COVID-19 Could Push up to 175 Million People into Extreme Poverty, Expert Warns Third Committee, amid Calls for Repairing Entrenched Social Inequities
Between 150 million and 175 million more people will fall into extreme poverty, due to the epic fallout from COVID‑19, the Special Rapporteur on the topic told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates raised concerns about the plight of the world’s most vulnerable in a series of interactive dialogues.
“We must rethink our development model,” said Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, stressing that most of those who will fall into extreme poverty will be workers in the informal sector or in precarious employment conditions — most of them women. To emerge from the worst crisis since the 1929 Great Depression, “we cannot count, as we did in the twentieth century, on economic growth as usual,” he said. Environmental sustainability and social justice must be considered prerequisites for shaping the economic recovery that countries envision.
Mr. De Schutter was one of five independent experts participating in virtual dialogues with delegates, which covered topics ranging from extreme poverty and internal displacement, to the human rights to education, safe drinking water and adequate housing. Experts described the interplay between conflict and climate change, and recommended ways to ensure that students can access water and sanitation in school during the pandemic.
Cecilia Jimenez‑Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said the intersecting risks of climate change and armed conflict can push people into displacement. She focused on the slow-onset effects of climate change — sea-level rise, desertification, glacial retreat and flood — which can have disastrous consequences. Most affected will be people whose livelihoods depend heavily on ecosystems: indigenous peoples, farmers, herders, pastoralists and fisherfolk. Displaced persons also risk being exposed to COVID‑19, due to their limited access to health care, water, sanitation and adequate housing.
In the ensuing virtual dialogue, many delegates echoed concerns that the pandemic will exacerbate displacement caused by climate and conflict, with the United Kingdom’s representative citing warnings by Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock that 1 billion people could be displaced by 2050.
Several also discussed the issue of displacement in their own countries. Myanmar’s representative described plans to address COVID‑19 outbreaks in several camps, while Mali’s representative detailed national policies for assisting displaced persons while it carries out its COVID‑19 response. Armenia’s representative drew attention to the causes of internal displacement, and citing military aggression by Azerbaijan, asked the Special Rapporteur whether her mandate covers displaced people residing in conflict areas.
Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education, described the impact of COVID‑19 on educational institutions, an issue that has taken on new urgency as 570 million children lack access to basic drinking water at school, 620 million lack access to basic sanitation facilities and 900 million lack access to handwashing services.
Also presenting their reports before the Third Committee were Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; and Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 22 October, to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues — Internally Displaced Persons
The Committee began the day with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by: Cecilia Jimenez‑Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons; Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education; Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; and Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.
Ms. JIMENEZ-DAMARY said human mobility linked to the adverse effects of climate change, including displacement, is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. She underscored the extensive impact of displacement on the enjoyment of human rights — notably on free movement, housing, food, water, sanitation, health care and education, as well as on cultural and religious rights. Presenting her report, which focuses on internal displacement and the slow-onset adverse effects of climate change, she said its aim is to raise awareness around the “less dramatic” effects of climate change that, in the long run, have tremendous effects on people’s lives. “The slow-onset adverse effects of climate change can turn into a disaster,” she asserted. Often, movement is not entirely voluntary or forced, but rather falls somewhere on a continuum between the two, she said, adding that movement can be an effective adaptation strategy and prevent arbitrary displacement. “People are displaced when they are obliged to leave because they can no longer adapt to the changing climate,” she said. Slow-onset processes, in turn, can compound other displacement drivers, such as violence and armed conflict. She pointed to communities in small island States and Arctic ecosystems, which are more exposed to slow-onset events and therefore at higher risk of disaster displacement. COVID‑19 also has exacerbated people’s vulnerability to disasters in hazard-prone zones and their risk of displacement. “Internally displaced persons are at heightened risk of exposure to COVID‑19 owing to limited access to health care, water, sanitation, food and adequate housing, and they often face discrimination,” she added.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates raised several concerns, with the representative of the United Kingdom underscoring the interplay between conflict and climate change and pointing out that some of the world’s worst hunger crises stem from these phenomena. COVID‑19 only increases the risks for famine. Echoing warnings by Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, he said 1 billion people could be displaced by 2050 and asked about the role the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement can play in better preventing displacement caused by climate and conflict.
Along similar lines, an observer for the European Union echoed the Special Rapporteur’s call for Member States to engage in disaster risk reduction and climate change mitigation in order to protect their populations from related displacement. He asked about best practices for the meaningful participation of indigenous communities in this context, and for setting up gender-responsive decision-making processes within prevention and response strategies.
The representative of Mexico meanwhile recalled that most people displaced due to climate change do not cross international borders. Mexico changed its approach to internal displacement in 2019, and since then has made considerable progress in protecting people who have been forced to leave their place of origin as a result of environmental disasters. He noted that the issue of internal displacement has been integrated into the national legislative framework, including legislation on climate change, describing these decisions as “norms” for internally displaced persons who now have legal status for the first time in Mexico’s history.
Several delegates discussed the pressing issue of displacement in their own countries, with the representative of Myanmar stressing that there are several camps for displaced people across the country. Despite the challenges, the Government is taking necessary measures to help these people rebuild their lives in a safe and dignified manner. He pointed to a national strategy that adheres to international standards and a disaster risk reduction plan, adopted in 2017. He also described efforts to address COVID‑19 outbreaks in camps, which require Myanmar to partner with United Nations agencies and non-governmental groups.
Similarly, the representative of Mali detailed national policies for assisting internally displaced persons as his country combats COVID‑19. Given this situation, the Government must restore its authority, through the peace agreement and throughout the territory. It must work to bring peace and stability back to affected areas in order to promote the return of displaced persons and refugees from neighbouring countries. He asked the Special Rapporteur for practical examples of how internally displaced persons are being helped during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
The representative of Armenia drew attention to causes of internal displacement, including conflicts, gross human rights violations and climate change. Noting that Armenia is doing its utmost to promote a human rights approach in assisting internally displaced persons, he said politicization of their plight is unacceptable. Citing military aggression by Azerbaijan and supported by Turkey, he asked how the Special Rapporteur can ensure her mandate covers displaced people residing in conflict areas.
Ms. JIMENEZ-DAMARY, in response to queries about internally displaced persons and other affected communities, recommended taking a comprehensive human rights‑based approach to their protection. Collaboration is essential, she said, stressing the importance of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, as well as participation by internally displaced persons in such efforts. “They not only have the right to participate, they are a great source of knowledge and resilience who can contribute to prevention and protection on this issue,” she explained. Indigenous peoples too possess traditional knowledge that all can learn from, she said, urging States to support the growing consensus around humanitarian-oriented approaches to peace. As for the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, she said she provides advice and recommendations to its members.
Also speaking in the dialogue were representatives of the Russian Federation, Norway, United States, Georgia, Ethiopia, Switzerland and Spain.
Ms. BOLY BARRY presented her report on the links between the right to education, and the right to water and sanitation, including hygiene and menstrual health and hygiene — issues that have taken on new urgency, as COVID‑19 impacts educational institutions around the world. In too many situations, the right to water and sanitation are not fulfilled in educational institutions, hampering the freedom to learn. Noting that 570 million children lack access to basic drinking water at school, 620 million lack access to basic sanitation facilities and 900 million lack access to handwashing services, she pressed States to disseminate the guidelines outlined in her report. These guidelines apply to water access, toilets, hygiene, menstrual health and hygiene, waste disposal, food preparation and storage, as well as stakeholder accountability. She also urged them to focus on menstrual health and hygiene, which plays a crucial role in the ability of girls and young women to attend school.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates explored the impact of COVID‑19 on education. The representative of the Czech Republic, speaking for the Group of Friends for Education and Lifelong Learning, asked about policies to safeguard the rights to education, water and sanitation, given the “historic” disruptions caused by COVID‑19. The representative of Bangladesh likewise said that, as children stay out of school, they are more exposed to violence and exploitation. Relevant policies and programmes prioritize this “lost generation”. The representative of Morocco meanwhile asked about the repercussions of COVID‑19 on the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.
Taking a broad perspective, an observer for the European Union said the pandemic has demonstrated that the right to education cannot be fulfilled in a vacuum. Access to water in schools can determine whether schools reopen safely, and efforts must be made to destigmatize menstruation in schools so that girls can enjoy their right to learn. She requested examples of how to ensure access to water and sanitation in school during the pandemic. The representative of Iran took issue with unilateral coercive measures, which have impacted Government revenues and spending on education and health. Yet, Iran continues to provide free and quality education for all during the pandemic.
Delegates also spoke about the importance of language in educational instruction, with the representative of the Russian Federation reminding the Special Rapporteur about discrimination faced by Russian-speaking people in Ukraine and the Baltics. In turn, the representative of Ukraine condemned attempts by the Russian Federation to change the demographic structure in Crimea and called for a greater focus on education in the temporarily occupied areas. The representative of Hungary added that protecting minority languages in education remains a top priority.
Ms. BOLY BARRY, responding briefly, said a report on the impact of COVID‑19 on education was presented to the Human Rights Council, outlining the inequalities within educational systems that have been made visible by the pandemic. Northern countries were able to rebuild using a remote education system, but countries in the global South were unable to do likewise. Stressing that 250 million young people do not have access to education — poor people, refugees, nomads, migrants, families in rural areas and people living with disabilities, among them — she said the pandemic offers an opportunity to build an education paradigm that is student-focused. Another crucial lesson is that countries must listen to teachers and their networks. Education has a crucial role to play in resolving conflicts, as it opens the door for discussion. In education, each community should be able to learn in its own language, she stressed.
Also speaking were representatives of Qatar, France, United States, Syria, Lebanon, Malaysia, Croatia and Austria.
Mr. DE SCHUTTER presented his report, which outlines the “kind of economic recovery we should aim to achieve”, faced with the worst crisis since the Great Depression of 1929. Due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, between 150 million and 175 million more people will fall into extreme poverty, he said. Most of them are workers in the informal sector or in precarious employment conditions; most of them are women. A strong recovery is necessary, and up to $12 trillion has already been injected into the global economy, primarily by wealthy countries. Noting that an acute ongoing ecological crisis preceded the pandemic, he said rethinking the current development model is the only solution to the complex equation facing the world today: how to eradicate poverty and reduce inequalities, while at the same time remaining within planetary boundaries. He outlined two approaches: first, to foreground environmental sustainability and social justice in economic recovery efforts, with a view to reducing inequalities; second, investing in measures that provide a “triple dividend”, by reducing the ecological footprint, creating jobs for less qualified people, and ensuring affordable access to essential goods and services to low-income households. Finally, the report calls for financing an economic recovery that fosters a reduction in poverty and inequalities through progressive taxation schemes and combating tax avoidance, particularly by transnational corporations. These concerns must be considered while making choices in the coming months, as they will have a decisive impact on the next 10 to 15 years, due to the level of investments being made.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, several delegates enthusiastically endorsed the report’s message on sustainably alleviating poverty, with some focusing in particular on its recommendation to combat tax avoidance. In this regard, the representative of Luxembourg said profit maximizing remains the dominant model pursued by transnational companies and asked how recalcitrant transnational corporations can be made to “change course”, which is essential to combat poverty. On similar lines, France’s delegate asked how States can induce tech corporations, in particular, to pay taxes and play their role in combating poverty, given that 176 million people slipped into extreme poverty this year alone.
Meanwhile, a number of delegates focused on energy transition. The representative of Malaysia asked how green technology might be funded, given its prohibitive cost. An observer for the European Union touched on the bloc’s new long-term budget and recovery fund, launched in May, which focuses on sustainable recovery, and asked how information on a green transition can be disseminated to all population groups, in the face of “disinformation campaigns on fundamental matters”.
The representative of Mexico asked if the Special Rapporteur will cooperate with the Alliance for Poverty Eradication, of which her country is a part. The representative of Syria said unilateral coercive measures imposed on his country by the United States and the European Union are “the main factor” behind the poverty suffered by millions of Syrians, and asked about the impact of sanctions on targeted countries. China’s representative said his country has successfully lifted 815 million people out of extreme poverty. He asked the Special Rapporteur to share his views on the unjust situation in the United States, where the astronomical wealth concentrated in the hands of a few stands in stark contrast against the poverty suffered by many.
Mr. DE SCHUTTER, in response, said he shared the concerns of China’s representative about the disproportionate impact suffered by ethnic minorities and people living in poverty, who lack sanitation access, live in crowded dwellings, and have manual jobs that cannot be done remotely. Turning to ecological transition, he said it “must be perceived as legitimate by the population to succeed”. It is important to frame such a transition in positive terms, as a chance to overcome “our tendency to fear change”, he stressed, adding that people living in poverty must be involved in shaping the response, so they do not feel like “victims of decisions” taken to induce them to make greater sacrifices. On concerns about the high cost of green technology, he said economies of scale had in recent years driven down the cost of wind and solar power, adding that the delay in shifting to greener energy is attributable to the $120 billion spent annually to subsidize fossil energies. “This is completely unacceptable,” he stressed.
In response to the concerns about tax avoidance by transnational corporations, he said the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in June 2021 will be a good opportunity to address the issue. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is working to reach consensus among 137 countries in order to ensure digital companies pay income tax where they make their profits, a move that could generate up to €165 billion in revenue; unfortunately, certain Governments are causing delays in reaching an agreement.
He said he will cooperate with the Alliance for Poverty Eradication, to help bring about greater coherence in global governance, which is presently fragmented, and said he looked forward to upcoming visits to Kyrgyzstan and Nepal.
Also speaking were representatives of Morocco, Luxembourg, France, Ireland and Eritrea.
Safe Drinking Water, Sanitation
In the afternoon, the Committee continued its interactive dialogues on the broad theme of human rights, which featured presentations by: Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; and Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.
Mr. HELLER introduced his report on human rights and the privatization of water and sanitation services, two activities that traditionally had been undertaken by Governments. However, since the 1980s, privatization has started to expand. The question has been around whether human rights concerns are neutral or agnostic regarding the type of water and sanitation provided. According to this narrative, what matters are the outcomes of service provision, and therefore, the human rights framework does not require States to adopt any particular type or delivery model. He said his report challenges this narrative, exploring the risks that are specific to privatization and identifying necessary safeguards.
The report looks at three factors, he said: profit maximization, the natural monopoly of services and power imbalances. Potential risks include not maximizing the use of available resources, unaffordable services, the deterioration of services, the neglect of sustainability and limited accountability. It highlights experiences from around the globe and provides guidelines to address and mitigate those risks. States delegating water supply to private entities have to rely on a third party to meet their legal obligation to achieve human rights. The report does not call for an end to privatization but calls on States to establish measures to limit any impact on human rights.
When the floor opened for questions, and comments, several delegates asked the Special Rapporteur about situations specific to their own countries. The representative of Brazil said he disagrees with the report’s findings that the private provision of water and sanitation services may threaten human rights. To achieve universal coverage of water and sanitation service by 2030, Brazil needs investment that the State cannot provide by itself. This calls for private capital, he said. The representative of Syria asked for the Special Rapporteur’s views on actions taken by Turkey, noting that 2 million inhabitants in Hasakah, Syria, have been deprived of water because Turkey has cut off supply. People are suffering from thirst, living in a hot climate and exposed to the risks of COVID‑19. This conduct is similarly criminal to the time when water was cut off from Damascus in 2019. The Russian Federation’s representative denounced the report for ignoring the water blockade of Crimea and asked about the reasoning behind such a biased approach.
The representative of Egypt meanwhile said water should not be viewed as a commodity subjected to market dynamics. It is a basic human need that is fundamental to the right to life, he said, noting that Egypt is a water scarce country. An observer for the European Union praised the report for providing interesting and controversial reflections on risks that might be specific to privatization. He noted that States have an obligation to respect and fulfil the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, regardless of whether they are privately or publicly provided. He asked the Special Rapporteur which of the risks identified by the report also affects the public provision of services.
Mr. HELLER, replying to Brazil’s representative, said that he understands the issue as a Brazilian himself. However, replacing the public with the private sector does not mean that the situation will improve. Usually, private companies do not bring new money. Rather, they often use money from public banks or collected through charges made to users.
To comments by the Russian Federation’s delegate on the situation in Crimea, he noted that the scope of the report did not cover this situation, as it is about the privatization of water and sanitation services. To the question raised by the observer for the European Union, he said the risks are specific to private provision, such as profit maximization and the challenge of regulating a natural monopoly. He added that his Office is aware of the situation referenced by Syria’s delegate and that the next Special Rapporteur may have an update on it.
Also speaking were representatives of Ethiopia, Germany and Spain.
Right to Housing
Mr. RAJAGOPAL, introducing his first thematic report (A/75/148), said it tackles the question of what States can do to ensure the right to adequate housing is realized for all, despite the adverse impact of COVID‑19. More than 3.9 billion people were ordered to stay at home at the peak of the pandemic. However, more than 1.8 billion people do not have decent habitation or live in informal settlements where physical distancing is difficult or impossible. Moreover, millions risk losing their home due to the economic impact of the pandemic. In this context, lacking access to adequate housing is also a health issue — even a life and death issue.
He touched on various “bleak” aspects of COVID‑19, including: its unequal distribution, which reflects existing inequalities; an expected spike in evictions, homelessness and mortality, as temporary mitigation measures wind down; and evictions proceeding unimpeded — or even accelerating. He outlined measures States can take to tackle such outcomes, calling on them to halt all eviction proceedings, to house people experiencing homelessness in hotels or vacant housing, and to consider rent caps and subsidies for tenants and small landlords. To ensure that those who are systemically discriminated against are included in recovery measures, data disaggregated by race, gender, caste, religion and gender identity must be collected and publicly shared. Low-income countries should receive adequate development financing to ensure they can recover from the economic contraction and address “grossly inadequate housing conditions” faced by many of their citizens.
In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates described various challenges and posed follow-up questions to the report.
An observer from the European Union asked about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on housing, requesting examples of special measures taken by States to mitigate violence against women and children, in light of the spike in domestic violence during lockdowns.
The representative of the Russian Federation expressed concern about possible overlap between the work of the Special Rapporteur and that of other mandate holders. He characterized calls for disaggregated data as “quite intrusive”, adding that such measures can foment tensions between groups. He also expressed discomfort with the recommendation to decongest prisons and provide alternate accommodation for incarcerated persons in light of the pandemic.
The representative of Algeria said his country, which is experiencing rapid urbanization, is gearing up to meet housing needs in line with 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development targets. It has successfully eliminated slums in its capital, Algiers. He expressed deep concern over the scale and frequency of natural disasters, for which Algeria is adhering to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015‑2030.
Meanwhile, the representative of Mexico asked for examples of good practices by States to strengthen coordination and partnerships with civil society.
Mr. RAJAGOPAL, responding briefly, said the pandemic has led to a semi-permanent reconfiguration of the boundary between work and housing, which are no longer separate. “We’re talking about enormous changes,” he said, recalling that in June, the International Labour Organization (ILO) had indicated that around 93 per cent of the global workforce was affected by shutdown measures and forced to stay home. Turning to violence against women, he said the data he had did not contain enough examples to demonstrate different ways in which States enacted proactive protective measures. However, his report commends a few instances of gender-sensitive response policies, as well as increased funding allocated specifically for such programming.
In response to comments by the Russian Federation’s delegate on the possibility of cooperation with other mandate holders, he agreed that many human rights issues overlap, and suggested issuing a joint questionnaire to States in order to reduce the burden on them during a difficult time. Disaggregated data is “critical” to understanding the impact of COVID‑19 on different communities and vulnerable groups. Decongesting prisons is a short-term recommendation, to be enacted when virus levels are “see-sawing”, he said, adding that it is backed by scientific evidence.
To the representative of Algeria, he said States must focus on links between the Sustainable Development Goals and the framework for achieving adequate housing. More cooperation and solidarity is needed among States, given the enormous economic impact of the pandemic. It is “remarkable” that it took a crisis such as the pandemic for some States to impose temporary eviction bans. Moreover, many States have undertaken rent caps, subsidies, and housing for the homeless, showing that when there is political will, fiscal tools do exist. States can see the disruptions of the pandemic as a window of opportunity for change, and grasp it before it closes, he stressed.