By Martina Daelli
The COVID-19 pandemic has been having far-reaching implications for human rights. As the virus spread across the world, many countries put in place a range of measures to prevent people’s exposure to the virus and slow its spread. Confinements, lockdowns, travel restrictions, and border closures have been among such measures. Violations of human rights in the context of COVID-19 response emerged very quickly. In some situations, confinements and lockdowns have severely impacted people’s access to food, water, sanitation, health care, shelter, education, and work. People already in precarious situations were put at even greater risk.
Human rights mechanisms of the United Nations (UN) have been reminding states that a human rights-based and gender-responsive approach will enable countries to best respond to COVID-19. This article will recall some examples of such responses but does not attempt to give a comprehensive overview of what the mechanisms have done or said, nor does it aim to provide a critique of ways in which their responses could be strengthened.
The Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a Presidential Statement on the “Human rights implications of COVID-19” on 29 May, with which the HRC, among other things, recalls that the pandemic “perpetuates and exacerbates existing inequalities, and those most at risks are persons in vulnerable and marginalized situations;” reaffirms that emergency measures taken by governments in response to the pandemic “must be necessary, proportionate to the evaluated risk and applied in a non-discriminatory way, have a specific focus and duration, and be in accordance with the State’s obligations under applicable international human rights law” and recognises the need for all stakeholders to be involved in decisions that affect them. The HRC also “calls upon States to ensure that all human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled while combating the pandemic and that their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are in full compliance with their human rights obligations and commitments.”
WILPF undertook, jointly with other NGOs, advocacy on the content of the HRC Presidential Statement. This advocacy followed up on a statement delivered by ISHR on behalf of 85 NGOs, including WILPF, that, among other things, refers to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ appeal for a global ceasefire, underlines that “measures taken increase women and girls’ vulnerability to violence, exacerbate the feminisation of poverty, and put further pressure on women and girls in their caretaking roles” and recommends that the UN “demand that States redirect public resources from weapons and war towards the production of medical equipment, medical staff, and provision of wages, rents, food and health care of those suffering from the economic impacts of the COVID-19.”
To help states to deal with the different aspects of the pandemic, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has elaborated a COVID-19 Guidance. UN Special Procedures (i.e. Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups etc.) have also been very active since the pandemic outbreak, releasing statements and elaborating guidance notes to assist states in their area of expertise.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly stressed the need to put human rights at the centre of states’ response to the pandemic, making it clear that the current crisis is not an excuse to abuse power and violate human rights.
The pandemic has impacted different people differently, exacerbating existing structural inequalities in accessing healthcare and coping opportunities. Basic preventive measures such as respecting physical distance and handwashing can be impossible to respect for people living in overcrowded closed facilities and in communities lacking access to water. The same can be applied to the “stay at home” principle for those living in situations of homelessness. Former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing Leilani Farha called for a global ban of evictions to reduce vulnerabilities of people living in precarious situations and elaborated several guidance notes on issues such as “prohibition of evictions,” “informal settlements,” “homelessness,” “rent and mortgage payers.” The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Disability and Accessibility María Soledad Cisternas Reyes focused on the conditions of people with disabilities, reminding that “states should consider the diversity among persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on gender and age, and the situation of persons with disabilities facing deprivation and hardship.”
Michelle Bachelet has recalled the major disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities — providing examples from the Americas and Europe — and stressed the disease will not be defeated if governments refuse to acknowledge what she described as “the blatant inequalities” the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed. Already in April, Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, underlined that people of colour in the US are dying at much higher rates than the rest of the population.
Recent acts of police brutality in the US brought attention again to structural racism. As noted in one of the latest WILPF’s blogs, the violent repression of protests “shows […] what happens when governments invest in militarism over human well-being.” As the COVID-19 emergency has revealed “there needs to be a fundamental shift in our thinking about security” and move public funding from militarisation to social justice.
Migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and people in humanitarian settings have also seen their conditions worsening during the pandemic. The OHCHR has elaborated a Guidance to address specific concerns related to various aspects of their lives. The guidance focuses on their difficulties in access to healthcare, especially for those living in camps and immigration detention centres. It also reminds states that migrants are overrepresented in the informal sector and face higher risks of losing their jobs and provides suggestions to states to better confront the higher risk of violence they face, including gender-based violence. In April, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, highlighted in a joint statement relating to the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement that the “socio-economic impact of the measures to combat COVID-19 are increasing protection risks for millions of IDPs, especially children, survivors of gender-based violence, older people and persons with disabilities.”
Political prisoners, arbitrarily detained people and people in detention in general, received particular attention by several UN Special Procedures, who encouraged states to release detainees, especially non-violent offenders, those in administrative, pre-trial detention, political prisoners, and other arbitrarily detained people. The OHCHR developed an Interim Guidance on the matter and a Technical Note on children in detention.
Michelle Bachelet is among those having called for the easing of sanctions to enable medical systems to fight COVID-19 and limit global contagion.
COVID-19 has impacted women differently and disproportionally
The pandemic’s impacts are gendered.
Domestic violence rates have increased since the beginning of the lockdown and the difficulty in accessing help services and shelters for women in situations of domestic violence is aggravated by the problems in seeking community support and the closure of courts. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences Dubravka Simonovic, expressed particular concern for women with disabilities, undocumented migrant women and victims of trafficking.
Specialised services for women living with abusive partners are now more vital than ever and the need to guarantee alternatives to violent homes for women and youth has also been stressed by the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing.
WILPF, together with other NGOs, developed a briefing paper regarding domestic violence in the contest of COVID-19 and related lockdown, with practical recommendations for organisations working at the grassroots level, national authorities and international organisations.
Women comprise 70 per cent of healthcare workers around the world, and, as recognised by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, they
“(…) are more likely than men to work in low-wage and informal sectors, without paid sick leave, health insurance or social protection. Elderly women are also more likely than men to be subsisting without any form of pension. Confinement measures are creating additional burdens for many women, including the burden of caring for the sick, the elderly and children no longer attending school. Women and girls are also facing increased risks of domestic violence (…) For purposes of remote schooling, girls globally have less access to the internet and cell-phones than boys. These impacts may not be immediately visible, but they could set back the cause of women’s equality.”
On the gendered aspects of access to water, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation Léo Heller commented in a video on the role of girls in providing water to families and communities, reminding states of some of the ways in which COVID-19 can cause them to bear additional burden.
To avoid taking a step backwards on the protection, promotion and fulfilment of women’s human rights, OHCHR and the CEDAW Committee elaborated two guidance documents on women’s human rights and COVID-19. The documents include recommendations for states on how to deal with the gendered impacts of the pandemic and provide a basis for civil society to hold them accountable.
These guidance documents address the issue of the increased risk of gender-based violence, women’s and girls’ health — including the importance of guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health by considering related services as essential. They provide guidelines on how to deal with the pandemic’s impact on women’s work, income and livelihoods, girls’ education and their access to water and sanitation. The guidance documents, echoing a comprehensive statement by the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, stress the importance of women’s participation in the design of COVID-19 response. Recalling that governments have established task-forces, commissions and groups of experts to plan COVID-19 response policies, they emphasise that the participation of women in policy design is fundamental for the success of such programs.
The CEDAW Committee paid particular attention to disadvantaged groups of women necessitating targeted measures and underlined the need to continue implementing the Women Peace and Security Agenda, by undertaking “a gender-conflict analysis to protect women and girls in humanitarian settings and conflict situations.”
Lockdown measures have different impacts in different countries and contexts within countries; it is necessary to bear in mind local specificities when planning and evaluating the measures. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has addressed the specific situation of women in Latin America, many of whom work in the informal sector, and indigenous and Afro-descendant women who have been particularly affected by the pandemic. The OHCHR and the African Union have elaborated an information sheet on women and COVID-19 in Africa with recommended actions. The information sheet provides, among other things, a summary of state obligations regarding economic measures, access to healthcare, gender-based violence, access to food, water and sanitation, participation in decision-making, humanitarian settings and collection of data and information.
State of emergency and human rights defenders
Due to the pandemic, many states have declared a “state of emergency” in various forms. To be consistent with international human rights law, emergency measures need to respect certain criteria such as necessity, legality, proportionality, non-discrimination, a specific focus and limited duration. Not all states’ emergency measures are compliant with these requirements. Several special procedures have criticised states that abused emergency measures and violated human rights of certain communities with the excuse of curfew violation. The Human Rights Committee has also issued a statement regarding derogations from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) reiterating the requirements and conditions states must observe when resorting to emergency measures. As noted earlier, the HRC Presidential also reminded states of their obligations in relation to emergency measures.
Lockdown measures need to be enforced only to guarantee public health and not to increase control over the population. States need to take into account that for people in extreme poverty, who cannot afford to not work for even one day, respecting lockdown measures is simply not an option.
Among the guidance documents developed by the OHCHR, there is one on the preservation of civic space aimed to encourage participation in a COVID-19 response, address concerns related to restrictions to the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly, stress the importance of respecting the right to privacy and maximising access to information, and recognise the value of civil society’s work and that of human rights defenders.
In some states, people’s trust in public officials is extremely low and information on COVID-19 coming from official sources is considered unreliable. Moreover, disinformation and misinformation on COVID-19, including advice with dangerous health consequences, has been circulating on social media.
Civil society can play an essential role in helping to safeguard public health in this regard. For example, WILPF African Sections, on the basis of the trust they were able to build in their peacebuilding activities, have taken action, not only to provide essential sanitary products but also appropriate information about COVID-19 in their communities.
The Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, jointly with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, has stressed that governments must promote and protect access to and free flow of information during the pandemic and has given five basic recommendations in this regard. Michelle Bachelet has recalled that not only do people have a right to accurate information about the pandemic, they also have a right to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives. “When drawing up plans to lift lockdowns, states should consult badly affected communities and groups — as well as those on the pandemic front-lines, such as health workers, public transport workers, and people working in the food manufacturing and distribution sectors,” she has reminded.
Post-COVID-19 economic recovery: “Austerity can’t be the answer” (J. P. Bohoslavsky, former UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights)
The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating socio-economic consequences and exacerbating existing inequalities. Such inequalities need to be addressed in the COVID-19 recovery plans, both within and between countries, in order to leave no one behind.
“The economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to invest heavily in a greener economy to create jobs and reduce inequalities”, emphasised Olivier De Schutter on taking up his role as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on 1 May. He was also very clear on the fact that there is no excuse for not financing social protection on the basis of the fact that it is not affordable; he recalled, for example, that “on average, the cost of financing a full set of benefits included in social protection floors represent 4.2 per cent of GDP on average for 57 low-income and lower-middle-income countries. This is the best investment a country can make for its future.”
In April, former UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky wrote a letter to governments to guide them towards a greener human rights-based economic recovery, stating that concerns related to economic recession cannot imply avoiding investing in economic and social rights.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has addressed the role of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and, among other things, called on states to use their voting power in IFIs to “to alleviate the financial burden of developing countries to combat the pandemic, including through provision of debt relief.”
Social protection provisions and fiscal policies aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic on the most marginalised are crucial to recovering from the current crisis. Applying gender lenses to national plans is essential; as former UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky underlined, “economic crises hit women harder than men because they are often overrepresented in the informal sector and low paid jobs and are more likely to lose their jobs, and they suffer simultaneously as public sector workers, service users and the main recipients of social security protection benefits, which all this has in turn specific implications in terms of care.”
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has stressed that “measures to protect and stimulate the economy, from cash transfers to credits and loans, must be targeted at women. Social safety nets must be expanded. Unpaid care work must be recognized and valued as a vital contribution to the economy.”
As WILPF, we advocate for a feminist and green COVID-19 recovery by radically changing the foundations of our economic system. The exploitation of nature and people sustained by the capitalist system needs to be dismantled and the US$ 1.9 trillion spent on the military industry need to be diverted and invested in greener sources of energy and social infrastructures. Unpaid care work needs not only to be recognised and valued but also taken off women’s shoulders and not relegated to the private sphere as a women’s responsibility.
No excuses. A human rights-based approach to COVID-19 responses is possible
All the examples mentioned here and the many others available on the OHCHR website serve as a stark reminder to governments and other actors that the COVID-19 pandemic is more than a public health emergency; that human rights must be at the heart of national responses to the pandemic; and that there is no shortage of human rights guidance for governments that want their responses to be informed by human rights and gender justice. As civil society, we should use the guidance notes and recommendations as advocacy tools at the local, national and international levels. It doesn’t mean, however, that we have to limit our COVID-19 related advocacy to these guidance documents, we can, of course, push for a more radical change in the recovery phase. Throughout its work for achieving peace, WILPF has always been aware of the fact that there can be no peace without addressing the root causes of conflicts. Structural sources of inequalities such as capitalism, patriarchy and militarism need to be dismantled to build a truly sustainable peace based on a more just and equitable society.