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Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights on COVID-19 Pandemic: a Human Rights-Centred Multilateralism Needs to be Built and Vaccines Must be Acknowledged as Global Public Goods

Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council this morning held a meeting on enhancing technical cooperation and capacity building in promoting and protecting the human rights of persons in vulnerable and marginalised situations in recovery efforts during and after COVID-19.

Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the COVID-19 pandemic had taken its toll, touching all spheres of life, and upending the lives and livelihoods of millions. Over 100 million people had been pushed into extreme poverty, and the International Labour Organization had estimated a rise in global unemployment of between 5 and 25 million since the pandemic’s onset. The poorest and most vulnerable countries, in particular, had experienced major reversals in human rights protection and progress in achieving the 2030 Agenda.

A human rights-centred multilateralism needed to be built, said Ms. Al-Nashif, acknowledging solidarity in several forms such as the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and its COVAX Facility, which had delivered over one billion vaccines to nearly 150 countries. Acts of solidarity must be strengthened, she added. COVID-19 vaccines must be acknowledged as global public goods, and obstacles to access must be eliminated. States should consider a waiver of relevant intellectual property rights for vaccine production.

Freddy Mamani, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, highlighted the fact that developing countries had faced many more difficulties, greater adversity, and limited resources during the pandemic. The system had shown that profit came before people’s lives, and access to vaccines had been reserved first for a handful of privileged people. Bolivia had repeatedly pointed out that lifting patents from the vaccine was a viable solution in ensuring equal access. In today’s circumstances, vaccines and medicines should be a global public good.

Li Xiaomei, Special Representative for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, said COVID-19 had shocked the world system, making some countries subject to disproportionate impact, with some countries even abandoning the vulnerable in the context of health care, which was a violation of their rights. People in developing countries still lacked access to vaccines, and even in developed countries, disadvantaged groups lacked access. To uphold multilateralism, equally distribute vaccines across the world, and work together to uphold economic development was to uphold justice.

Valerie Schmitt, Deputy Director of the Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization, said that recovery trends between advanced and developing economies were deeply uneven and International Labour Organization Member States recognised the need for greater global solidarity to make Universal Social Protection a reality in all countries of the world. In 2016, the Organization had launched a Global Flagship Programme on Building Social Protection Floors for All, which was an accelerator towards achieving Universal Social Protection.

Peter Herrmann, Member of the European Academy of Science and Arts, said that many of the new threats to human rights were coming from sources that needed not least technical answers. This meant that for the human rights debate, the old issues of civil, political and socio-economic rights as well as the issues of development had to consider increasingly what he called tentatively techno-social challenges.

Speaking in the panel discussion were Belgium on behalf of a group of countries, Côte d’Ivoire on behalf of the Group of African States, Paraguay on behalf of a group of countries, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, European Union, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, Iran, Libya, Thailand, Argentina, Australia, Togo, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Sovereign Order of Malta, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Georgia, Algeria, Maldives, Cambodia, United Nations Human Settlements Programme, and Egypt.

Also speaking were the Independent National Human Rights Council of Burundi, International Harm Reduction Association, International Lesbian and Gay Association, National Human Rights Commission of India, Lutheran World Federation, and International Network for Elder Abuse.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on p romoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. The interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner started on Friday, 4 March and a summary can be found here.

In the interactive dialogue, some speakers took note of Sri Lanka’s efforts to fulfil its human rights obligations and welcomed the steps taken in terms of human rights, rehabilitation, and the considerable progress in national reconciliation. They commended the Sri Lankan Government for actively promoting and protecting human rights and were confident that the Government would continue to engage with the Office of the High Commissioner in good faith. Other speakers expressed concern about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka which kept deteriorating further. They called on the Government to cease its harassment of human rights defenders and urged it to make further reforms to ensure all Sri Lankans had access to justice and could exercise freedom of expression.

Speaking in the discussion on Sri Lanka were Venezuela, Nigeria, Maldives, China, Cuba, Syria, Japan, Viet Nam, Switzerland, Cambodia, Russian Federation, Australia, Lebanon, Uganda, Belarus, Zimbabwe, United States, Eritrea, North Macedonia, Yemen, Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Niger, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

Also speaking were Khiam Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Franciscans International, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, International Harm Reduction Association, International Commission of Jurists, VIVAT International, World Evangelical Alliance, Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada, and Amnesty International.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-ninth regular session can be found here.

At noon, the Council will hold an interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner on the promotion and protection of human rights in Nicaragua, followed by an enhanced interactive dialogue on the oral update by the High Commissioner on Sudan.

Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka

The interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka started on Friday, 4 March and the summary can be found here.

In the interactive dialogue, speakers took note of Sri Lanka’s efforts to fulfil its human rights obligations and welcomed the steps taken in terms of human rights, rehabilitation, and the considerable progress in national reconciliation. Noted were the creation of an office on compensation, former warzones cleared of unexploded ordnance, returns of internally displaced persons to their homes, measures to improve the legislation, and bringing the law to prevent terrorism in line with national standards. They commended the Sri Lankan Government for actively promoting and protecting human rights and making notable progress in economic and social fields and were confident that the Government would continue to engage with the Office of the High Commissioner in good faith.

Some speakers said that not having the consent of the country concerned created a precedent that was counter productive, and rejected every interference in domestic processes. They rejected any double standards and politically motivated decisions. The resolution on Sri Lanka was not in line with the principles of impartiality and non-selectivity. The Universal Periodic Review should be prioritised as a universal mechanism. Calls were made to every relevant party to respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to engage in constructive dialogue and cooperation and to stop politicising issues and interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. Speakers were opposed to resolutions targeting countries in specific situations as they considered that resolutions should focus on capacity building and not turn the Council into an investigative body looking for evidence.

Other speakers were concerned about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka which kept deteriorating further. They called on the Government to take more voluntary actions and recommended that it fully implement the recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report. Further calls were made for the Government to engage constructively in the recommendations contained in the resolution and to collaborate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Civic space was limited, minorities were facing increased marginalisation, and step backs were being seen in emblematic human rights cases. Reforms did not go far enough and it was crucial that the accountability process was started. The harassment and intimidation of civil society members and human rights defenders continued to intensify, the reforms were cosmetic and insufficient to address serious concerns, and the concept of “one country one law” was perpetuating discriminations.

Some speakers urged the Government of Sri Lanka to cease its harassment of human rights defenders and urged it to make further reforms to ensure that all Sri Lankans had access to justice and could exercise freedom of expression. The Muslim Act must be reformed and the Government had failed to propose solutions to economic hardship faced by the majority of its citizens. Calls were made to the Council to support the continuation of evidence gathering and ensure an impartial investigation. Concerns were expressed about the lack of independent and democratic institutions.

Concluding Remarks

NADA AL-NASHIF, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in concluding remarks, said the High Commissioner believed that the high level of engagement by the Human Rights Council was vital, as the Government of Sri Lanka was becoming more responsive, and engaging in return. The Council had established many benchmarks over the years, and it was important for these to be maintained. The reports had already elaborated a menu of options that could be pursued with regard to accountability, including at the international level. One option included applying targeted sanctions to individuals who were reliably recognised to have been guilty of human rights violations. Sanctions were important and could lead to a sense of justice for the families. The international community should encourage Sri Lankan civil society to build institutions.

There was concern for the intrusion of more extremist brands of religious and nationalist discourse in the country – it was important to encourage social cohesion and peace building with the aim of ending intolerance. Victims of the Easter bombings were asking the Government to publish a report on the inquiry into the attacks, and to publish the complete findings, which was important for transparency, and to investigate the complete involvement of any third parties. Many Special Procedures who had visited Sri Lanka had offered advice, as well as conduits to technical assistance, and advice as to how to implement all recommendations issued from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The commitment by the Government to the Sustainable Development Goals agenda was recognised. Strengthening the independence of the judiciary, among other things, would help to accede to these. The 2030 Agenda put forward an inclusive vision in which there was no place for rhetoric or hate speech in regard to minorities.

Meeting on Enhancing Technical Cooperation and Capacity Building in Promoting and Protecting the Human Rights of Persons in Vulnerable and Marginalised Situations in Recovery Efforts During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Opening Remarks by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

NADA AL-NASHIF, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that two years on, the pandemic had taken its toll, touching all spheres of life, and upending the lives and livelihoods of millions. Due to fresh threats from COVID-19 variants, along with a rise in inflation, debt and income inequality, global economic growth was expected to decelerate from 5.5 per cent in 2021 to 4.1 per cent in 2022 and 3.2 per cent in 2023. Globally, over 100 million people had been pushed into extreme poverty, and the International Labour Organization estimated a rise in global unemployment of between 5 and 25 million since the pandemic’s onset. COVID-19 had exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequalities and patterns of discrimination in the enjoyment of universal human rights. Within countries, it had disproportionately affected the vulnerable and marginalised — including the poor, women and girls, children and youth, older persons, persons with disabilities, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex and queer plus people. Multiple intersecting causes of inequality and discrimination had been further compounded by the crisis. Among countries, vaccine injustice and structural and systemic asymmetries were leading to divergent recoveries. The poorest and most vulnerable countries, in particular, had experienced major reversals in human rights protection and progress in achieving the 2030 Agenda.

The Secretary-General had called for a new Social Contract between States and all stakeholders, based on equal rights and opportunities for all, and a New Global Deal. The international community must together build human rights-centred multilateralism as highlighted in the Call to Action on Human Rights, the Deputy High Commissioner stated. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the world had witnessed solidarity in several forms, she added. The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and its COVAX Facility had delivered over one billion vaccines to nearly 150 countries. Countries had shared knowledge and good practices, including through South-South and regional cooperation. Acts of solidarity must be strengthened, Ms. Al-Nashif said. COVID-19 vaccines must be acknowledged as global public goods and obstacles to access must be eliminated. States should consider a waiver of relevant intellectual property rights for vaccine production.

Statements by Discussants

FREDDY MAMANI, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, said COVID-19 was affecting all at many levels and in different ways, with a negative impact on economic and social development globally, leading to a hindrance to the full enjoyment, exercise and protection of human rights. There had been deplorable situations, including the deplorable effect of the capitalist system. Developing countries had faced many more difficulties, greater adversity, and limited resources. Health was an important and crucial human right, allowing one to enjoy all others. However, the system had shown that profit came before people’s lives, and access to vaccines had been reserved first for a handful of privileged people. Until there were major changes to the system in which health was a business, it would not be possible to enjoy the right fully. This had further exacerbated inequalities globally. Bolivia had repeatedly pointed out that lifting patents from the vaccine was a viable solution in ensuring equal access. In today’s circumstances, vaccines and medicines should be a global public good.

In Bolivia, the coup d’etat had led to a disruption in the deliverance of vaccines, restricted fundamental freedoms and limited human rights. With a return to democracy in 2020, a complex reality had had to be dealt with in the context of the pandemic, and the democratically-elected Government had done its best, developing a vaccine plan as well as a system of testing, based on free, fair and multi-sectoral access, including in particular for minority and vulnerable sections of the population. Bolivia had met the need for vaccines within its borders, thanks to an agreement with China and Russia, as well as with regional partners such as Argentina and Mexico. This cooperation and others had provided training with technical health personnel, contributing to an effective vaccination campaign. Pandemics provided an opportunity that should not be neglected: to meet again in the name of humanity to share the values of multilateralism and solidarity between States. Inequality gaps between countries needed to be dealt with so that aid could be provided on a fair and equitable basis.

LI XIAOMEI, Special Representative for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, said the technical cooperation and capacity building in the human rights field mechanism of the United Nations was a positive mechanism, promoting mutually benefiting cooperation within the United Nations. COVID-19 had shocked the world system, leaving some subject to disproportional impact, with certain groups seeing great challenges in terms of health care. Some countries had even abandoned the vulnerable in the context of health care, which was a violation of their rights. People in developing countries still lacked access to vaccines, and even in developed countries, disadvantaged groups lacked access. The right to economic development had also been undermined. The growth of hate speech against certain groups was on the rise, including against migrants and certain ethnic groups. All parties should give equal attention and protection to all human rights, eliminate discrimination and inequality, fully consider the special needs of vulnerable groups, leave none behind, put people first, and enhance people’s sense of gain and security. This would protect and promote human rights in development, and ensure that people felt their economic, social and cultural rights were protected.

To uphold multilateralism, equally distribute vaccines across the world, and work together to uphold economic development was to uphold justice. China had worked to maximise people’s access to health, and gave high attention to the situation of vulnerable groups during the pandemic, including the elderly, providing sign language during information campaigns, providing adequate access, protecting untended children, and ensuring the treatment and protection of pregnant women. China had provided over 120 countries and international organizations with 2.1 billion vaccines, giving the most number of vaccines to others, also dispatching vaccine teams to other countries, and sharing its experiences to enhance local capacity building. The pandemic had no borders, and China stood ready to assist all, protecting human rights, protecting vulnerable groups, and leaving no country or group behind.

VALERIE SCHMITT, Deputy Director of the Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization, said that human rights were not a reality for all, as social protection was still not a reality for more than 4 billion people. Referring to lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, she mentioned that the COVID-19 crisis had made it clear that all societies needed robust and sustainable social protection systems both to avert the routine life-cycle risks of their populations and to be able to respond to systemic crises and shocks. Today recovery trends between advanced and developing economies were deeply uneven. International Labour Organization Member States recognised the need for greater global solidarity to make Universal Social Protection a reality in all countries of the world.

The time for action had come, said Ms. Schmitt, adding that the good news was that, in 2016, the International Labour Organization had launched a Global Flagship Programme on Building Social Protection Floors for All. This development cooperation programme was intended to last 15 years (from 2016 to 2030) and to progressively support more countries in building their national social protection systems. It was an accelerator towards achieving Universal Social Protection. During this first phase, the Programme had helped achieve institutional changes in all target countries. The International Labour Organization had helped countries reuse pre-existing schemes in place to channel additional financial support to households and workers who lost their sources of income as well as helped improved existing social protection mechanisms so that they could absorb the increased demand generated by the crisis.

In conclusion, Ms. Schmitt said that the Flagship Programme had started its second phase that would last from 2021 to 2025 and would contribute to national recovery efforts from the crisis by responding to the demands of 50 countries instead of 21. It would also link social protection to other policies, notably employment, formalisation, and green transition, which would increase the financial sustainability of social protection. It would contribute to raising domestic resources for social protection, promote more international solidarity, and would be incorporated under the bigger umbrella of the Global Accelerator for Jobs and Social Protection that was launched on 28 September, which was currently being developed by the International Labour Organization in collaboration with other United Nations agencies.

PETER HERRMANN, Member of the European Academy of Science and Arts, said that humans had been orienting their entire lives on growth, on so-called wealth, where they had a price tag on everything, including on development, on water, even on clean air. He could not engage in the reasons behind the shift away from valuing towards pricing. It was important to emphasise the ongoing meaning of relationships between people and the opportunities they had, the strong will to learn and to exchange for the improvement of the global society, of the global village. Unfortunately, it was only too often that humans became aware of this in times of immediate and manifest threats. It was important to note that many of the new threats to human rights were coming from sources that needed not least technical answers. It was important to acknowledge the shift in societal realities: by now, humans interfered so much with the external nature, that they were confronted with a kind of reversal: humans were increasingly affected by the repercussions of their intervention.

This meant that for the human rights debate, the old issues of civil, political and socio-economic rights as well as the issues of development had to consider increasingly what he called tentatively techno-social challenges. In his conclusion, he highlighted a few issues showing the need for exchange — and positive answers, such as the cooperation in the field of research; the need to recognise the value of work that too often had a low reputation and a low pay, and was undertaken under conditions that were hardly bearable; and the need to foster the resources of communities — in many cases the negative consequences were much higher where the solidarity between people and action of people had been undermined.

Discussion

Speakers discussed how to increase capacity building for women and girls in order to take account of their specific needs and the need for technical cooperation and assistance that was targeted at the country-level to ensure that all the needs of women and girls were taken into account. An inclusive approach, including civil society organizations, was essential. Access to digital tools and ensuring that people were able to use them was essential in order to combat the effects of the digital divide. Policies needed to be shared in respect of the needs on the ground. It was important to create a community in which all could enjoy their human rights to the full, and States should thus work together in a spirit of multilateralism to ensure that all could enjoy their human rights, including capacity-building.

COVID-19 had had an impact on different aspects of human lives, and thus on different aspects of human rights. Persons with disabilities, vulnerable and marginalised groups, women and girls were the groups which had suffered most. All efforts to remedy the situation needed to take into account their needs.

Economic and structural divides had been widened considerably, and national solutions must be backed up with international action which could help strengthen access to health and social protection. There should be intensified international cooperation and solidarity to overcome and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, in particular the sharing of information. All stakeholders should support research and capacity building initiatives to ensure access by all to vaccines. The efforts of countries that had shared vaccines were appreciated, and should continue – but all should aid countries in need in this regard.

Efforts should be made to combat vaccination disinformation. Developed countries should transfer technology and provide technological support for developing countries. The pandemic had also acted as a catalyst for the erosion of democracy, particularly in the context of protection mechanisms used to stop the spread of the virus, with the exclusion of the marginalised from socio-economic programmes. Recovery was not just about public health – the effects of recovery measures on human rights should also be considered. The guidance of human rights bodies was crucial in this regard. Access to vaccinations should be available to all without discrimination. The rule of law, democracy and accountability institutions also required support. Building back better required a human rights-based approach. It was important to continue to provide financial assistance to United Nations bodies working in the field of human rights.

Concluding Remarks

MAIRA MARIELA MACDONAL, Permanent Representative of Bolivia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the pandemic had affected the socio-economic development of many countries, particularly those dealing with unequal access. The situation was having a direct impact on the population groups that were the most vulnerable, including women and girls who had been disproportionality affected by the pandemic, suffering violence in the domestic and economic spheres. Structural changes needed to be promoted to bring out changes to the economic system. Capacity building in developing countries was required. A binding document should be established through the World Health Organization, bringing out equity and bridging gaps. Efforts to protect and promote human rights were essential. It was too early to declare victory over COVID-19, and efforts had to be made to work in solidarity between States, cross-sectorally, putting certain groups at the heart, such as older people, lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex plus groups, and others.

LI XIAOMEI, Special Representative for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, said that it was important to give special attention to people recovering from COVID-19, even more the most vulnerable ones, which was what China had been doing. The Government was going to take an even more coordinated approach in terms of COVID-19 recovery, focusing on elderly people and persons with disabilities. China was ready to work with other delegations here in the conference room but also outside of it.

VALERIE SCHMITT, Deputy Director of the Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization, said many of those who had spoken had referred to the fact that the crisis had increased poverty and inequalities, and that it was vital to establish good public systems to help the vulnerable. This latter was indeed vital, and they should cover the whole population of each country. As the crisis had shown, anyone could become vulnerable if there were no universal social protection systems, which should cover not only the entire population, but also provide an adequate level of protection. These varied from country to country, and also varied throughout a person’s life. Levels of investment were today insufficient, and it was vital to increase them to ensure a basic level of protection. In order to put in place a right to social protection for all, there was a need for solidarity, within and between countries, which would help to overcome today’s divides, and also inject impetus within economies, which would drive the recovery. Development assistance was insufficient and more resources should be given to developing countries so that they could achieve social and economic progress that was sustainable. The Secretary-General’s plan for an inclusive recovery was noted, and universal access to social protection could ensure this, including green jobs. The International Labour Organization was already doing work in this area.

PETER HERRMANN, Member of the European Academy of Science and Arts, said many contributions had been very honest. The vaccine was a public good. It was important to acknowledge that there should be space for public goods. Inequality had risen during this pandemic. There was a need for a new approach to solidarity, which was not just about giving, but also about recognising the need for responsibility – responsible behaviour of States and cooperation. This meant as well that the question of community involvement was very important – people needed to be educated, but also one should learn from communities themselves, such as indigenous knowledge. Corporate social ability needed to be moved forward to corporate social rights – the United Nations needed to be strengthened in terms of giving a floor to this.

*Produced by the United Nations Information Service in Geneva for use of the information media;\ not an official record. English and French versions of our releases are different as they are the product of two separate coverage teams that work independently. *

Source: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights