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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

2021 UNDP Annual Meeting on Strengthening the Rule of Law and Human Rights for Sustaining Peace and Fostering Development

23 June 2021

Session on Supporting Accountability for Human Rights 

Statement by Ms. Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

23 June 2021

Distinguished panelists and guests,
Dear colleagues,

I am pleased to take part in this panel discussion. Rule of law and accountability are essential for the effective protection of human rights: they deter, prevent and address violations.  Our message has been consistent: national authorities - as duty bearers - must be held accountable to laws, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights law. Respect for the rule of law plays a crucial role in reinforcing public trust in governance and ensuring that all those left behind can enjoy equal rights.

What we have learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic is that, to be successful, public health responses need to be anchored in human rights across the spectrum: economic, social, civil and political rights.

While Governments around the world have adopted often necessary measures to address the challenges posed by the pandemic, they have also suspended constitutional frameworks, amended administrative procedures, restricted public movement, limited opportunity for participation in public life and for independent oversight going beyond what is “necessary and proportionate”. We have documented large-scale arrests, detention and intimidation of social media users and healthcare workers for criticizing government responses. In detention centres, the pandemic has slowed or suspended judicial oversight procedures in many locations. This, in turn, has negatively affected detainees’ due process and rights to a fair trial, the right to be free from torture and the right to be treated with dignity.

Responses to COVID-19 have also negatively affected the enjoyment of economic and social rights already compromised by deep social and economic fractures. We continue to monitor and address with UN partners, the impact on the right to health, to food, to an adequate standard of living, to work and of course to education. On the latter, large-scale school closures have affected close to half the world’s students (UNESCO). Many students might never resume their education at all, further exposing gender and an underlying digital divide.

In sum, the pandemic has affected every part of our societies, showing us the consequences of long-standing gaps in human rights protection, discrimination and inequalities and their disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. 

From the onset and despite the challenges they faced during COVID-19, the UN Human Rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies, special procedures of the Human Right Council and our Office have continued to monitor human rights impacts, providing guidance to national authorities on legal and policy issues to ensure that the crisis response is aligned with international human rights norms and standards.

I will briefly highlight key recommendations relating to accountability:

  1. Governments must uphold the rule of law and human rights as security measures are put in place, respecting the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination.
  2. Emergency measures must be enforced fairly, with independent accountability measures to safeguard communities at risk; potential discriminatory and violent practices of law enforcement may threaten social cohesion and erode government legitimacy, compounding often existing trust deficits.
  3. Civic space should not be unduly restricted, and community leaders and grassroots actors should not be silenced when they point to injustices in the response measures, especially when they can contribute to sound policies.
  4. Gender-responsive measures must be in place to reach out to victims and create safe spaces for people at risk of gender-based and domestic violence to ensure accountability. Stay-at-home restrictions have had significant impact on women and girls (the “shadow pandemic” – UN Women).
  5. Specific efforts must be deployed to ensure that LGBTI people are not subjected to discrimination or fear retribution for seeking healthcare.
  6. All efforts must be deployed to monitor – through National Preventive Mechanisms -  the conditions of people deprived of liberty in critical situations given the wide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons.  

Thechallenges ahead remain daunting: persistent gaps in access to justice, especially for those marginalized and discriminated; public decision-making processes often remain opaque and non-participatory, hindering people’s ability to obtain accountability, further eroding trust in governance. All of this compounded by the severe economic downturn further undermining lives and livelihoods, including prospects for access to justice.

The pandemic, however, also offers us a unique opportunity to change course, and recover better – an opportunity to create more resilient, more equitable and more sustainable societies. The tenets of good governance, accountability, transparency, equity, participation, and the rule of law, give us the relevant tools. By placing human rights at the heart of recovery, Governments have an opportunity to address systemic inequalities, renewing the social contract to strengthen universal health coverage, social protection and education.

In concluding, let me echo the Secretary General’s Call to Action for Human Rights:

The human rights system helps us to meet the challenges, opportunities and needs of the 21st century; to reconstruct relations between people and leaders; and to achieve the global stability, solidarity, pluralism and inclusion on which we all depend.

Thank you.