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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Nordic Ministers’ meeting on perspectives of democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the COVID-19 pandemic

11 September 2020

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Video Message by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner to Human Rights

11 September 2020

Thank you for inviting me to speak on this vitally important topic. With some Governments mobilizing trillions of euros to address and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the decisions they take today will have consequences for decades. At such a time, neither Governments, their peoples or our planet can afford to lose the perspective of human rights. 

With COVID-19, a fast-moving health crisis has met a series of slower, deeper social and economic crises generated by discrimination and inequalities, as well as a long-term erosion of democracy, in some countries.

This collision is resulting in a massive and multifactorial human rights crisis. Globally, we are seeing negative impacts across the entire range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

But in some countries we are also seeing evidence that human rights-based systems – such as social protection, and universal health care – which act to shield the poorest and most vulnerable from at least some degree of harm, are ensuring greater hope of recovery. 

We can also see that some decision-makers – including in the Nordic region – have made sound choices that have helped to uphold human rights.

Others have used COVID-19 as a pretext to shut down criticism and protest.

Everywhere, to a greater or lesser extent, the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected the poor; indigenous peoples; marginalised or discriminated communities; migrants; people with disabilities; children and women.

In other words, it has hit the disempowered – people whose voice is frequently ignored.

This crisis is far from over. As we face its next phases, we need to learn from what went right and wrong in recent months.

To me, the first lesson should be this: in order to navigate this pandemic in security, we need more empowerment – more democracy – more participation by civil society.

Not less.

We need to build up human rights-based systems to protect and cherish the people, who are the greatest resource of any country and the only bottom line that really counts.

And this crisis has again underlined the importance of the key structures of democratic governance, such as oversight institutions, which keep Governments accountable for their actions, including emergency measures; free and independent media, which enable accurate feedback and evidence-based information – saving lives; and the broadest possible civic space.

We need to face the coming challenges with policies that are grounded in human rights and the principles of democracy and rule of law, so that we can minimize the devastating social and economic consequences of COVID-19 – and build back societies that are resilient and fair.