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Governments should deliver effective rights-respecting responses to Covid-19

Informal Dialogue with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The world is being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic, described by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “the most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War."

It is a health and human rights crisis on a global scale that has swept across borders, leaving no country untouched, and impacting the lives of millions, many of whom are among the most vulnerable.

When the Human Rights Council session was suspended, I – like many of us – initially thought we’d be working from home for a couple of weeks, and then we’d be back to business as usual. It took some time to realize that when restrictions ease, we may find that the world we return to is not the one we left behind. The human rights consequences, including those that flow from inadequate or unequal access to health care, entrenched inequalities, and the impact of devastated economies, will be felt for years to come.

But the kind of world we return to depends on the decisions we take right now.

Human Rights Watch is pleased to present a human rights policy checklist to assist governments in developing effective, rights-respecting responses to the Covid-19 crisis. This checklist sets out more than 40 questions to guide rights responses across a broad range of areas, including access to affordable health care; to water and sanitation; adequate housing, food and education; while ensuring the safety of those in detention; ensuring access to information; maintaining freedom of expression; closing the digital divide; ensuring emergency powers meet international standards, and addressing the needs of groups most at risk, including people living in poverty, ethnic and religious minorities, women, people with disabilities, older people, LGBT people, migrants, refugees, and children.  

Because these issues cannot be addressed in the abstract, the checklist illustrates the policy questions by reference to both good practices and areas of concern, recognizing that these can be neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. For example:

  • In Liberia, Kenya, and Indonesia, handwashing stations have been installed in urban areas, while Spain and Argentina have guaranteed that water will not be cut off, and Kosovo has deferred utility payments.
  • In a number of jurisdictions, from Afghanistan to Sudan, Pakistan to Poland, some detainees have been released to decongest jails.
  • France is offering 20,000 nights of free accommodation to victims of violence while in Italy, local authorities have been authorized to requisition hotels to accommodate people fleeing violence in the home.
  • To remove barriers to care, a government official in Pakistan publicly committed to help transgender people.
  • In the Maldives, the government established a Covid-19 clinic for migrant workers that does not require showing work permits.
  • In Australia, millions of dollars are being committed to create a dedicated “coronavirus wellbeing support line.”

At the same time, however:

  • While some jurisdictions have ensured that states of emergency are time-limited and subject to oversight, Hungary has adopted – and Cambodia is close to adopting – a state of emergency law that gives the government unlimited powers for an indefinite duration.
  • While some states have prioritized access to information, government officials in countries including Brazil, Burundi, China, Mexico, Myanmar, the US, and Zimbabwe have exhibited disturbing denialism about Covid-19, depriving their populations accurate information on the pandemic;
  • In countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, and Venezuela, people have been arrested and detained for expressing their opinion about Covid-19 on social media.
  • Israel’s 13-year-long closure of Gaza means that restrictions on the import of medical supplies, and denial of transit permits for many requiring vital medical treatment outside of Gaza, is impeding the crisis response.
  • Covid-19 linked discrimination and hate crimes have targeted Asians in the Middle East, Europe, and the US, and in numerous countries public officials have engaged in ageist rhetoric suggesting the lives of older persons have lesser value


The High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Procedures and treaty bodies have been at the forefront in addressing numerous areas of human rights concern in the context of the pandemic, and we welcome the leadership of the High Commissioner and Council President in using innovative tools to enable today’s briefing to take place. We encourage these to be a regular feature during the current crisis and beyond, perhaps also in the future expanding to involve other stakeholders, such as relevant Special Procedures, treaty body chairs and UN agencies.

The Human Rights Council also needs to play a more formal role, as soon as it is feasible to do so, through an urgent debate or special session, just as it held a special session on the world food crisis in 2008, the global financial crisis in 2009, and adopted a Presidential statement on the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In the current context, an appropriate outcome would be a process for monitoring and reporting on the human rights dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic and state responses, including encouragement of good practices and identification of areas of concern.

There is a saying that a crisis introduces you to yourself – particularly apt in this time of lockdown. But physical distancing need not come at the expense of international solidarity. Now more than ever, there is a need to reject national factionalism and xenophobia, and work together towards a fairer, more just, and more rights-respecting world.

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