The Action Plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights could lead to a profound shift in the enjoyment of human rights in the EU.
The pandemic and the measures taken to combat it have upended many lives. For millions around the world, Covid-19 has brought protracted uncertainty, isolation and hardship, with no end in sight.
The global poverty rate is likely to increase for the first time in 20 years, risking the reversal of substantial gains. The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, has called for a global reset as the world continues to reel from the pandemic, which has claimed more than two million lives and some 500 million jobs.
In Europe, the detrimental impact on the right to physical and mental health has been compounded by over-reliance on the institutional care of older persons and persons with disabilities. And those already in a precarious situation have been hit hardest, with women and minorities particularly afflicted.
At the beginning of last week, the Council of the EU adopted conclusions on a human-rights-based post-Covid-19 recovery, restating the indivisibility of all human rights and reaffirming that a socio-economic response with human rights at its core would enable a more sustainable recovery and make systems more resilient to future shocks. A week earlier, in a joint communication on multilateralism from the European Commission and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the EU’s commitment to human rights was presented not only as a matter of values but as an essential component of its support for a rules-based international order.
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But the commitment must start at home—with a human-rights-based approach to the Action Plan, due tomorrow, to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights agreed in 2017.
Expectations are high for the Action Plan—for improving working conditions, tackling homelessness and enhancing social protection. Rightly so, because the pandemic has created an unprecedented opportunity for the EU to trigger a seismic shift in the enjoyment of social rights in the union.
An approach that places human beings and their rights at its centre—not as passive recipients of services but as rights-holders with agency—is the only route to a sustainable recovery. The plan should be guided by international human-rights treaties and recommendations, as well as the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
While states, as primary duty-bearers under international law, carry the main responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil social rights, the role of the EU institutions cannot be overstated. A rights-based approach will not only help close protection gaps for people living in Europe; it will also strengthen coherence among international, regional and national systems and enhance legal certainty for member states and domestic courts.
But this is about more than compliance: international human rights can sharpen the effectiveness of policy interventions. In addition to the EU’s own tools, such as the Social Scoreboard, the findings of UN treaty bodies establish a useful baseline as to where countries stand in terms of social rights. As parties to the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, member states are, after all, bound to implement these norms. In this vein, the Action Plan should also explicitly recognise adequate housing and social protection as matters of human rights—not as a commodity or as services.
It is precisely at this time of crisis that solid public participation is needed. Rights-holders should be enabled to participate effectively in the implementation and review of the social pillar—especially representatives of the most marginalised. To collect reliable information on who they are, the Action Plan should call on states to collect data on socio-economic status, disaggregated by age, sex, race/ethnicity, national origin, disability, education and property.
Because of their proximity to the citizen, local and regional authorities should be more involved in formulating policy. Their views on what works and what doesn’t, in healthcare, housing or employment, including job creation, are critical to designing and implementing policies that work for all.
Clear quantitative and qualitative targets should be set and accompanied by a robust system to measure results. Indicators already exist to track and assess progress—on human rights from the UN Human Rights Office plus those associated with the Sustainable Development Goals. The Action Plan should also envisage transparent and publicly accessible tools to track linked financial allocations and expenditures.
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The EU and its member states have been the strongest supporters of national human-rights institutions around the world and should systematically bring them on board in the Action Plan. National human-rights institutions are state-mandated bodies, independent of government, which advise on legislation, monitor human-rights compliance, raise public awareness and help individuals claim their rights. They also act as a bridge to the international human-rights system.
By aligning its internal policies with its vision for external action, as also articulated in the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy, Europe can lead by example. But internal coherence will also be central to the plan’s success. Hence, the importance of joined-up implementation with various other EU policies seeking to advance economic and social rights: the Disability Strategy, the Anti-Racism Action Plan, the Gender Equality Strategy, the Child Guarantee, the Youth Guarantee, the Strategic Framework on Roma Equality and Inclusion, and the LGBTI+ Equality Strategy.
We have before us a chance to close serious gaps in the enjoyment of social rights across the region. If this opportunity is seized, it will lead to better and tangible outcomes in the Covid-19 recovery and—most importantly—will guarantee a life of greater dignity for all.
Birgit Van Hout is regional representative for Europe of the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR). Previously, she worked to advance human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Guatemala, Timor Leste, Bosnia, central Asia, Palestine, Venezuela and Togo with various departments of the United Nations, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.