at a very young age is an example to us all. 

We are well aware now of the scandals of systemic, predatory abuse of children for decades and even centuries in religious, educational and cultural institutions.

It is essential that we remain vigilant to this threat even as the pandemic continues to dominate the global agenda.

Much has been made of the importance of sporting activity to children’s physical and mental wellbeing during the long months of COVID-19 restrictions. But what is often not mentioned in this context is the need to give greater attention to addressing abuses of children in and through sport.

Through my involvement as Chair of the newly established Centre for Sport and Human Rights, I have gained heightened awareness of just how serious these challenges are.

For most children, sport brings a range of positive benefits. However, for some it is connected to experiences of violence - including psychological and physical abuse, sexual abuse and harassment.

I remind and encourage the implementation of the recommendations that were made to this Council at its 40th Session by the Special Rapporteur following her Thematic Report on the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of sport

This is just one example of the role that bodies such as the Council can play to uphold rights for the most vulnerable in our global community at this time of exceptional stress and exceptional hardship.

We have become acutely and intimately aware of the fragility of human existence and the extent to which our fates are interconnected, not just across borders but down the generations.

It is my hope and conviction that 2021 will be a year of enlightened recovery and empathetic action, with leaders and citizens alike acting in a spirit of solidarity, inclusion and generosity of spirit.

Thank you.


Mary Robinson's addresses the UN Human Rights Council on the rights of the child. Watch her speech in full:

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