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Human Rights Council holds a virtual informal conversation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic

Human Rights Council

9 April 2020

The Human Rights Council this morning held its first ever virtual informal conversation with Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on human rights around the world.

In her introductory remarks, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger of Austria, President of the Human Rights Council, underlined that this “world premiere” virtual conversation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights was taking place in the midst of what many called “the biggest challenge of our generation”.  The COVID-19 crisis had unexpectedly thrown the global community into unchartered waters in which a disruption of societies and economies affected every corner of the globe.  The crisis was also a magnifying glass for a number of human rights issues and it forced societies to make excruciating trade-offs between saving lives and livelihoods, and between health on the one hand and privacy, freedom of movement and the right to peaceful assemblies on the other hand. 

In her address to the Council, Ms. Bachelet stressed that no one must be left behind in the effort to support those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and that exit strategies must be carefully devised to ensure that societies and people recovered.  Global solidarity was needed to effectively combat this global epidemic, she said, urging all to work together to promote a strong, multilateral, cooperative and global approach.  The pandemic was exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society, while the universality of the threat from the virus provided the most compelling argument for universal and affordable access to health care.  Extensive economic and social measures must be taken in every country to lessen the shocks of the epidemic and minimize the further growth of inequalities.  Ms. Bachelet also emphasized the imperative of respect for civil and political rights during the crisis. 

In conclusion, the High Commissioner spoke about the recovery and echoed the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, who had stressed that “we must build back better” - build more inclusive and sustainable economies and shape societies more resilient in the face of shocks.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers called for multilateral solutions that upheld the rule of law, as well as gender equality and humanitarian principles.  Warning against the impact of unilateral coercive measures on national healthcare capacity, speakers noted that close to 25 per cent of the world’s population was affected by sanctions.  The use of digital surveillance technologies should comply with international law and the pandemic should not usher in a new era of digital surveillance.  Restrictions related to COVID-19 must not exacerbate pre-existing rights violations, and responses to the pandemic should be proportional, time-bound, transparent and regularly reviewed.  Accordingly, parliaments, the media and civil society should be able to play their role.

Speaking in the discussion were the European Union, Azerbaijan, China, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, Russia, Iran, Philippines, Brazil, Sweden, Iraq, India, Marshall Islands, Syria, Germany, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Austria, Georgia, Malaysia, State of Palestine, Slovenia, United Kingdom, South Africa, Pakistan, Liechtenstein, Japan, Egypt, Cuba, Indonesia, Nepal, Chile, Tunisia, Armenia, Ukraine, Maldives, Bangladesh and Australia.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Network for the Protection against Elder Abuse, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and International Service for Human Rights.

The webcast of this informal virtual conversation is available on demand on UN Web TV, while summaries of the discussion in English and French can be found on the United Nations Office at Geneva News and Media page

Introductory Remarks by the President of the Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed the participants to the “world premiere” of a virtual informal conversation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on human rights around the world, in the midst of what many called the biggest challenge of the generation.

The COVID-19 crisis was what some called a black swan.  It had unexpectedly thrown the global community into unchartered waters, while a disruption of societies and economies affected every corner of the globe. 

The human rights impact of the crisis was evident in many ways and the crisis was a magnifying glass for a number of human rights issues.  It increased risks for vulnerable groups, including older people, persons with disabilities, detainees, or people living in poverty.  Women were disproportionately at risk, including from domestic violence.  Fake news was as frequent as ever, putting lives in danger, while hate speech specific to this pandemic had the potential of increasing discrimination and scapegoating. 

Societies had to make excruciating trade-offs between saving lives and livelihoods, and between health on the one hand and privacy, freedom of movement and the right to peaceful assemblies on the other hand.  There was a lot on the Council’s plate to analyse and discuss.  It was of critical importance for the Council to come together - virtually at least - to address the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on human rights around the world, said the President, and expressed hope that the Council would organize more such informal events in the near future.

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the COVID-19 pandemic was generating suffering and damage in every region and posed a far-reaching threat to human rights.  Vital measures must be taken to upgrade health and social systems to ensure the greatest possible support to those most impacted by the epidemic.  No one must be left behind in this effort.  As lockdowns could not continue forever, exit strategies must be carefully devised to ensure that societies and people recovered.

Stressing that global solidarity was needed to effectively combat this global epidemic, the High Commissioner underlined the need for collective international action and the value of multilateral organizations.  The United Nations was created to prevent, mitigate and more effectively address international crises, she said, and urged all to work together to promote a strong, multilateral, cooperative and global approach.

Turning to economic and social rights, Ms. Bachelet noted that the pandemic was exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society.  In developed countries, fault-lines in access to health care, labour rights and social protections, living-space and in dignity were suddenly very visible.  In developing countries, where a large portion of the population relied on daily income to survive, the impact could be far greater and the millions of people, who had little access to health-care and no safety net, would suffer most.  Unchecked, the pandemic was likely to create even wider inequalities, amid extensive suffering. 

The universality of the threat from this virus provided the most compelling argument for universal and affordable access to health care, stressed the High Commissioner, highlighting the urgency of actions to upgrade public health care in every country.  In this context, she emphasized the need to ensure that the efforts of the World Health Organization were fully resourced and that the collapse of any country's medical system was avoided.

Extensive economic and social measures must also be taken in every country to lessen the shocks of the epidemic and minimize the further growth of inequalities.  While many States, especially in Europe, had taken unprecedented measures to protect the rights of workers and minimize the numbers of those made unemployed, many developing countries had less capacity to absorb and mitigate the economic and social impact of the epidemic and might be more vulnerable to world recession.  Highlighting the need to explore new financial mechanisms to fund global solidarity, the High Commissioner commended the innovative thinking of the African Development Bank, which had raised the world's largest social bond the previous week – a $3 billion fund to assist African governments to expand access to health and to other essential services and goods.

Ms. Bachelet emphasized the imperative of respect for civil and political rights during the crisis.  Recognizing that emergency measures might well be needed to respond to the public health emergency, she stressed that “an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations.”  The High Commissioner expressed her profound concern at the adoption by certain countries of emergency powers that were unlimited and not subject to review.  In a few cases, the epidemic was being used to justify repressive changes to regular legislation, which would remain in force long after the emergency was over, she noted. 

Also of concern were steps taken to impose restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression, including the vaguely formulated actions to combat alleged "misinformation", which could be applied to any criticism.  The High Commissioner urged all Governments to greatly increase access to accurate information and statistics and end any blanket Internet and telecommunication shutdowns and denials of service.  “Transparency is paramount and can be life-saving in a health crisis,” she emphasized.

As for the areas of action, the High Commissioner outlined the immediate response to the epidemic and the preparation of the recovery.  In terms of response, she emphasized the need to devise effective and humane policies, including to mitigate the impact of the epidemic on women and on vulnerable groups, such as people in places of detention and other institutions, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and minorities, migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, people in conflict zones and older people.  Furthermore, extensive measures must be taken in every country to absorb the economic and social shocks of this epidemic, and to minimize the expansion of inequalities, since the pandemic was likely to take a disproportionate toll on the poor.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was compiling good economic and social practices adopted by countries in every region – many of them developing countries – which would be brought to the attention of States.

The High Commissioner also underlined that the protection of health workers and their adequate remuneration should be a paramount concern and stressed that, in the face of an existential threat, there was no place for nationalism or scapegoating – including of migrants and minority communities.  In every stage of the epidemic and recovery, efforts should be made to involve national human rights institutions, civil society activists and human rights defenders.  “Throughout the response and recovery stages of the epidemic, we must all step up and demonstrate global solidarity,” she said, and reminded all States of the duty of international cooperation and assistance under article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

Finally, in terms of the recovery from this crisis, Ms. Bachelet echoed the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, who had stressed that “we must build back better”, ensure that all people, including the most vulnerable, benefited from development, build more inclusive and sustainable economies, and shape societies that were more resilient in the face of shocks.  The 2030 Agenda was fully mapped and universally approved, and remained the strongest tool, she said.  Protecting the environment and ensuring biodiversity was the best way to protect human health and wellbeing, including from pandemics. 

The world simply could not return to where it had been just a few months ago, before COVID-19, Ms. Bachelet said.  This colossal test of leadership demanded decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, for all – “We are physically distant today, but we must stand together,” concluded the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Remarks by the President of the Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, said there were still a lot of uncertainties in relation to the COVID-19 situation in Switzerland and around the world.  While hopeful that the forty-fourth session of the Council would be held in person, she said she was not in a position today to even speculate as to what the situation would be two months from now, in June.  In its meeting on 1 April, the Bureau had agreed on the need to carefully examine every option for resuming formal meetings.  At the same time, the Bureau had noted that it was premature to take any decision at this point in time and had decided to continue to discuss the issue.  It was of utmost importance for the Bureau that examining options for resuming formal meetings and the decision-making process be done in close consultation with all stakeholders.  However, it was very likely that when the Council was able to meet again in person, it would be under measures like those that had been implemented immediately prior to the suspension of the forty-third session, such as social distancing, and it might be necessary for the Council to meet again in the Assembly Hall, as opposed to room XX. 

Questions and Comments by States and Civil Society Organizations

In the ensuing discussion, speakers said the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening the rights of everyone, everywhere.  They called for multilateral solutions that upheld the rule of law, as well as gender equality and humanitarian principles.  Human rights should be placed at the centre of the international community’s response, to uphold human dignity and ensure access to healthcare without any discrimination.  Speakers asked the High Commissioner to elaborate on her Office’s role in monitoring governments’ responses to the crisis.  Other speakers said further efforts were needed to protect the right to health and the right to life while minimizing the pandemic’s impact on social and economic development.  Warning against the impact of unilateral coercive measures on national healthcare capacity, speakers noted that close to 25 per cent of the world’s population was affected by sanctions.  What measures was the High Commissioner taking to follow up on her call for sanctions to be eased or suspended?  Some speakers expressed deep concerns about waves of xenophobic and racist rhetoric, and urged efforts to counter this.  The use of digital surveillance technologies should comply with international law, said speakers.  The pandemic should not usher in a new era of digital surveillance.  Restrictions related to COVID-19 must not exacerbate pre-existing rights violations.   

Speakers noted that, during the crisis, there had been expulsions of foreign correspondents, smear campaigns, and the criminalization of alleged misinformation.  Such acts could amount to violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Other speakers inquired about the High Commissioner’s views on the situation in occupied territories where populations were most vulnerable to pandemics.  Some speakers drew attention to the situation of refugees and the poorest people.  Responses to the pandemic should be proportional, time-bound, transparent and regularly reviewed.  Accordingly, parliaments, the media and civil society should be able to play their role.  Some speakers said that the emergence of State piracy of health care equipment attested to the vital importance of multilateralism.  The prominence of domestic violence and child abuse during the crisis was cited as a concern by some speakers, while others said people in precarious forms of labour, including migrants and women, must have access to social protection services.  Noting that the current crisis was highlighting the prevalence of ageism, speakers asked how the needs and rights of older people were considered in the responses of the United Nations.

Concluding Remarks by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her concluding remarks, said that the COVID-19 crisis had restricted the functioning of her Office.  While some activities had been postponed, the Office continued to deliver others online and it continued to engage with partners – States, civil society organizations and national human rights institutions. 

The Office had identified six key priority areas to respond to the crisis, including the engagement and support for vulnerable individuals and groups, engaging on the impact on social and economic rights, and supporting the United Nations human rights system to respond to COVID-19 concerns.  It also continued to fulfil reporting obligations, as mandated by the Human Rights Council.  The High Commissioner urged States to give her Office maximum flexibility in the use of extra budgetary resources in order to adapt the programming to the six identified priority areas of action. 

As for the human rights treaty bodies, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the President of the General Assembly was consulting with the United Nations Economic and Social Council on the election of members of treaty bodies.  The report of the Secretary-General on the treaty bodies review process had been published and the President of the General Assembly had announced the appointment of Morocco and Switzerland as co-facilitators of the General Assembly’s consideration of the status of the treaty bodies system.

The Office was monitoring the situation globally to identify key human rights concerns; it was gathering data and providing advocacy and specific support to States.  It was collecting good practices of States in responding to the crisis, which would be published on the website.  The Office was also keeping track of emergency measures adopted by States and contributing that information to the global database.

Ms. Bachelet underlined that States’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis in occupied territories must comply with international human rights law.  Sanctions should not apply to medical and health materials and the Office would continue its advocacy in this direction.

The High Commissioner stressed that the crisis was an opportunity to build back better.  Her Office was contributing to developing the United Nations COVID-19 response guide and was also completing the drafting of a framework of human rights indicators that United Nations country teams could use in monitoring the situation.

The crisis was being used to incite hatred and intolerance, she said, and stressed that leaders had no greater responsibility than to strongly push back against any such attempt.  “In this context, every word matters,” she underlined.

Highlighting multiple and intersectional vulnerabilities of some groups and individuals, Ms. Bachelet called for strong support for persons with disabilities and the protection of migrants, refugees and other persons forced to flee.  The crisis also impacted women and men differently, often exacerbating gender inequality and the unequal economic and social situation of women.  Economic and social lockdowns exacerbated the incidence of domestic violence and States must take urgent measures to protect women and children, said the High Commissioner, noting that her Office was developing a guidance note on integrating gender considerations into the COVID-19 responses, while a guidance note on protecting the rights of detainees had already been issued. 

While school closure in many countries raised concern about deepening educational inequalities, the situation also presented an opportunity to address those very inequalities and provide access to education for all children.

Ms. Bachelet noted that the continued funding to civil society organizations was particularly important to enable them to contribute to human rights-based responses to the crisis.  The pandemic was unfortunately being used by some States to punish the opposition and silence critics.  The Office had documented the arrests of dozens of citizens in several countries and the expulsion of foreign reporters.  The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression would submit a report on this issue to the Human Rights Council at its June session.  The High Commissioner also underlined the need to ensure access to justice in this time of crises and to ensure adequate functioning of the courts. 

Concluding Remarks by the President of the Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, thanked the High Commissioner, as well as all delegations for their participation.  The meeting had touched on a wide range of very pertinent questions, many of which could not be fully discussed.  This certainly encouraged her to organize more informal meetings, ideally virtual panels with two or three speakers from the Special Procedures.   

This crisis was almost like a large-scale social experiment, but with a tremendous impact on human rights.  The solidarity she witnessed, regardless of the usual ideological or political positions, gave her hope.  What was at stake was human lives and livelihoods, especially those of the most vulnerable populations, Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger recalled.  While some of the issues discussed today would have to be addressed at short notice, an eye should be kept on their long-term consequences.  There might be a risk of seeing short-term emergency measures become a fixture of life - when in fact they should not. 

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For use of the information media; not an official record
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