As the international community begins preparing post-pandemic recovery programmes, increasing emphasis is placed on the urgent need to ‘build back better’ and to draw lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for building a more just, equitable, green, and peaceful world. Panellist Mr David R Boyd (UN Special rapporteur on human rights and the environment), Mr Markus Wüest (Head, Environmental Monitoring Section, Federal Office for the Environment, Switzerland), Mr Olivier De Schutter (UN Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights), Ms Elizbeth O’Casey (Director of Advocacy, Humanists International), and Mr James Turpin (Chief, Prevention and Sustaining Peace Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)) discussed what building back better (BBB) means in practice, how we can take advantage of this window of opportunity to change our old ways, and what social, economic, environmental, and other reforms need to be considered by national recovery strategies from the outset.

A glimpse of the world we want to live in

Cleaner air and the recovery of certain animal populations during nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns and economic slowdown, offered us a glimpse into the world we want to live in. The destruction of the environment, including air pollution that kills between six and nine million people every year, has caused far more harm to human life than the Coronavirus. Furthermore, an increasing number of people suffer from poverty and hunger which has further stressed the need to address societal unsustainability as we move from the crisis management phase towards the recovery process. The post-COVID-19 period presents governments with a huge opportunity to direct resources to sustainable development goals (SDGs) in a way that respects people’s fundamental human rights and decreases the inequalities we see today. This change will require a redirection of financial assistance to more renewable sources of energy and food production.

Digital technologies and sustainability

Our panellists also discussed the role of digital technologies in the context of sustainability. A report commissioned before the COVID-19 crisis on digitisation and the environment, and published by the Bern University of Applied Sciences (Berner Fachhochschule), found that digital technology will have a much more positive impact on the economy and the environment than on our private lives, politics, and society. Particular attention was paid to the repairability of digital devices that can contribute to a cleaner environment and sustainable development, as well as to teleworking that contributes to the reduction of travel and ultimately reduces carbon dioxide emissions produced by the airline industry.

Changing the paradigm of growth

Participants also touched upon the issue of economic growth. Even though for many years decision makers were led by the belief that all our challenges could be solved by economic growth and the redistribution of wealth, COVID-19 stressed the need to rethink the paradigm of growth. As part of this rethinking process, we need to find ways to incorporate environmental and societal considerations into the new model of economic development. Furthermore, the large sums of money governments injected into economies to prevent them  from collapsing due to COVID-19, also need to be wisely allocated without omitting contributions to the social and ecological transition. The COVID-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to apply what we learned from mistakes during the 2008 financial crisis when response mechanisms failed to strengthen social security, when bailout aid was provided to corporations without any precondition, and when austerity programmes were adopted to repay the public debt. Now, efforts should be dedicated to practices such as investing in green and circular economy, and allocating financial assistance to multinationals that comply with human and labour rights.

Towards a better post-COVID-19 world

In order to build back better, we need a global approach to recovery that relies on the essential role of the United Nations and other multilateral forums. That said, a more critical engagement that is reform-oriented and includes stakeholders beyond state actors, like businesses, is required. This approach would allow for a better division of responsibilities among actors and analyse how they impact human rights.

From words to action

The current crisis has shown that an effective response is based on the state’s responsibility to respect human rights. Furthermore, if certain states complied with human rights from the outset, they would have been in a much better position to withstand the shock. That said, the challenges brought about by the Coronavirus cannot be solved through a single right, and instead need to be tackled through an interactive approach to human rights. Given that, most likely, COVID-19 is not our last crisis, state actors need to dedicate more efforts to respect human rights and their obligations under the 2030 Agenda, primarily because these very mechanisms provide populations with the tools to overcome such crises.