Coronavirus has exposed human rights gaps. We need to fix this

Police officers monitor traffic on the streets from surveillance camera footages as Argentine President Alberto Fernandez announced an extension of the lockdown it has imposed as a measure to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Buenos Aires, Argentina April 10, 2020. REUTERS/Matias Baglietto - RC212G95B0S4

Police officers monitor traffic on the streets from surveillance camera footage during lockdown, Argentina Image: REUTERS/Matias Baglietto

Yoni Ish-Hurwitz
Former Human Rights Officer, UN
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  • The COVID-19 crisis is the perfect pretext for some political leaders to advance narrow interests, brushing aside long-held principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the name of emergency.
  • Promoting human rights now will help societies emerge more resilient from this pandemic.
  • Individuals need to know their rights and hold their governments to account on their commitments to international treaties, UN resolutions and public statements.

We are in the midst of a global health emergency, which may not seem like the best time to address human rights. But the issues we see across the board, surfacing as a result of the crisis are all relevant. In some countries doctors and nurses don’t have enough personal protective equipment. Unemployment is skyrocketing and people can’t earn a basic standard of living. Social isolation leaves people with disabilities without care.

These are all challenges that come back to human rights and now is the time to address them. People need to know what constitutes a human right and what rights they are entitled to, and governments need to be reminded of their obligations to protect human rights, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

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The pandemic has served as the perfect pretext for some political leaders to advance narrow interests, brushing aside long-held principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the name of emergency. Some are using this opportunity to acquire new powers through emergency decrees, while social distancing helps them enjoy limited public scrutiny.

Consider these examples:

Such unprecedented acts establish the norms that will be very hard to undo long after the coronavirus is eradicated. The UN has recognized this looming problem and urges action. Secretary-General António Guterres launched a report last week to put human rights at the forefront of coronavirus response and recovery.

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

It is a civil duty to hold governments accountable and to protest (within legitimate social distancing guidelines). Judges, parliamentarians, government civil servants and journalists all need to fulfill their duties to uphold the rule of law. The international community also needs to speak out in solidarity for the rights of all people in every country.

Israelis demonstrate against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under strict restrictions made to slow down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel April 19, 2020 REUTERS/Corinna Kern - RC2V7G9AYP5X
Recent protest in Tel Aviv under strict social distancing rules Image: REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Stakeholders hold governments to higher standards by quoting the standards that those very governments have committed to. International health regulations, human rights treaties and labour standards contain provisions to guide government policy under any circumstances. These commitments were designed to address emergencies so that they would last well into the future. The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic neither diminishes the relevance of those commitments, nor justifies unlimited rule by decree, supporting dictatorship over democracy, or enacting surveillance without taking every measure to impose limits or use less invasive alternatives.

Knowledge is power for every individual and all the stakeholders mentioned above. Understanding our human rights and knowing what commitments have been made by our governments in international treaties, UN resolutions or public statements enables compelling critique of government policy.


Mobilising Action for Inclusive Societies

UN experts and officials have a role to play here. They can help make such information more accessible, clarifying how to respect human rights in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have the authority to call out human rights violations or present recommendations to governments.

For example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that, under international human rights law, emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary and must remain subject to meaningful legislative and judicial oversight.

Promoting human rights now will help societies emerge more resilient from this pandemic in the future. The threats are comprehensive. A society that cannot offer equal treatment for all, including healthcare and social security, will lose its social cohesion and more of its people will fall victim to the virus. A society that surrenders separation of powers may lose sovereign rule altogether. Against threats like these, resilient societies can help advance human rights norms in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Image: UN Women, from Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women

A number of the challenges that have dogged the pandemic may have been avoidable had human rights been safeguarded and prioritized more judiciously. Universal access to healthcare would have facilitated more widespread testing. Stronger anti-discrimination policy might have avoided minorities being disproportionately affected by the virus. Putting gender equality at the forefront may have diminished the widespread incidents of domestic violence during lockdown.

The pandemic is an opportunity to reset and to learn some lessons that are critical for sustainable development. If not for the sake of individuals, governments should be persuaded by the need to sustain society as a whole and help it heal from the coronavirus.

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