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Human Rights Council discusses human rights implications of the COVID-19 crisis with its special procedures mandate holders

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The Human Rights Council today held a virtual informal conversation on the human rights implications of the COVID-19 crisis with representatives of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures mandate holders.

The special procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with the mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. The Coordination Committee, composed of six Special Procedures mandate holders, aims to enhance coordination among mandate holders and to act as a bridge between them, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the broader United Nations human rights framework and civil society.

In her opening remarks, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed the participants in the first virtual informal conversation with the Council’s Special Procedures in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. Often called the eyes and ears of the Council, the Special Procedures fact-finders helped the Council keep track of what was going on all over the world in terms of human rights, she said, noting that they had developed tools and means to assist States and other stakeholders in their response to the COVID-19 crisis, with creativity and innovation.

Anita Ramasastry, Chairperson of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, noted that the Coordination Committee had helped create a dedicated COVID-19 web page, which it hoped would become over time a living repository of guidance and advice to States on good practice. The Special Procedures mandate holders had risen to the challenge and through their powerful statements, actions and innovations promoted a human rights-based approach to addressing this crisis, said Ms. Ramasastry. They attempted to help States to ensure that policies and decisions taken during the crisis were consistent with human rights.

Dainius Pûras, Special Rapporteur on the right to health and member of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, said advances in biomedical sciences were very important to realize the right to health during this pandemic, but equally important were human rights. The way to the effective management of the pandemic was the application of the principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment and accountability to all policies. He also stressed the importance of access to reliable and accurate information and the protection of the right to privacy, including in the use of technologies to track the spread of the virus.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers welcomed the guidance provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that States’ responses complied with human rights obligations. They asked what steps had been taken to ensure the lifting of unilateral and illegal coercive measures, which violated human rights. Any measures to counter the pandemic should be necessary and proportionate, pursue legitimate purposes, and comply with international norms. Respect for human rights was vital, not only for the emergency response phase, but also during the post-crisis recovery. Speakers noted that emergency powers had been used to enact repressive measures that may have the effect of silencing dissent. They stressed the importance of upholding economic, social and cultural rights, including issues related to access to housing and food. It was hard to find a more striking example of the interconnectedness of rights than this crisis.

In conclusion, Mr. Pûras said lessons still had to be drawn from this pandemic. However, lots of lessons learned from previous public health crises could be applied today to address the current crisis. The AIDS epidemic, for instance, had shown that a human rights-based approach was most effective. It should also be noted that the current crisis had revealed the weakness of healthcare systems, including in some developed countries, which would have to be addressed.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ramasastry reiterated that the Special Procedures’ key messages concerned non-discrimination, not using emergency measures to violate human rights, and the need to address inequality in the current situation. All were asking States to take human rights considerations into account when making decisions and to apply a human rights-based approach to response and recovery.

Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger concluded by noting that this very interesting discussion today had demonstrated that the COVID-19 global crisis affected everyone and was an opportunity for the international community to act as one. It had shown that human rights were not a luxury to think about after the crisis; rather, human rights were a part and parcel of the solution.

Speaking in the discussion were Australia on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, Chile, Republic of Korea, Venezuela, Belgium, Italy, Indonesia, China, State of Palestine, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Slovenia, Egypt, Iran, Czech Republic, Canada, Pakistan, Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, Cuba, Syria, Maldives, India, Bangladesh, Israel, France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Afghanistan, South Africa and Armenia.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Amnesty International, Child Rights Connect, Human Rights Watch, FIAN international and Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI).

The webcast of this informal virtual conversation is available on demand on UN Web TV, while summaries of the discussion in English and French can be found on the United Nations Office at Geneva News and Media page.

The Council held its first virtual informal conversation on the human rights impact of the COVID-19 crisis on 9 April with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Today’s event was the Council’s second virtual informal conversation, but the first with the Special Procedures.

Introductory Remarks by the President of the Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed the participants in the first virtual informal conversation with the Council’s Special Procedures in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. Often called the eyes and ears of the Council, the Special Procedures fact-finders helped the Council keep track of what was going on all over the world in terms of human rights. The seven weeks of the lockdown had shown that the corona virus crisis affected, in one way or another, all human rights: the right to life, to health, to adequate housing, clean water and sanitation, food, information, freedom of assembly, women’s rights, children’s rights and, in particular, the rights of all vulnerable groups.

With lots of creativity and innovation, the Special Procedures mandate holders had developed tools and means to assist States and other stakeholders in their response to the COVID-19 crisis, said the President. Those included a general call by more than 60 mandate holders, highlighting that everyone has the right to life saving interventions; a wealth of up-to-date information; and recommendations and guidelines for national and international responses. “COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the revitalization of universal human rights principles which - together with trust in scientific knowledge - must prevail over the spread of fake news, prejudice, discrimination, inequalities and violence,” the Special Procedures had stressed, and called for the principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment and accountability to be applied to all health-related policies.

Stressing the need to focus not only on deficits, but on good human rights stories too, Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger remarked that, despite its devastating impact in different parts of the world, COVID-19 had actually triggered a number of uplifting stories of solidarity and bravery. Those included moratoria on evictions due to rental and mortgage arrears, deferrals of mortgage payments or hotel rooms being adapted for homeless people; and measures to preserve jobs, provide or extend paid sick leave or unemployment benefits, and provide childcare for essential service workers. States had taken special measures to expand domestic violence responses for victims of abuse; included sign language in many of the COVID-19 announcements; and initiated the release of detainees. It was hoped that those developments would be a start to building back a better post-pandemic world and ensuring that the COVID-19 response and recovery was guided by human rights, concluded the President.

Statement by the Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures

ANITA RAMASASTRY, Chairperson of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, noted that the Coordination Committee had helped create a dedicated COVID-19 web page, which it hoped would become over time a living repository of guidance and advice to States on good practice. It had also prepared an analytical compilation of statements and advice by Special Procedures mandate holders, identified key common concerns and messages, and developed a reference tool for the findings and advice addressed to States and other stakeholders. The ‘United Nations Special Procedures and COVID-19’ was a working document that contained public actions taken by mandate holders, who had risen to the challenge and through their powerful statements, actions and innovations promoted a human rights-based approach to addressing this crisis. To date, they had issued 45 statements and press releases, including a general call stressing that everyone has the right to life saving interventions issued by more than 60 mandate holders. On 2 April, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings had addressed the question of police use of force and lethal force in states of emergency and underlined the applicable human rights norms and principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution.

In their open letters on key principles relating to COVID-19, mandate holders attempted to help States to ensure that policies and decisions taken during the crisis were consistent with human rights. One example was the 10 key principles for human rights compliant responses to COVID-19, issued by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The Special Rapporteur for the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism had developed an online-based tracker to monitor COVID-19 State responses that affected civic freedoms and human rights; it specifically monitored emergency powers emerging across the globe. This was an innovative tool for States and other stakeholders to understand the impact of this rapidly evolving crisis. Through their work, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the Working Group on discrimination against women had identified impacts of the pandemic on women and girls and had shown the disproportionate impact on the rights of women of both stay at home orders and frontline work.

Some mandate holders had engaged in innovative campaigns using different channels of communication, said Ms. Ramasastry. An example was the podcast ‘Entrepreneurs of intolerance’ by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which addressed the COVID-19 racist backlash. In all their activities, the mandate holders emphasized the critical need for a human rights-based approach to COVID-19. They had called on States to put human rights at the centre of the pandemic response and had stressed that the principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment and accountability needed to be applied to all health-related policies. Non-discrimination in particular was the vital principle to be applied in accessing health care, services and life-saving treatment. The pandemic was highlighting and exacerbating systemic inequalities, the Special Procedures stressed. Many governments’ responses to COVID-19 had devastating effects on people in poverty, persons with disabilities, older persons, people of African descent and women. States must take additional social protection measures so that their support reached those most at risk of being disproportionately affected by the crisis, they stressed, and expressed concern about the shortage of critical protective equipment and the inequality in the distribution of necessary personal protective equipment within and between States.

The Special Procedures also welcomed good practices by States, such as the decisions to grant temporary residency rights, including access to social and health benefits to migrants, including asylum-seekers. Some States had recently taken exemplary initiatives to reduce overcrowding in prisons and other detention settings by promoting early release and reducing the intake of prisoners, with the view to protecting the health of prisoners and staff.

Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

DAINIUS PÛRAS, Special Rapporteur on the right to health and member of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, said advances in biomedical sciences were very important to realize the right to health during this pandemic, but equally important were human rights. The principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment and accountability needed to be applied to all policies. This was the way to the effective management of the pandemic. Access to reliable and accurate information was of utmost importance. Pandemics could be managed effectively only with truthful information, and the right to freedom of expression applied to everyone. The right to privacy also needed be protected. While technologies could be used for tracking the spread of the virus, any use of such technologies should abide by the strictest protection measures. Health workers needed all possible support from States, business, media and the public at large. Furthermore, effective management of the pandemic required a vibrant civil society, and good health could be promoted only with active participation from people and their empowerment. As regards financial stimuli and similar measures, saving economies at any costs could be harmful, as such an approach was often accompanied by a lack of serious efforts to reduce inequalities. Fiscal stimulus and social protection packages aimed at those least able to cope with the crisis were essential to mitigating the devastating consequences of the pandemic. This crisis was an unprecedented test for governments and businesses not to lower human rights standards.

Mr. Pûras stressed that responses to the crisis and the recovery needed to be gender based. Women were particularly exposed, with many on the frontlines, providing essential medical and other services, and keeping communities running. Children may be deprived from education and from school meals. Some of them stayed at home in an environment where they were not protected from violence. Persons with disabilities should not be left behind, nor suffer discrimination in accessing healthcare services, including lifesaving interventions. Older persons were especially vulnerable: they could be affected by loneliness, poverty, neglect – whether at home or in nursing homes. They did not only face a disproportionate risk of death but were further threatened by COVID-19 due to their care support needs or by living in high-risk environments such as institutions. Mandate holders had also raised concerns regarding the situation of minorities, people of African descent, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse persons, persons who used drugs, persons deprived of liberty, and persons in institutional care. They were all at risk of suffering disproportionately, notably from discriminatory attitudes. A synergy between two sets of measures – emergency measures and a human rights-based approach – was the way to defeat the pandemic and to mitigate the negative consequences of this crisis.

**Questions and Comments by States and Civil Society Organizations

**In the ensuing discussion, speakers asked if there had been reprisals against Special Procedures mandate holders or human rights defenders working on human rights issues related to COVID-19. Some welcomed the guidance provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that States’ responses complied with human rights obligations. Calling for responses that were gender responsive, speakers stressed that, while the virus did not discriminate, its impacts certainly did. Women and girls faced undue restrictions in accessing healthcare services. Marginalized groups, including older people and detainees, were particularly at risk. Some speakers asked what steps had been taken to ensure the lifting of unilateral and illegal coercive measures, which violated human rights. Others said States should give top priority to the right to life and health while upholding economic and social rights. What were Special Procedures mandate holders doing to ensure the protection of the rights of the most vulnerable populations, including those living under occupation? Some speakers asked what measures had been put in place to factor in human rights considerations in the United Nations’ response to the corona virus.

Some speakers requested information on the measures considered to alleviate the external debt, notably that of African countries, so as to mitigate the impact of the crisis on human rights. The continuous application of unilateral coercive measures posed a threat to global public health, said some speakers. Others stressed the need to respect and protect the right to access accurate information, both offline and online, and ensure a safe and enabling environment for media workers and civil society. Speakers asked what specific challenges the crisis posed to the Special Procedures mandate holders’ working methods. Some speakers said this was not a time for mandate holders to use this pandemic to advance their own agendas, as some of them had done. Any measures to counter the pandemic should be necessary and proportionate, pursue legitimate purposes, and comply with international norms, speakers said. Respect for human rights was vital, not only for the emergency response phase, but also during the post-crisis recovery. In this time where public gatherings were restricted, it was all the more important to uphold the freedom of peaceful assembly, notably online. How could the Special Procedures foster a renewed multilateralism that would ensure responses to COVID-19 that promoted and protected human rights?

Speakers noted that emergency powers had been used to enact repressive measures that may have the effect of silencing dissent. They encouraged Special Procedures mandate holders to deepen their analysis of States’ responses, notably by making reports to the Human Rights Council. The pandemic and States’ responses to it had had a significant impact on the full range of children’s rights, to a different extent depending on the context. They recalled that all rights were equally important under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Special Procedures could play a role in protecting the rights of children in vulnerable situations, and should enhance their child rights monitoring and find new ways to reach out to them, including through digital means. Other speakers stressed the importance of upholding economic, social and cultural rights, including issues related to access to housing and food. It was hard to find a more striking example of the interconnectedness of rights than this crisis. A number of countries had guaranteed that water would not be cut off and deferred utility payments. However, in several countries, prison overcrowding had not been addressed.

Concluding Remarks

DAINIUS PÛRAS, Special Rapporteur on the right to health and member of the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures, said lessons still had to be drawn from this pandemic. However, lots of lessons learned from previous public health crises could be applied today to address the current crisis. The AIDS epidemic, for instance, had shown that a human rights-based approach was most effective. It should also be noted that the current crisis had revealed the weakness of healthcare systems, including in some developed countries, which would have to be addressed. Many of the reports he had published since the beginning of his mandate were relevant for the current pandemic. It was important to pay attention to the mental health issue. In that regard, it was important to note that the Human Rights Council had adopted in 2016 a resolution on mental health care and human rights.

ANITA RAMASASTRY, Chairperson of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, stressed the fact that Special Procedures aimed to avoid protection gaps and said that even though they could not undertake field visits, they continued to use technology to talk, consult, convene and coordinate. With various communications processes, the mandate holders were doing their best to verify the facts, even though they operated remotely; the communications work continued and would continue, Ms. Ramasastry stressed. The Special Procedures mandate holders were now working together and sharing collective experiences and messages for the Council and States. This working together would continue and all documents and messages would continue to be posted at the COVID-19 web page. The mandate holders hoped to be able to meet soon with States and other stakeholders face to face and directly. Ms. Ramasastry urged States to get in touch with individual mandate holders for in-depth discussions on specific human rights issues.

On reprisals, the Special Procedures were concerned about the shifts in some countries, including the movement of security personnel away from protecting and defending human rights defenders. They had recognized emergency situations facing some countries, including challenges in accessing medical supplies due to sanctions, and had echoed the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to allow for the importation of the necessary medical equipment. On the questions raised about development, debt and long-term recovery, the Chair noted that the mandate holders did not have all the answers today. They were beginning to think about middle and long-term solutions, about prevention and human rights, about Sustainable Development Goals and how they would operate as a global system in the future. The Special Procedures’ key messages concerned non-discrimination, not using emergency measures to violate human rights, and the need to address inequality in the current situation. All were asking States to take human rights considerations into account when making decisions and to apply a human rights-based approach to response and recovery, Ms. Ramasastry concluded.

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, thanked the representatives of the Coordination Committee and said that the more the Special Procedures mandate holders coordinated, the easier the work was for the members of the Human Rights Council. This very interesting discussion had demonstrated that the COVID-19 global crisis affected everyone and was an opportunity for the international community to act as one. It was a health crisis and a human rights crisis, and just as States must not discriminate between people, they could not pick and choose among human rights. The debate had shown that human rights were not a luxury to think about after the crisis; rather, human rights were a part and parcel of the solution.

For use of the information media; not an official record