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Human Rights in COVID-times: an event in memory of David Petrasek

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

24 June 2020

It is a privilege to speak at an event in honour of David Petrasek, whose integrity and commitment to human rights was truly remarkable.

David was a true “thought leader” for the human rights world and we will sorely miss his insights, energy and vision. He would have seen the current COVID-19 crisis in its full dimensions for civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development.

I think David would have agreed that we urgently need to empower more advocates for dignity and human rights. I feel strongly that we must not miss this opportunity to rebuild the public’s understanding of why human rights are important – and work to ensure that everyone can express that support and participate in decisions.

The pandemic has starkly exposed the harm done by gaps in human rights protection. People have been called on to wash their hands, but 2.2 billion people have inadequate access to water and sanitation. People have been told people to stay home, and remain physically distant, but 1.8 billion people live in grossly inadequate and overcrowded conditions.

We have seen how critical it is to have universal access to affordable health care and social protections. We have seen the lethal impact of racial and ethnic discrimination against Afro-descendants, indigenous peoples, people of colour, Dalits and ethnic minorities.

We have seen many governments respond to the pandemic by imposing even greater control on freedom of information, expression and media freedoms – criminalising criticism, shrinking the civic space and restricting privacy.

But Governments need the broadest possible input and participation to devise accurate and effective measures to prevent and mitigate the pandemic's harm.

COVID-19 clearly demonstrates that respect for civil and political rights – including people's right to criticise governments' pandemic responses – are beneficial to everyone. It also shows in painful detail that failure to uphold economic, social and cultural rights hurts us all. And I believe this can, and should, invigorate our advocacy for a broader civic space and far stronger human rights-based action.

I hope we can encourage many people to join this great venture of rebuilding our societies with more just, more peaceful and more sustainable and climate-friendly systems.

Without a doubt, David would have been at our side, generating innovative and far-reaching ideas and mobilising others to participate. He saw the need to engage not just States, but non-State actors and businesses as well. We miss his curiosity, his conviction, and his determination to tackle obstacles, no matter how challenging. But I, for one, am inspired by his example and his contribution to our movement – and I hope you will join me in his memory to strengthen our struggle to uphold human equality, rights and dignity for all.

Thank you.