Human Rights Council holds “virtual conversation” with High Commissioner to address COVID-19


Noting the devastating consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic on societies and its profound impact on people’s rights, participants in a Human Rights Council-sponsored “virtual conversation” with the High Commissioner for Human Rights echoed calls for global solidarity and human rights based approaches in response to the crisis. 

President of Human Rights Council, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria) 9 April 2020 © Human Rights Council Presidency

The first-ever virtual meeting hosted by the United Nations’ premier human rights body heard from more than 40 delegates and representatives from civil society who engaged in an on-line discussion with Ms. Bachelet and Council President, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), addressing various implications and trends of the virus on human rights at global, regional, national and local levels.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is generating suffering and damage in every region.  It poses a far-reaching threat to human rights”, stated the High Commissioner in her opening remarks.  “The pandemic is exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society”, she added.

In her introductory statement, Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger noted how the crisis had been viewed by many as a “black swan” and how “it has unexpectedly thrown the global community into unchartered waters”.  She added:  “We are witnessing a disruption of societies and economies affecting every corner of the globe.”

During the virtual Q and A session, States and NGOs raised multiple issues including efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable, the use of digital technology and threats to the right to privacy, ensuring the right to health and education, access to medicines, access to information and countering “fake news”, the effects of sanctions, domestic violence, countering discrimination, and the role of civil society in response to the crisis and in the recovery phase.

Noting the role played by the Council’s independent experts and investigative bodies in highlighting a “variety of angles” of the pandemic, the Council President noted that the “crisis is in a way a magnifying glass for a number of human rights issues”. 

The three-hour meeting brought together over 400 participants who joined the zoom meeting, and also attracted an audience of some 2,000 viewers from 100 countries who followed the virtual dialogue via webcast.  Ahead of today’s meeting, Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger noted that the “Council was exploring ways to spread our messages in as many imaginative ways as possible to those who most need to hear them”.

In preparation of this event several virtual meetings had already been held after the suspension of the regular session on 13 March, including a meeting of the Council’s Bureau last week who discussed ways of how the 47-member body could best address the human rights implications of the current crisis and possible scenarios for resuming its formal work once circumstances were back to normal.

Commending the efforts by the Geneva-based Council in addressing COVID-related human rights concerns in a timely manner, the High Commissioner referred to the crisis as "a colossal test of leadership”.  She added:  “It demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, and for all.  We are physically distant today, but we must stand together.”

While paying tribute the health professionals around the world, participants repeated urgent calls for ceasefires to take effect to allow for the delivery of life-saving medical care.  Other issues raised include the effect of the virus on OHCHR field offices, the possibility of devising guidelines on protecting human rights in the event of future pandemics and emergencies, and good practices emerging from the crisis.

Speaking to the need for global solidarity in this time of crisis, one participant noted: "As we battle this common enemy, we must make sure we don’t inadvertently take a step backwards on human rights, and the hard won progress we have all made in recent decades".

9 April 2020


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