Lessons for human rights in the socio-economic response to COVID-19

A Palestinian student peaks out the door during quarantine. As governments try to respond effectively to COVID-19 and its implications, we must ensure that human rights standards and approaches remain at the forefront. Photo: UNDP PAPP/Abed Zagout

Countries around the world are taking all steps possible to prevent, contain and respond to COVID-19. This is necessary to flatten the curve and stem this global pandemic which has implications for all of us: for our health and our human rights. UNDP is committed to rights-based solutions to COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency — but it is far more. It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.” — United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres

In many societies, exclusion and marginalization mean people live in the shadows– either because they do not have the means, or the power to participate fully in public life and claim their rights, or because rights-holders cannot effectively discharge their obligations.

As governments try to respond effectively to COVID-19 and its implications, we must ensure that human rights standards and approaches remain at the forefront. In times of crisis, assistance is provided in a way that supports everybody and reinforces efforts to leave no one behind — or it can perpetuate the divisions in our communities and reinforce barriers and inequality. The difference between these outcomes is in our approach and whether it is rights-based.

What are the lessons from the socio-economic response so far?

To support socio-economic response and recovery to COVID-19 the UN issued a framework for immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 (SERF) in April 2020 which sets out the strategy and blueprint for the UN’s urgent socio-economic response to countries and societies in the face of COVID-19.

A recent review of over 100 socio-economic response plans (SERPs) has managed to give us some key lessons and indicators of how human rights-based approaches and perspectives can support recovery, responses and resilience — and what more can be done. Here are some of the key lessons learned:

  1. Where the UN is already investing and working together on human rights before COVID-19 pandemic we are better off: equipped to build on existing knowledge, work, analysis, partnerships and capacities. Making human rights a central priority of COVID-19 responses means guiding the response. A large number (over 70 percent of SERPs reviewed) aim to do this but only a smaller number offer evidence of this consistently.

2. Recognizing people left behind is not enough, we need to translate that analysis into action. Over 50 percent of SERP analyses of populations left behind were used for targeted action but more needs to be done. A human rights-based approach to data and how to identify groups who face intersecting forms of disadvantage or discrimination is needed.

3. We can more effectively use recommendations and outputs from the human rights mechanisms:

Only a small margin of SERP’s reviewed use recommendations from the UN human rights mechanisms as guideposts for their human rights analysis or consider the guidance they have issued for COVID-19. Thematic advice on the human rights dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis has been swiftly put forward by many special procedure mandate holders and mechanisms of the Human Rights Council bringing practical advice and recommendations on how to support disadvantaged or marginalized groups — as well as inclusive policies on many areas including: social protection, inequality and macro-economic policy. Let’s make better use of these important resources.

4. Civil society and National Human Rights Institutions are active partners and we need to support them and leverage their expertise at country and regional level: in many countries civil society and NHRIs have played critical roles on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response and providing essential advice to influence emergency and long-term policy making. Importantly they also can represent or play a bridging role to those who are disproportionately impacted.

5. Rights-based analysis and approaches to the macro-economic response and to protecting fundamental freedoms can help rethink inclusive economies and build a new social contract. Protecting fundamental freedoms such as protecting civic space and public participation, promoting police accountability and advising on emergency measures supports human rights and social cohesion.

6. As we recover forward better, we need to include strong measures to address structural drivers of exclusion, inequality and discrimination in laws, institutions, policy, programmes, attitudes and practices. The root causes of marginalization and inequalities have to be tackled. Most plans intend to eliminate structural drivers of exclusion with more consideration needed on the root causes.

How can human rights help COVID-19 recovery and response?

To help ensure that human rights are at the centre of our efforts, UNDP worked with our partners in the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Development Cooperation Office and issued a programmatic Checklist for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Socio-Economic Country Responses to COVID-19. This tool provides a list of potential actions, tools and resources to ensure a people-centred and human rights-based approach to leave no one behind in COVID-19 response.

We need to act quickly and together to support all in our societies grapple with this pandemic. A human rights-based approach is the best tool we have.

For more information on UNDP’s human rights work, please contact: Sarah Rattray (sarah.rattray@undp.org)

Written by Sarah Rattray, Policy Specialist for Human Rights, Crisis Bureau, UNDP



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