A new post-Covid social contract: A new Health Order for the World

The United Nations magazine New Special published in the February issue

My essay on a post-Covid social contract — we need it as we need a radical rethinking of the social and economic equations


Many political scientists, economists, lawyers, historians, journalists and civil society activists have come to realize that the post-Covid world should not merely “pick up where we left off”, but actually requires a new social contract, one that will have better budgetary priorities, place people over profits, adopt concrete measures to advance equality and social justice. International solidarity and emergency preparedness must be strengthened to jointly face global challenges. Resuming “business as usual” is not an option. The crisis we are suffering and the pathetic mismanagement by many countries is the direct result of failed neo-liberal policies that must be revisited and corrected if the planet is going to survive.

What should the new priorities be? Surely the role of the World Health Organization must be strengthened and expanded. The International Health Regulations must be reassessed and a revised treaty should be adopted with provisions for faster and more effective international cooperation. The focus must be on prevention of disease and contagion, early warning and facilitation of exchange of information. Not only the WHO but all national and regional health authorities must devote time and resources to finding cures to current and future viruses, HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart disease, emphysema, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, malaria, tuberculosis. We have a moral obligation to endeavour to eradicate all diseases and not only those with potential of international spread. We need much more than just “band aids” and palliatives to alleviate current pain. We need properly funded institutions that – like health “think tanks” – anticipate future crises. As the world population, particularly in Europe, Japan, Australia becomes older, we owe it to our parents and grandparents to address all the issues that come with aging. The planet is rich and bountiful – and older people should not be discarded by society, but should enjoy the last years of earthly life in dignity.

It is in this sense that the United Nations Secretary-General should convene a World Conference on Post-Covid Recovery with the task of elaborating a Plan of Action, a world agenda based on multilateralism and coordination by all UN and regional agencies, with broad participation by inter-governmental organizations, like IOM and South Centre, the International Committee of the Red Cross, non-governmental organizations, universities and civil society. This is the time for António Guterres to confer with advisors from all disciplines, including economists Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty, and make concrete proposals to world leaders on how best to elevate health standards worldwide and how best to strengthen world peace by reforming the financial institutions, world trade and disaster relief in conformity with the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter, taking due account of General Assembly Resolutions 2625 and 3314. The COVID-19 pandemic can be a game-changer, a historic opportunity to radically rethink the prevailing financial and economic system characterized by its boom-and-bust cycles, widespread unemployment, and demonstrably unjust distribution of wealth, which have left societies inadequately prepared to deal with crises including pandemics, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and, of course, the consequences of global warming.

A new social contract entails a paradigm shift in the prevailing economic, trade and social models. Governments bear responsibility for their unwise and inequitable budgetary allocations, which prioritize military expenditures over investment in health, education and people-centered infrastructures. In the light of the Covid pandemic, every country should immediately reduce military and non-essential expenditures and focus on resolving the problems and complications that accompany the pandemic as a matter of urgency.

This is a propitious moment for the Members of the United Nations to tame globalization, which has brought many good things, but has also been accompanied by extreme poverty and endemic social injustice. This is the time to reform the outdated Bretton Woods institutions and to reorganize economic and trade priorities so as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and give practical meaning to the right of self-determination of all peoples and their right to development.

In this context, a World Conference on Post-Covid Recovery, with a mandate to revive multilateralism, must ensure the proper funding of all UN agencies and establish mechanisms to enhance their coordination and efficiency. But the conference, if it is going to have added value, must go beyond cosmetic adjustments and a perfunctory return to the broken status quo ante. The Conference must promote all-hazard emergency preparedness, also with regard to coordinated policies to address emerging global dangers, such as potential asteroid impacts.

For now it is not a question of amending the Charter under Article 108, but the Conference should issue a pledge, a good faith statement reaffirming the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations as the best hope of humanity, and committing to applying the UN Charter as a kind of world constitution, respecting the judgments and advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice as the authoritative statements of a world constitutional court. This would entail the progressive incorporation of UN Charter provisions into the domestic legislation of UN Member States.

A world conference could revisit the Four Freedoms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rediscover the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, revive the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, Charles Malik, P.C. Chang and John Humphrey. The paradigm shift entails a change in national budgetary priorities, away from the arms race, war, military bases, procurement, drones and missiles. What is urgent and feasible is a gradual, step by step conversion of military-first budgets into human-security budgets.

The new mantra should be “Disarmament for Health”, or the broader concept of “disarmament for development”. Indeed, a significant reduction in military expenditures will liberate necessary funds to achieve the SDGs and ensure the enjoyment of all human rights by all, including and most importantly the right to health, food, water, shelter, etc. Taxpayers’ money that has been wasted in Orwellian “mass surveillance” activities, such Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) attends a briefing on the COVID-19 outbreak. Also present are Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (second from right), Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Sylvie Briand (left, seated), Director of the Global Infectious Hazard Management of WHO. ©UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré as those revealed by Edward Snowden, must be redirected to social services. In my 2014 report to the UN Human Rights Council I showed how the military establishment can be gradually converted into peacetime industries at all levels, creating many more jobs in education, healthcare, housing, environmental protection and other social services.

A World Conference on PostCovid Recovery should take measures to abolish tax havens and ensure the payment of taxes by investors and transnational corporations without phony registrations or “sweetheart deals”. The failures of the neo-liberal ideology, the systematic exploitation of peoples worldwide, the destruction of the environment and the constant threat posed by the arms race, stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, research & development programs into lethal autonomous weapon systems and other aberrations have become all too evident. Surely the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been considerably less lethal if governments had implemented human-rights centered economies in which the right to life and the right to health had enjoyed priority over market speculation, the drive to make short-term profits, and the senseless exploitation of the planet to the point of ecocide that today threatens the well-being of billions of human beings.

Civil society in all countries should now demand from their governments a new social contract based on the implementation of the ten core UN human rights treaties. Admittedly, the task of standard-setting has not been completed, since codification of human rights is never definitive and never exhaustive but constitutes an evolutionary mode d’emploi for the exercise of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

Alas, the interpretation and application of human rights have been hindered by sterile positivism and a regrettable tendency to focus only on individual rights while forgetting collective rights. It is all too obvious that many in the “human rights industry” show little or no interest for the social responsibilities that accompany the exercise of rights, and fail to see the necessary symbiosis of rights and obligations as formulated in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The time has come to move away from narrow positivism toward a broader understanding of human rights norms in the context of an emerging customary international law of human rights. Law is neither physics nor mathematics, but a dynamic human institution that day by day addresses the needs and aspirations of society, adjusting here, filling lacunae there. Every human rights lawyer knows that the spirit of the law (Montesquieu) transcends the limitations of the letter of the law, and hence codified norms should always be interpreted in the light of those general principles of law that inform all legal systems, such as good faith, proportionality, estoppel, the prohibition of laws and treaties that are contra bonos mores, the principles of “do no harm”, ex injuria non oritur jus, and sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. The letter of the law must never be used to undermine and defeat the spirit of the law

A new post-Covid social contract should follow the motto of the International Labour Organization – si vis pacem, cole justitiam – in order to achieve peace, it is necessary to cultivate justice. Thus, a Post-Covid Conference on Recovery and Reconstruction should revisit the UN Charter and adopt multilateral measures that will strengthen the UN system so that the three pillars of peace, development and human rights are better served. Virginia Dandan in her 2017 report to the Human Rights Council presented a draft declaration on international solidarity. That is precisely what the world needs now. Indeed, our post-Covid priorities must be achieving a democratic and equitable international order based on solidarity which must be responsive to the needs of all members of the human family – not just to the whims of the 1%. When Covid-19 is only a memory, the need for international solidarity will still be there, the need to help each other equitably and rationally, the need to combat other pandemics, to eradicate hunger, to ensure education for peace, to tackle the challenges of climate change and to build a democratic and equitable world order. It would be a great shame if we lose this opportunity to take our future in our hands, and if we allow the World Economic Forum to push through its neo-liberal scam called The Great Reset Initiative. We must say “no” to the WEF and look for solutions in the genuinely progressive and humanistic World Social Forum9 and its Porto Alegre Manifesto. Another world is indeed possible, but we must all work for it.

Categories Human Rights, Independent expert, International lawTags , , ,

5 thoughts on “A new post-Covid social contract: A new Health Order for the World

  1. Unless the New post-Covid Social Contract excludes the US, there will be nothing NEW about it. The US never lives up to responsibilities imposed on it by these agreements and always manages to subvert them for its imperial purposes. The UN itself would be the liberal bastion it believes itself to be but for the gringos. Yank the yanks or stop yearning for better more.


    1. something’s missing … can you figure out what it is ?

      Click to access 55fa7a5508aeafc8ac3af69b.pdf



  2. I would not want to see the Great Reset as proposed by the World Economic Forum, whereby the 1% get to keep their billionaire wealth whilst the rest of us exist by renting and eating deep fried crickets.


    1. I note that my comment was not approved and without explanation. Under these circumstances please remove my name from your list.

      From: Alfred de Zayas’ Human Rights Corner
      Reply to: Alfred de Zayas’ Human Rights Corner
      Date: Tuesday, 16 February 2021 at 13:27
      To: “solomon.benatar@uct.ac.za”
      Subject: [New comment] A new post-Covid social contract: A new Health Order for the World

      CAUTION: This email originated outside the UCT network. Do not click any links or open attachments unless you know and trust the source.

      Dana commented: “I would not want to see the Great Reset as proposed by the World Economic Forum, whereby the 1% get to keep their billionaire wealth whilst the rest of us exist by renting and eating deep fried crickets.”


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