Message from Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
15 September 2020
Honourable Members of Parliament,
For months now, the COVID-19 has tested our leadership and humanity. It has deepened the inequalities and forms of discrimination that harm billions of people.
It has also been teaching us key lessons about how to construct more resilient societies – including the need for universal health coverage, and other social protection and environmental measures.
And COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated – once again – how vital it is to strengthen the foundations of democracy.
Since long before the pandemic, attacks on human rights defenders – with impunity; harassment of the press; crack-downs on peaceful assemblies; deliberate weakening of institutional checks and balances; a decline in civil liberties and growing polarization across societies have been worrying signs of democratic decline.
When the pandemic hit, these trends intensified, and in some States that adopted extraordinary measures, we also witnessed movement towards unchecked executive power, restrictions on speech and disproportionate penalties and enforcement.
There is no single model of democracy. But strong democracies share some essential characteristics. They include solid oversight institutions, which keep Governments accountable for their actions. Parliaments, as the most prominent power to exercise oversight over the executive, are cornerstones of national human rights protection systems and have a critical role in times of crises.
Overcoming the pandemic requires concerted action by all of society in line with the compelling recommendations of human rights bodies. We need to ensure no one is left behind.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parliaments have been key in discussing human-rights based responses, assessing the economic and human rights impact of Government COVID19 measures and addressing the needs and concerns of those most affected and vulnerable.
Given their direct links with grass-roots organizations, individuals, and national human rights institutions, Parliaments are well positioned to prevent violations of human rights and to ensure better protection, especially of vulnerable groups.
This role of parliaments can be further enhanced through their proactive engagement with international human rights mechanisms – deploying their legislative, budgetary and oversight power to make sure that international human rights recommendations deliver real impact in their countries. In particular, Parliaments could participate in the Human Rights Council UPR, taking into account that most of the recommendations accepted by the executive require legislative action in order to be implemented.
My Office has already issued a series of detailed and actionable guidance papers on key human rights issues to be addressed in working to resolve and recover from the pandemic.
They include guidance on emergency measures; keeping a broad, open civic space; detention and decarceration, including of children; minorities; indigenous peoples; people with disabilities; migrants; LGBTI people; older people, and issues involving racial discrimination. In addition, our country-specific infographics highlight key recommendations relevant to your country's work to address COVID-19.
I am convinced this work is achievable – and essential.
So today, as we mark International Day of Democracy under the theme
COVID-19: A Spotlight on Democracy, let's remember that democratic systems have time and again demonstrated their resilience and effectiveness in dealing with exceptional challenges.
Solid public participation; official accountability through oversight institutions; and a free press are tremendous advantages in devising policies that navigate crises most effectively.
We will build back better with democratic institutions, based on a renewed commitment to human rights.