Emergency situation is not ‘blank check’ to disregard rights obligations – UN rights chief

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Michele Bachelet, Presidente of Chile speaks during Special Session of the Human Rights Council. 29 March 2017.

Michelle Bachelet says she is concered with steps taken to impose restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression.

Indeed this is an important meeting, at a time that none of us may ever forget.

The Covid-19 pandemic is generating suffering and damage in every region. It poses a far-reaching threat to human rights. As Secretary-General Guterres has warned, it threatens not only development but also “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest, and enhanced conflict”.

We do not know how the virus itself might evolve or whether those affected will permanently be immune. We do not have complete data of who is being infected and developing the most severe symptoms – or whether there are links to contributory factors, such as pollution.

We do know that vital measures must be taken to upgrade health and social systems to ensure the greatest possible support to those most impacted by the epidemic. We know we cannot afford to leave anyone behind in this effort.

And we know that lockdowns cannot continue forever. Exit strategies must be carefully devised to ensure our societies and people recover.

Today, we have come together for this informal meeting of the council, although we may be physically apart. I hope this contributes to the creation of a more cooperative, global and human rights-based approach to the crisis.

All states are facing tremendous challenges. Many are demonstrating their commitment to protecting human rights through this epidemic. Others should be encouraged to do so, in order to make their efforts to tackle Covid more effective for everyone – both in their nations and across the world.

It is natural – and necessary – for national efforts to be a strong priority in any crisis. But this is a global pandemic, and only global solidarity will ensure that we can combat it effectively. This crisis makes clear how much we need collective international action and demonstrates the value of our multilateral organisations.

The United Nations was created to prevent, mitigate and more effectively address international crises. I urge all of us to work together to promote a strong, multilateral, cooperative and global approach.

First, I want to address some urgent issues regarding economic and social rights

The pandemic is exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society.

In developed countries, faultlines in access to healthcare; in labour rights and social protections; in living space and in dignity are suddenly very visible.

In developing countries, where a large portion of the population may rely on daily income to survive, the impact could be far greater. The millions of people who have little access to healthcare and who, by necessity, live in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and no safety net, no clean water will suffer most. They are less likely to be able to protect themselves from the virus and less likely to withstand a sharp drop in income.

Unchecked, the pandemic is likely to create even wider inequalities amid extensive suffering

The universality of the threat from this virus provides the most compelling argument there has ever been for universal and affordable access to healthcare. Actions to upgrade public healthcare in every country are especially urgent.

WHO is leading efforts to ensure that all countries are equipped to trace, isolate and treat people infected by Covid-19. This effort should be fully resourced. There will need to be a significant regional and global effort to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system – a matter of urgent interest to everyone.

Extensive economic and social measures must also be taken, in every country, to lessen the shocks of this epidemic and minimise the further growth of inequalities. The full impact of the pandemic on global and national economies has yet to be felt. Many states in every region – especially in Europe – have taken unprecedented measures to protect the rights of workers and minimise the numbers of those made unemployed. All states with sufficient resources should be encouraged to do the same.

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Many developing countries have less capacity to absorb and mitigate the economic and social impact of the epidemic. They may also be most vulnerable to world recession, through commodities pricing and a decline in foreign investment and of remittances, among other factors. The secretary-general has called for measures including – but not limited to – debt alleviation, expanded access to funding through the IMF, and contributions to the Global Humanitarian Fund.

We may also need to explore new financial mechanisms to fund global solidarity. Last week the African Development Bank raised the world’s largest social bond: a US$3bn fund to assist African governments to expand access to health and to other essential services and goods. This is precisely the kind of innovative thinking we need.

I also want to emphasise the imperative of respect for civil and political rights during this crisis.

Difficult decisions are facing many governments. Emergency measures may well be needed to respond to this public health emergency. But an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations.

Emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate to meet that need. People should be fully informed about the emergency measures and told how long they will remain in effect. The enforcement of emergency measures needs to be applied fairly and humanely. Any penalties should be proportional to the offence committed and laid down by law.

I am profoundly concerned by certain countries’ adoption of emergency powers that are unlimited and not subject to review. In a few cases, the epidemic is being used to justify repressive changes to regular legislation, which will remain in force long after the emergency is over.

I am also concerned by steps taken to impose restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression. Vaguely formulated actions to combat alleged “misinformation” could be applied to any criticism, and in some countries we have already seen reports of journalists being penalised for reporting a lack of masks; health workers reprimanded for saying they lack protection; and ordinary people arrested for social media postings about the pandemic. Criticism is not a crime.

I urge all governments to greatly increase access to accurate information and statistics. Transparency is paramount and can be life-saving in a health crisis. I also urge an end to any blanket internet and telecommunication shutdowns and denials of service.

When members of military forces conduct law enforcement functions, they should be accountable to civilian authorities, and they remain subject to international human rights law.

WHO strongly advises that health and social measures to combat Covid-19 be implemented with the full engagement of the public, because respect for human rights – including the rights to speak up and to meaningfully participate in decisions – is an essential lever of successful public health policies. The only effective way to fight an epidemic is with the public’s trust.

What to do?

I see two areas of action: the immediate response to the epidemic and preparation of the recovery.

Regarding the response, I want to share with you some action points that are immediately relevant and will assist in devising effective and humane policies.

  • All national efforts should seek to mitigate the impact of the epidemic on women, and on vulnerable groups. Women are more likely than men to work in low-wage and informal sectors, without paid sick leave, health insurance or social protection. Elderly women are also more likely than men to be subsisting without any form of pension. Confinement measures are creating additional burdens for many women, including the burden of caring for the sick, the elderly and children no longer attending school. Women and girls are also facing increased risks of domestic violence, as recent statistics from France and Spain have demonstrated. For purposes of remote schooling, girls globally have less access to internet and cell-phones than boys. These impacts may not be immediately visible, but they could set back the cause of women’s equality. Several high-risk and vulnerable groups require greater attention and mitigation measures at this time. They include people in places of detention and other institutions – including psychiatric institutions and orphanages; people with disabilities; indigenous peoples and minorities; migrants, refugees and internally displaced people; people in conflict zones and, in particular, older people, especially those living alone or in institutions. Specific guidance on most of these areas has been issued or is in preparation. Notably, I refer you to our guidance regarding people in detention facilities, whose number should be carefully reduced to avoid an explosive spread of the virus in closed and overcrowded settings. Iran recently took action to release, at least temporarily, 40% of its prison population. Indonesia will also release prisoners accused of minor crimes. And so on, with other countries. I urge all states to release all those detained without a lawful basis, including those held in violation of human rights obligations. I am also concerned that some countries envision prison sentences for violating orders on physical distancing: this is likely to exacerbate the epidemic. People with disabilities must often rely on others for help with daily tasks, and confinement regulations should ensure that support is available. Many migrants are at very high risk of contagion because of their living conditions and limited access to healthcare. I commend Portugal for taking action last week to temporarily grant all migrants in the country full citizenship rights to enable them to access all healthcare systems
  • Extensive measures must be taken in every country to absorb the economic and social shocks of this epidemic, and to minimise the expansion of inequalities. Everywhere, the pandemic is likely to take a disproportionate toll on the poor. For example, information from the Catalan regional authorities, in Spain, indicates that residents of poorer neighbourhoods may be six or seven times more likely to contract the virus than people in richer areas. There is a strong need for governmental action to ensure income security, the protection of livelihoods and access to essential goods and services for the poorest members of society. It is vital to prevent people from becoming homeless as a result of losing their jobs. Cash grants should be envisioned, alongside measures to ensure families can delay rental or loan payments, and a halt to evictions. For the homeless, and others without adequate housing, measures could include using short-term rentals and emergency accommodation. My office is currently compiling good economic and social practices adopted by countries in every region – many of them developing countries – and we will bring these to your attention. We will also be working to integrate human rights into all the work of the UN’s economic and social programmes
  • Protection of health workers and their adequate remuneration should be a paramount concern. To note, 70% of the world’s health workers are women, many of whom may be facing the additional burdens I have noted
  • When an existential threat faces all of us, there is no place for nationalism or scapegoating – including of migrants and minority communities. There have been growing and unacceptable physical and verbal attacks on people of East Asian origin and members of other minorities, and action should be taken to combat this. As a matter of fact, Westerners too are sometimes targeted for abuse, including in our missions
  • In every stage of this epidemic – including the recovery – efforts should be made to involve national human rights institutions, civil society activists and human rights defenders. Those with long-standing involvement in economic and social rights, urban communities and specific vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples, have gained many valuable lessons that can benefit all policymakers today
  • Any obstacle to medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us. Sectoral sanctions which have negative impacts on healthcare and the human rights of vulnerable people should urgently be lifted or adapted, with effective humanitarian exemptions to ensure access to vital supplies
  • I commend the efforts underway to ensure the Human Rights Council can assist in a timely manner with Covid-related human rights concerns. Under your leadership, Madam President, the council is resuming its work. In addition to this informal briefing, a series of e-meetings with various stakeholders is being planned, and I understand there are discussions regarding a special session on Covid-19. I have been grateful for the swift and pertinent analyses of many special procedures mandate holders and and chairs of treaty bodies.
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Throughout the response and recovery stages of the epidemic, we must all step up and demonstrate global solidarity. In this context, I remind all states of the duty of international cooperation and assistance under Article 2 of the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural rights.

Before concluding, I want to make a few remarks about recovery from this crisis.

As the secretary-general has highlighted, we must build back better. No country was prepared for this shock, which in every state has been exacerbated by inequalities, particularly in access to healthcare, social protections and public services.

The epidemic has clarified the need to increase our efforts to ensure that all people, including the most vulnerable, benefit from development. We need to redouble efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and to shape societies that are more resilient in the face of shocks. The 2030 Agenda is fully mapped and universally approved: it remains our strongest tool.

It should also be clear that protecting the environment, ensuring biodiversity, is the best way to protect human health and wellbeing, including from pandemics. Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss create the conditions for the type of animal-to-human zoonosis that has repeatedly resulted in vital epidemics. Not only Covid-19 – you will remember Sars, Mers and Ebola are also a result of zoonosis, so we need to ensure respect for the environment.

We simply cannot return to where we were just a few months ago, before Covid-19.

This is a colossal test of leadership. It demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all and for all. We are physically distant today, but we must stand together.

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All of you have received a letter informing you of the work being undertaken by my office in the context of Covid-19, and I will provide regular updates to you as the situation evolves. I take this opportunity to publicly thank all my staff for their continued determination and work at this challenging time.

Michelle Bachelet is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She presented this informal briefing to the UN Human Rights Council on 9 April 2020

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