Coronavirus has exposed human rights gaps. We need to fix this

human rights__

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, Former Human Rights Officer, UN

  • The COVID-19 crisis is the perfect pretext for some political leaders to advance narrow interests, brushing aside long-held principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the name of emergency.
  • Promoting human rights now will help societies emerge more resilient from this pandemic.
  • Individuals need to know their rights and hold their governments to account on their commitments to international treaties, UN resolutions and public statements.

We are in the midst of a global health emergency, which may not seem like the best time to address human rights. But the issues we see across the board, surfacing as a result of the crisis are all relevant. In some countries doctors and nurses don’t have enough personal protective equipment. Unemployment is skyrocketing and people can’t earn a basic standard of living. Social isolation leaves people with disabilities without care.

These are all challenges that come back to human rights and now is the time to address them. People need to know what constitutes a human right and what rights they are entitled to, and governments need to be reminded of their obligations to protect human rights, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.


The pandemic has served as the perfect pretext for some political leaders to advance narrow interests, brushing aside long-held principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the name of emergency. Some are using this opportunity to acquire new powers through emergency decrees, while social distancing helps them enjoy limited public scrutiny.

Consider these examples:

Such unprecedented acts establish the norms that will be very hard to undo long after the coronavirus is eradicated. The UN has recognized this looming problem and urges action. Secretary-General António Guterres launched a report last week to put human rights at the forefront of coronavirus response and recovery.

It is a civil duty to hold governments accountable and to protest (within legitimate social distancing guidelines). Judges, parliamentarians, government civil servants and journalists all need to fulfill their duties to uphold the rule of law. The international community also needs to speak out in solidarity for the rights of all people in every country.

Israelis demonstrate against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under strict restrictions made to slow down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel April 19, 2020 REUTERS/Corinna Kern - RC2V7G9AYP5X
Recent protest in Tel Aviv under strict social distancing rules
Image: REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Stakeholders hold governments to higher standards by quoting the standards that those very governments have committed to. International health regulations, human rights treaties and labour standards contain provisions to guide government policy under any circumstances. These commitments were designed to address emergencies so that they would last well into the future. The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic neither diminishes the relevance of those commitments, nor justifies unlimited rule by decree, supporting dictatorship over democracy, or enacting surveillance without taking every measure to impose limits or use less invasive alternatives.

Knowledge is power for every individual and all the stakeholders mentioned above. Understanding our human rights and knowing what commitments have been made by our governments in international treaties, UN resolutions or public statements enables compelling critique of government policy.

Mobilising Action for Inclusive Societies

Recent years have witnessed some of the largest protests in human history. People are taking to the streets amid a desire for change, putting pressure on decision-makers for urgent and courageous leadership to find sustainable and inclusive solutions to some of the major challenges ahead of us.

A range of forces are at play. By 2022, some 60% of gross domestic product will be digitized – but current education systems are failing to prepare people for decent work in this future. Based on current trends, it will also take approximately two centuries to close the global economic gender gap. Meanwhile, the world’s richest 1% are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030.

To tackle these challenges, Mobilising Action for Inclusive Societies is one of the four focus areas at the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that will bolster local entrepreneurship and innovation, while making growth more equitable.

UN experts and officials have a role to play here. They can help make such information more accessible, clarifying how to respect human rights in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have the authority to call out human rights violations or present recommendations to governments.

For example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that, under international human rights law, emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary and must remain subject to meaningful legislative and judicial oversight.

Promoting human rights now will help societies emerge more resilient from this pandemic in the future. The threats are comprehensive. A society that cannot offer equal treatment for all, including healthcare and social security, will lose its social cohesion and more of its people will fall victim to the virus. A society that surrenders separation of powers may lose sovereign rule altogether. Against threats like these, resilient societies can help advance human rights norms in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Image: UN Women, from Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women

A number of the challenges that have dogged the pandemic may have been avoidable had human rights been safeguarded and prioritized more judiciously. Universal access to healthcare would have facilitated more widespread testing. Stronger anti-discrimination policy might have avoided minorities being disproportionately affected by the virus. Putting gender equality at the forefront may have diminished the widespread incidents of domestic violence during lockdown.

The pandemic is an opportunity to reset and to learn some lessons that are critical for sustainable development. If not for the sake of individuals, governments should be persuaded by the need to sustain society as a whole and help it heal from the coronavirus.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Czech PM should resolve his conflict of interest as a matter of urgency say MEPs

What makes Copenhagen the world’s most bike-friendly city?

Huawei answers allegations about its selling prices

Europe and UN form bulwark against ‘might makes right’ worldview, EU foreign affairs chief tells Security Council

A shocking new report reveals what we’ve done to the natural world

New UN bullying report calls for ‘safe, inclusive’ schools for all children

Responding to the anger

We have to fight for a fairer tech industry for women

‘Act now with ambition and urgency’ to tackle the world’s ‘grave climate emergency’, UN chief urges UAE meeting

How smart tech helps cities fight terrorism and crime

EU allocates €50 million to fight Ebola and malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of Congo

2020’s ‘wind of madness’ indicates growing instability: UN chief

Populist Eurosceptics helped by Trumpists seriously threaten the EU edifice

Reasons to hope and reasons to keep perspective on a vaccine

Migration: Commission steps up emergency assistance to Spain and Greece

A voice from Syria: the positive prospect of clinical research despite the excruciating circumstances

Beyond trust: Why we need a paradigm shift in data-sharing

What paleoecology can teach us about fires in the Amazon

‘Building back better’ – here’s how we can navigate the risks we face after COVID-19

Coronavirus: the truth against the myths: Lockdown by a novel coronavirus, named 2019-nCoV

Joint EU-U.S. statement following the EU-U.S. Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial Meeting

More than 90 per cent of Africa migrants would make perilous Europe journey again, despite the risks

EU-Russia relations: the beginning of a warmer winter?

Guterres underscores UN role in achieving a free, secure Internet

Clean Mobility: Commission tables proposal on car emissions testing in real driving conditions

Brussels Vs. Google: The €1 bn EU fine and the US response

Facility for Refugees in Turkey: €127 million to boost EU’s largest ever humanitarian programme

Data show EU Economy in a stubbornly subdued state

Job vacancy data reveal better prospects for Britain, stagnation in Eurozone

From drone swarms to modified E. Coli: say hello to a new wave of cyberattacks

African elephants under continued threat of poaching, warns UN-backed report

We can build a carbon-neutral world by 2050. Here’s how

The road ahead to building a more sustainable world

The German automotive industry under the Trump spell

Western Balkans’ leaders meeting: EU reinforces support to address COVID-19 crisis and outlines proposal for post-pandemic recovery

Somalia: UN Security Council condemns terrorist attack in which dozens were killed or injured

The EU Parliament and the ECB unknowingly or unwillingly fail to protect our financial assets

Nothing about us without us: how youth empowerment creates lasting change in the climate meltdown

On sidelines of UN climate summit, US President calls for protection of religious freedom

Mark Zuckerberg will be at the European Parliament today to meet President Tajani and the political group chairpersons

Island nations on climate crisis frontline ‘not sitting idly by’

Coronavirus: Commission presents practical guidance on implementing the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU

Now’s the time to take up cycling – here are 6 reasons why

The 10 most common types of plastic choking Europe’s rivers

The European Brain Drain: hard facts and harder truths

Crackdown on Christians in Eritrea spurs UN expert to press Government ‘to live up to its international commitments’

In Finland, speeding tickets are linked to your income

Switzerland to favour EU citizens in immigration quotas as the risk of a new referendum looms

Employment MEPs reach consensus with Commission on workers’ health and safety

Mediterranean and Black Seas: Commission proposes fishing opportunities for 2020

EU mobilises €9 million to tackle the food crisis in Haiti

COVID-19 is an unmissable chance to put people and the planet first

Fighting against the Public Health System dismantling means guaranteeing assistance to all

This woman changed the world of work – and you’ve probably never heard of her

The story of 2018, in 10 charts

Checks, fines, crisis reserve: MEPs vote on EU farm policy reform

How COVID-19 might help us win the fight against climate change

Venezuela’s needs ‘significant and growing’ UN humanitarian chief warns Security Council, as ‘unparalleled’ exodus continues

EU and UK soon to be in a post-Brexit rush over free trade agreement with Australia

Most leaders are missing this crucial character trait

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s