9 April 2020 — As concerns grow about how the coronavirus crisis might threaten human rights around the world, the United Nations is calling on countries to adopt a more cooperative, global and human rights-based approach to the pandemic, which Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a human crisis”.

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, United Nations human rights officials and UN-appointed independent experts have been stressing the importance of protecting the rights of people.

In an informal briefing to the Human Rights Council on 9 April, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for urgent and detailed action to prevent COVID-19 from creating “even wider inequalities” amid extensive suffering.

She said that many States in every region – especially in Europe – have taken unprecedented measures to protect the rights of workers and minimize the numbers of those made unemployed. “All States with sufficient resources should be encouraged to do the same,” she said.

She went on to note that last week the African Development Bank raised the world's largest social bond – a $3 billion fund – to assist African Governments to expand access to health and to other essential services and goods. “This is precisely the kind of innovative thinking we need,” she stressed.

She said her Office is currently compiling good economic and social practices adopted by countries in every region – many of them developing countries – and will bring these to the attention of members of the Human Rights Council.  Her Office will also be working to integrate human rights into all the work of the UN’s economic and social programs.

Here are some voices of UN human rights experts on COVID-19 response.

“Everyone, without exception, has the right to life-saving interventions and this responsibility lies with the government. The scarcity of resources or the use of public or private insurance schemes should never be a justification to discriminate against certain groups of patients. Everybody has the right to health.” – a joint statement of UN human rights experts

“It is very likely that rates of widespread domestic violence will increase, as already suggested by initial police and hotline reports. For too many women and children, home can be a place of fear and abuse. That situation worsens considerably in cases of isolation such as the lockdowns imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. All States should make significant efforts to address the COVID-19 threat, but they should not leave behind women and children victims of domestic violence.” - Dubravka Simonovic the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women

“Everyone, without exception, has the right to life-saving interventions and this responsibility lies with the government. The scarcity of resources or the use of public or private insurance schemes should never be a justification to discriminate against certain groups of patients. Everybody has the right to health."

“Reports of abandoned older persons in care homes or of dead corpses found in nursing homes are alarming. This is unacceptable. We all have the obligation to exercise solidarity and protect older persons from such harm.” – Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons

“Internally displaced persons are at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to limited access to healthcare, water, sanitation, food and adequate housing, and often face discrimination. Those in camps or collective sites often find themselves living in overcrowded conditions, with emergency shelters not physically and structurally adequate for mitigation of COVID-19 transmission. Governments must ensure that all internally displaced persons have access to water, sanitation, facilities for personal hygiene, adequate housing and food.” – Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

Girl with crutches in front of bombed buildings

“COVID-19 is not just a health issue; it can also be a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate and exclusion. Reports of Chinese and other Asians being physically attacked; of hate speech blaming minorities including Roma, Hispanics and others for the spread of the virus; and of politicians calling for migrants to be denied access to medical services, all show that States need to urgently emphasise that the human rights of everyone, in particular of the most vulnerable and marginalized, must be protected.” – Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has provided guidance on a people-centred COVID-19 response.

  • Health strategies should address not only the medical dimensions of the pandemic but also the human rights and gender-specific consequences of measures taken as part of the health response.
  • Emergency powers must be used for legitimate public health goals, not used as basis to quash dissent or silence the work of human rights defenders or journalists.
  • Containment measures, such as social distancing and self-isolation, need to take account of the needs of people who rely on the support of others to eat, dress and bathe. Many persons, including persons with disabilities, rely on home and community services.
  • It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution.
  • Fiscal stimulus and social protection packages aimed directly at those least able to cope with the crisis are essential to mitigating the devastating consequences of the pandemic. Immediate economic relief measures such as guaranteed paid sick leave, extended unemployment benefits, food distribution, and universal basic income can help safeguard against the acute effects of the crisis.
  • LGBTI people also face heightened risks during this pandemic, and specific measures should be incorporated into response plans to address these impacts.
  • States should take into account indigenous peoples’ distinctive concepts of health, including their traditional medicine, consult and consider the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in the development of preventive measures on COVID-19.
  • People deprived of their liberty, including in prisons, pre-trial detention, immigration detention, institutions, and other places of detention are at heightened risk of infection in the case of an outbreak. Their situation should be specifically addressed in crisis planning and response.
  • Medical professionals and relevant experts, including scientists, must be able to speak freely and share information with each other and the public.