Guterres urges governments to put human rights upfront in their response to COVID-19

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Thematic human rights issues

At the end of April UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched an important new report calling for human rights to be placed upfront in guiding the international community’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, entitled ‘We are all in this together: human rights and COVID-19 response and recovery,’ pushes the key message that human rights are critical, not just to the efficacy of a State’s immediate response to the pandemic, but also to their short, medium, and long-term recovery. In an important and welcome response to his critics, who have accused the Secretary-General of neglecting human rights, ‘We are all in this together’ issues a rallying cry to governments, civil society UN organisations and the private sector, that ‘the virus threatens everyone [and] human rights uplift everyone: by respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow.’

The new report builds on Guterres’ recent ‘Call to Action on Human Rights,’ as well as various recent reports and statements related to the COVID-19 pandemic such as ‘Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19,’ the Secretary-General’s appeal to governments to ‘make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19,’ and his appeal for a global ceasefire.

The ‘We are all in this together’ report rightly builds from the premise that ‘the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency — but it is far more; it is an economic crisis; a social crisis; and a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.’

‘Human rights cannot,’ the Secretary-General argues, ‘be an afterthought in times of crisis.’ Rather (in an echo of his predecessor’s ‘Human Rights Up Front’ initiative), ‘people – and their rights — must be front and centre.’ Such a ‘human rights lens’ is essential to help governments ‘identify who is suffering most, why, and what can be done about it’ – leaving no one behind. But human rights also empower people, based on an understanding that everyone, without discrimination, has an inalienable right to an adequate standard of physical and mental health, to housing, to food and water, etc.

Echoing comments made during the second ‘RightOn’ web chat on 15 April, Guterres makes the crucial point that ‘the virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do — exposing deep weaknesses in the delivery of public services and structural inequalities that impede access to them.’ He also – again in line with discussions during ‘RightOn’ debates – draws attention to the ‘rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response,’ especially against a ‘background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a pushback against human rights in some countries.’

This, he makes clear, is completely unacceptable. The best government responses to COVID-19 are those that respond proportionately to the immediate health threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, in formulating those responses, governments must remain ‘transparent, responsive and accountable’ and fully respect freedom of expression and freedom of association. Linked with this point, the Secretary-General emphasises that ‘any emergency measures — including states of emergency — must be legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.’

Building back better

Importantly, Guterres’ does not only position human rights as central to national and international efforts to tackle the pandemic – he also positions the UN’s oft ‘forgotten pillar’ as key to ‘building back better’ after the crisis has abated.

Taking his lead from important Human Rights Council initiatives such as those on ‘the global implementation agenda,’ ‘human rights and the SDGs,’ and ‘prevention,’ Guterres’ report argues that driving integrated progress towards the achievement of the SDGs – ‘which are underpinned by human rights,’ and States’ international human rights obligations and commitments, including ‘economic and social rights,’ can help rebuild more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies, and ‘bolsters resilience for the long haul.’

In the context of ‘building back better,’ Guterres also draws attention to the importance of learning from the ‘comeback’ of the environment during COVID-19 lockdowns and ensuring that in the future, economic growth and development are more sustainable and happen in harmony with nature – rather than in tension (e.g. a ‘global green new deal’). As the Secretary-General argues in his report: ‘The recovery must respect the rights of future generations, enhancing climate action aimed at carbon neutrality by 2050 and protecting biodiversity.’

Feature image: Secretary-General António Guterres attends High Level Segment of the 43rd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 24 February 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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