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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
14 October 2020
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
14 October 2020
I am honoured to present the report of my Office, A/75/36, pursuant to General Assembly resolution 48/141. It outlines our human rights work, between 1 January and 30 June 2020. It includes the work conducted by our 87 field presences, human rights components in 12 UN peace operations, 43 human rights advisors and partnership with other UN actors.
Moving forward throughout this reporting period, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unbearable human suffering, weakened vital medical systems, damaged economies, and set back progress towards sustainable, inclusive development and – in some conflict-affected countries – towards peace and security. In several States, this series of profound and multi-faceted blows to human rights has been exacerbated by increased restrictions on political and civil rights, media freedoms and the right to freedom of expression, as well as people's participation in decision- making. It has also further reduced protection of civilians.
Yet human rights-based policy is profoundly useful to policy-makers in the pandemic context. National and global experience of epidemics from HIV to Zika and Ebola demonstrate that measures to support and promote human rights make for much more effective policies for public health. They are also the most powerful drivers of peace, security, social stability, healthy environment and sustainable development – forming a bedrock of protection which, at a time of unpredictable shocks, prevents the worst outcomes.
OHCHR and COVID-19
I wish to bring to your attention the fast-moving work by the Office to support partners and States with immediately effective tools, technical assistance and pertinent, practical guidance, as the pandemic advanced across societies and regions, throwing up multiple human rights challenges.
Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, we began issuing detailed guidance notes for States and UN partners regarding emergency measures, preserving civic space, women, people in detention, indigenous peoples, migrants, minorities, racial discrimination, LGBTI people, people with disabilities and older people.
We also heightened our support for system-wide action to place vulnerable people at the centre of policy guidance and the global humanitarian response plan.
The Office has contributed to inter-agency guidance regarding specific impacts of COVID-19 on women, people deprived of their liberty, persons with disabilities, data responsibility and the right to privacy, preparedness, and specific social and public health measures in low-resource settings.
I have also called for easing of sanctions to enable medical systems to fight COVID-19 and limit global contagion. Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies. I referred to the negative human rights impacts of sanctions and I also called for the suspension of sanctions in concrete cases. I will continue to raise the issue with all concerned parties, including with countries that impose sanctions.
Our thematic and geographic teams assisted UN Country Teams to integrate human rights priorities and action into COVID-19 response plans in a wide range of countries, including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Jamaica, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Paraguay, Republic of Moldova, Senegal, Serbia, Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania, Uzbekistan and State of Palestine1, as well as Kosovo2 .
OHCHR field teams strengthened coordinationwith a broad range of institutions and civil society groups.
They also rapidly implemented new remote monitoring and information management systems via smartphones and other technologies; and helped to ensure greater visibility of the pandemic's impact on populations left behind, as well as more effective targeted assistance, in both national and international responses to crucial humanitarian, health and socio-economic issues.
To take just one example, in Kenya, our Office partnered with grassroots social justice centres in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kisumu and Coastal regions to rapidly assess the pandemic's impact on human rights, including access to water and sanitation. Thousands of households were surveyed across nine counties using a smartphone-based questionnaire, and this led to early, targeted recommendations regarding suspension of utility bills, enforcement of a moratorium on evictions, measures to address fast-rising food costs and detailed guidance on police conduct in enforcing curfews.
In numerous countries, including Cambodia, Colombia, Honduras, Ecuador, Guatemala, Kenya and Mexico, among others, our teams built on and strengthened their work with indigenous communities, to ensure they are not disproportionately affected or left behind in view of COVID-19. In Guatemala, our Office launched a campaign with community media and radio stations that highlighted the contribution of indigenous peoples to the COVID-19 response in the country. In Colombia, we also played a key role in disseminating information through indigenous-led radio stations, with significant participation by women; in addition, we have facilitated dialogue between the Government and Afro-Colombian communities, to ensure more attention to their rights and needs – including conditions of extreme poverty and lack of health infrastructure in their territories.
Surge Initiative, SDGs, right to development
The pandemic is clearly demonstrating the wide-ranging harms that systemic inequalities generate across society. It makes it even more urgent that we intensify our efforts to advance economic, social and cultural rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. I am convinced that this work will also help to effectively prevent conflicts in the longer term, by addressing the root causes of many crises and tensions.
In September 2019, the Office launched a Surge Initiative to step up advice on human rights-based approaches to economic policies and practices, and to advance our focus on economic, social and cultural rights within the framework of the 2030 Agenda.
In Madagascar, our review of the human rights impacts of the mining sector provided key guidance on issues such as people's land rights, and public participation in decisions, at a time of increasing scrutiny of mining permits and environmental certification.
In Peru, my Office is undertaking a project to analyze the impact of COVID-19 on Afro Peruvians living in rural areas. The project will result in targeted recommendations and technical advice to national authorities, so as to address during the COVID-19 recovery phase some of the historical inequalities and discrimination faced by vulnerable groups.
As the pandemic accelerated, these Surge-related projects – like much of our field-work – were both relevant and swiftly adapted to help States devise effective and inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery measures.
In Serbia, where the first-ever mapping effort has been measuring access to safe water, housing, electricity and sanitation for almost 170,000, mainly Roma residents in substandard settlements, this work became even more vital in the context of COVID-19 response and recovery.
In Cambodia, our assessment of the social and economic rights impacts of the pandemic led to strong efforts to build disaggregated datasets on disadvantaged groups, as well as work with the UN Country Team to develop policy options for transformative economic growth, including with regard to employment for women in the informal sector.
Throughout the pandemic, I have also supported system-wide calls for urgent debt relief to give countries space to deliver on their people’s rights – including to health, food and water, housing and decent work. We have strengthened our long-standing efforts to advance access to the right to social protection and the right to health and we continues to work with UN partners to advocate for human rights-based environmental action – including recognition and effective implementation of the human right to a healthy environment.
These are the right things to do – and they are the smart things to do. Similarly, I look forward to supporting the work of the new Expert Mechanism on the Right to Development, which has just commenced working to identify and share good practices and promote implementation of the right to development worldwide.
Given the current setbacks to the SDGs, we urgently need strengthened international cooperation, in line with the right to development, to advance all human rights and to enable all people to share the benefits of scientific and technological progress. This must include access to a vaccine as a global public good.
In the context of the SDGs, I emphasise the key role of human rights indicators, which provide with ways to identify and then address the issues, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to crisis and conflict. They are thus crucial to all prevention work – and notably, essential information on human rights should guide the UN’s efforts to combat COVID-19, from response to recovery and healthier, more equal, and more sustainable societies. The Office has developed a framework of human rights indicators for the COVID-19 crisis, as part of the UN framework for immediate socioeconomic response. They are being used in several countries.
We continue to promote a human rights-based approach to data in the implementation of the SDGs. To take one of many examples, in Uzbekistan, working with the UN Country Team, we advised State authorities on developing national SDG data systems that include human rights indicators, to strengthen the alignment of SDG implementation with international human rights law, and to protect human rights defenders, journalists and trade unions.
Conflicts and humanitarian crises
It is especially crucial that human rights information and analyses be integrated into strategies to prevent, mitigate or respond to emerging crises. To provide prompt and high quality information about – and responses to – emerging situations, OHCHR has set up a regional emergency response team in our West Africa Regional Office, in Dakar, following the creation of similar teams in the Regional Offices for Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.
These three regional emergency response teams provide dedicated support on early warning, human rights analysis and preventive action to UN Country Teams and regional coordination mechanisms. They support regional and global prevention processes for countries such as Myanmar, prompting targeted advocacy and other initiatives.
We are also planning to set up similar teams in other regional offices.
We continue to integrate human rights into UN operations in conflict and humanitarian settings – strengthening efforts to prevent and respond to violations, to protect civilians, and to support greater respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.
This has included work in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Honduras, Libya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen and State of Palestine, among others. We also provided technical advice to humanitarian operations in Syria. The Office continued its important work with the G5 Sahel joint forces to implement human rights compliance in their military operations, prevent violations and protect civilians. This includes support to the screening of personnel, and in developing and strengthening their internal monitoring and accountability, and training in international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
In addition, we have been stepping up our human rights work in the context of electoral processes, notably as part of broader early warning and prevention efforts by the United Nations including in Bolivia, Guyana and Guinea.
Treaty bodies, Human Rights Council, Special Procedures and National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up, for streamlined reporting and implementation
Turning to recent developments related to the human rights mechanisms, I am pleased to report that the Human Rights Council, with the support of my Office, was the first intergovernmental body to resume meetings after the pandemic's interruption of proceedings. In the same vein, the entire Treaty Body system managed to migrate much of its work online, adopting close to 200 decisions on individual complaints since March.
In light of the ongoing Treaty Body Review, I note the continued efforts by my Office and the international human rights mechanisms to streamline States' reporting procedures to the various Committees, and facilitate smoother processes for implementation. Technical assistance provided through the Treaty Body Capacity-Building Programme has contributed to the establishment or strengthening of National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Mauritius, the Republic of North Macedonia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zambia. In the State of Palestine3 , we helped to enhance the capacity and structure of the NMRF, and developed its National Recommendations Tracking Database to support effective follow-up of recommendations and observations issued by the international human rights mechanisms.
The Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures constitute deeply valuable assets that could be better used by States and the Organization – integrating and anchoring human rights across the system, in line with the Secretary-General's Call to Action. During this challenging period, many mandate-holders have developed very pertinent guidance to help States respond to the pandemic and its aftermath. Some have also expressed concerns about constraints which hamper their mandate. I encourage States to take action in response to these concerns, including by ensuring that the Special Procedures – like the Office – receive sufficient funds to implement their mandates; by cooperating with all the Special Procedures; and by fully respecting their independence.
I further note that my Office has developed practical guidance for the UN system regarding the Universal Periodic Review. This guidance was one of the key action points in the Secretary-General's Call to Action on Human Rights, and recognizes that the UPR is an important tool of engagement in the UN work at country level.
Building Back Better
We will recover from COVID-19. We must use this opportunity to build back better. We must work together to build a more equal, inclusive, sustainable, safer, healthier planet that respects all human rights. Any recovery that fails to address the root causes of inequality, political and economic instability and displacement condemns us to future crises.
Countries should use this opportunity to prioritize human rights, ensure a vibrant civil society and free media, and create more accountable institutions. We must foster comprehensive welfare systems, with revamped social protection schemes and universal access to health care and education. We need targeted measures to protect the most vulnerable. We will also need to pursue a climate friendly pathway, decarbonize our economy and create more green jobs.
Women should be at the centre of States’ recovery efforts. This year marks 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted, and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. These anniversaries should inspire reflection on the important progress achieved with respect to women’s human rights – and the considerable work ahead of us to secure genuine equality between women and men. My Office remains deeply committed to continued support of women human rights defenders, and we are proud to be among the leaders of the Beijing 25 Action Coalition on feminist movements and leadership. As we pursue our efforts to “build back better,” upholding and defending women’s rights is crucial.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of advancing civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development, in both the immediate response and our longer-term recovery. It has generated acute suffering and created even more areas where the support and assistance of my Office are badly needed. But it has also had serious impact on our ability to undertake all of our planned and mandated activities around the world. The Organization’s cash-flow crisis has severely restricted the availability of resources, and we have deployed great creativity in improvising new and remote methods of work, in order to sustain our engagement with governments, our partners and the people we serve.
As always, I look forward to our dialogue, both in today's setting and more broadly. I also count on you for support – convinced that Member States will draw from this terrible crisis deeper understanding of the preventive and protective impact of human rights norms and tools that ensure a more fair distribution of resources, more responsive and accountable governance, and greater respect for justice, dignity and rights.
2. References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999)
3. Hereinafter, all references to the State of Palestine should be understood in compliance with United Nations General Assembly resolution 67/19.