UN Policy Brief: COVID-19 and Human Rights - We Are All in This Together

Updated: May 20, 2020

United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, highlighted his concerns on how countries are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the concurrent issues on the protection of human rights. Accordingly, the Secretary General published guidance on human rights and COVID-19 response implemented by States.  The brief, titled ‘COVID-19 and Human Rights - We Are All in This Together’ highlights considerations to be taken by states as they tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Brief expresses the UN's opinion that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic centred around human rights will yield ‘better outcomes in beating the pandemic, ensuring healthcare for everyone and preserving human dignity. But they also focus our attention on who is suffering most, why, and what can be done about it’.

Guterres emphasised that States’ responses to COVID-19 have an impact on the economic, social and political lives of citizens, therefore placing human rights at the fore-front of the responses adopted is of utmost importance. The Brief reiterates that adopting a human rights lens is key to developing and adopting responses that protect the most vulnerable in a state. Moreover, protecting human rights is one of the obligations of States. States are cautioned that, although they need to react swiftly to curb the pandemic, ‘responses must be proportionate to the pandemic to preserve the trust that needs to exist between people and their government, especially during a crisis’.

Nevertheless, international law recognises that human rights may be limited during national states of emergencies. The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic justifies certain limitations on human rights in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 nationally and globally.

Concern has been expressed that the pandemic may exacerbate existing human rights concerns, like sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination against certain groups, xenophobia and mistreatment of migrants. Accordingly, the UN advises concrete actions to assist states in their responses to the pandemic. In the Brief ‘frontline human rights’ are highlighted and described as the cornerstone of society, yet they are some of the most challenged rights during this pandemic.These rights are:

  • Right to life and duty to protect life

  • Right to health and access to health

  • Right to freedom of movement

To protect the right to life and provide for access to healthcare, States have had to limit the right to freedom of movement. However, States' responses should be more nuanced than that. The Brief highlights ‘Six Key Human Rights Elements’ , and advises that States take these rights elements into consideration as they develop and implement their responses.

Protecting people's lives is the priority; protecting livelihoods helps us do it

In the Brief it is suggested that States address the economic and social impact alongside the public health in their responses. While the key focus has remained on saving lives, States' responses need to also balance this with job retention, access to basic services and family life, enable people to comply with public health measures and ease recovery once these measures can be lifted. Human rights challenges that impact on the livelihood of citizens have been worsened as nations implement measures to combat the pandemic.. Issues such as unemployment, food security, school closures, reduction in care and protection services for societies vulnerable groups, increase in exploitation and violence against women, children and gender diverse people. It is difficult for citizens that are unemployed, without safe housing or sanitation to adhere to the self-isolation and social distances rules that are being applied by States.

Accordingly, it recommends that best practice would be to adopt a response that makes provision for water and sanitation supply in information settlements, suspends housing evictions, preserves salaries and jobs, provides for universal income and support for business, provides for child-care for essential workers and expands responses to domestic violence cases. This has been the response of many States within their fiscal resources, however, not every State is able to provide such measures.

The virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do

The impact of COVID-19 does not discriminate and will be felt by all the residents in a state. Accordingly, the UN SG advises that the responses adopted by States should be inclusive, equitable and universal. Additionally, equity is of utmost importance because there are indications that the impact of the virus is disproportionate effect on vulnerable communities, highlighting underlying structural inequalities. This may be addressed by applying equitable responses that address the specific impacts that are affecting and afflicting marginalised and vulnerable individuals.

Consequently, an example of a non-discriminatory response adopted in some States, it is recommended that states grant temporary residence status to migrants and asylum seekers for the duration of the pandemic. This allows migrants full access to health care and socio-economic benefits during the pandemic and and curbs the spread of COVID-19.

Involve everyone in your response

Effective participation of everyone one is required to provide an informed response that is necessary, reasonable and proportionate to combat the virus and save lives. The UN encourages governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable and for the private sector, business and civil society organisations to contribute to the solution and responses adopted by States.

Accordingly, some States have instituted daily briefing sessions which allow for questions to be asked during the session. These briefings are televised, screened online and transmitted on the radio to citizens in states. Other states created independent parliamentary committees which are transmitted openly to citizens as well. Such responses are considered good practices that are encouraged by the Secretary-General..

The threat is the virus, not people

Brutality against citizens has increased in a number of States. The UN favours emergency and security measures that are temporary and proportionate to the reason for implementation and strictly aimed at the protection of citizens. ‘The best response is one that aims to respond proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights under the rule of law.’

No country can beat this alone

Guterres encourages international solidarity in State responses because ‘global threats require global responses. The pandemic affects the entire world; therefore, the entire world should band together in a spirit of cooperation so that their responses assist each other where possible.

When we recover, we must be better than we were before

The Brief opines that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses that human rights can help to fix. States are encouraged to ensure that in their responses there is no harm done to human rights in an effort to prioritise immediate priorities. States should develop prevention strategies that take into consideration the future of States.

Putting human rights at the forefront is imperative to ensure that States protect and save lives, provide for healthcare and fight the COVID-19 pandemic, while ensuring a future that is beneficial socially, economically and politically. The UN commended South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which it said focused on ensuring the protection of lives, saving livelihoods, businesses and protection of the vulnerable and marginalised members in the State. South Africa’s COVID-19 strategy echoes the recommended good practices encouraged in the Brief.

However, South Africa is said to have implemented one of the strictest lockdowns and there are also reports alleging human rights violations. These incidents have been condemned by the Minister of Police. However, the Secretary General reiterates that the virus is the threat and not people. law enforcement responses should be proportional to the purpose of the regulations . South Africa’s COVID-19 strategy should continue to put human rights at the forefront and address any undesired human rights infringements as and when they arise. As the Brief’s title says, ‘We are all in this together’.