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Reflections on our Side Event: Inclusive Engagement of Civil Society in the VNR and Follow-up Processes in the UNECE Region in the Decade of Action.

Following the success of our HLPF Side Event with SDG Watch Europe, GCAP and WMG for ECE Region, below are some reflections and insights on the engagement of civil society in the UNECE region.

You can watch a full recording of the event here

Key Insights from Panel One 

Panel One Speakers: David Nabarro, special advisor to WHO on Covid 19; Alanna Armitage, Regional Director, UNFPA Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and Carlos Berrozpe García, Directorate-General for International Partnerships, European Commission.

  • Covid-19 is fundamentally a problem of inequity, demonstrating what we have known for a long time but need reminding of; health issues are exacerbated for those that are income and rights poor, this is true for all regions of the world.
  • For the UN, Covid -19 has put attention on marginalised groups and the fundamental importance of the social pillar along with the environmental and economic ones. 
  • Role of civil society has been fundamental in the SDG implementation during COVID-19. However the reliance on and request to the NGO sector for support has not been accompanied by support and cash to deliver – this has also applied to food supply, which has provoked  potential boycott of the Food Summit.
  • Covid-19 impact is embedded in social norms.  The pandemic has shone light on individual and collective vulnerability, we need structures that recognise all of these and address the rollback that has happened on rights and gender equity since the pandemic. 
  • Young people, persons with disabilities, older persons and women and girls have been hardest hit by this pandemic. There has been a steep increase in maternal mortality – up 42% in Tajikistan for example – and the avoidable deaths of older persons were described as the ‘direct result of us failing to assign equal values of lives to older persons’. 
  • We cannot restore unequal systems and norms in the Covid-19 recovery process but can build back transformatively.   
  • The EU will refocus its European Semester into an instrument that integrates the SDGS; every legislative process will contribute to the implementation of the SDG agenda, and the ‘do no harm’ principle.
  • The EU will be developing its 2023 VNR which gives civil society opportunities for input and a peer review. We must act in a way that predicts future crises as we cannot afford to get recovery wrong – this could be done through better regulation, mainstreaming and impact assessments based on disaggregated data, and human rights principles and norms.  

Key Insights from Panel Two

Panel Two Speakers: Marie-Luise Abshagen, Head of Sustainability Policies, German NGO Forum on Environment and Development; Maria Mourtzaki, Policy Manager, ActionAid Hellas (Greece) for the faces of Migration project; and Ezel Buse Sonmezocak, Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways.

  • Covid-19 has especially affected low income groups. In Germany this includes the high numbers of the ‘working poor’ whose situation has drastically worsened due to Covid-19.
  • Migrant workers (mainly from Eastern Europe) in agriculture and the meat industry have been placed in precarious and unsafe conditions during the pandemic, due to their role in Western European production and supply; yet this, nor the issue of the working poor,  is reflected in Germany’s VNR.
  • German civil society is enraged by the government blocking of the vaccine waiver.
  • The pandemic has seen many step backs in terms of safeguarding rights of refugees and migrants’ who have  limited access to public health services, live in overcrowded sites without protection and proper hygiene  facilities and are then accused of spreading the virus. 
  • Civil society must not be constrained by prohibitions but be encouraged to participate equally, using tools such as the VNRs in order to advocate for the rights of disenfranchised groups.
  • VNRS may be a useful tool but only if more consultation takes place 
  • Turkey’s VNR alarmingly steps back from existing commitments made on gender equality, however this is part of a wider trend. 
  • Gender and LGBTQI rights are seen increasingly as conditional on ‘culture and moral systems’ and are being politicised by authoritarian and populist governments. 
  • SDGS can only be realised if they are clearly connected with and supported by the human rights framework. Human Rights are universal, indivisible and interconnected and are not a bargaining chip; they must be protected.
  • The region needs powerful mechanisms that respond to  human rights roll backs and withdrawals from agreements that are enshrined in international law.  

Key Insights from Discussion

  • Role of civil society is fundamental for both services that are provided to communities on the ground as well as for the defence and upholding of civil liberties and human rights. 
  • We are operating in a new world; facing a crisis of democracy and rule of law, illiberalism, questioning multilateralism; these are common challenges for both the UN and civil society in terms of upholding human rights. 
  • UN and civil society need to be arm in arm in their defence of  human rights defenders.
  • No outbreak response can ever be successful without deep community engagement, need to build trust and work together. 
  • A greater emphasis on the regional process for SDG implementation based on human rights norms and principles is useful; the 2023 EU VNR will be a good opportunity for joint engagement.  
  • We do not have the luxury of time, sometimes we want to design and implement and discuss, but we need to be more proactive and understand how far away from SDG progress we were before Covid-19, there is no excuse now for inaction.
  • Progress is dynamic, it is never enough and we should not take anything for granted. 


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