London, UK
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Defending human rights, a key mission of the United Nations, it seems, has never been harder.

A global pandemic has deepened inequality, pushed millions out of work and seen governments enforce restrictions on people's movement and ramp up surveillance.

UN Human Rights Council Feb 2020

Overview of the session of the Human Rights Council during the speech of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27th February. Picture taken with a fisheye lens. PICTURE: Reuters/Denis Balibouse/File photo.

Today - 24th October - marks 75 years since the UN was founded in the aftermath of World War II.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked five former and current UN advisors how COVID-19 is impacting it's ability to protect human rights from New York to Nigeria.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, former UN special rapporteur on Indigenous rights
“Advocating for human rights issues entails visiting embassies to talk with diplomats and being present during the negotiations, which obviously cannot be done now. Special Rapporteurs cannot go on country visits to monitor and report on the human rights situations. Virtual sessions have limited the capacities of human rights defenders to bring their issues to the sessions of the Human Rights Council. The way some governments use authoritarian and military approaches in addressing the pandemic, instead of dealing with it as a public health issue, has resulted in human rights violations. I believe that just like the rest of the world, the UN is still grappling with this new reality and they are still seeking appropriate ways of adapting to change.” 

Dominique Day, chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
“From the very beginning, we saw an abandonment of human rights principles in the pandemic panic. People of African descent have faced higher risk of infection, severe illness, and mortality from the beginning, yet no special measures were taken by states, even as stark racial disparities emerged. Coronavirus has been a global disaster, in part because some countries read ‘public health crisis’ to mean a break from human rights protection. The UN has struggled to get the attention of the states and the powerbrokers that could have held the line on social protection, even as it has amplified the many human rights abuses taking place during COVID-19.”

Michael Fakhri, law professor at the University of Oregon and UN special rapporteur on the right to food
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown that the UN’s commitment to Human Rights is inconsistent. Instead of using Human Rights to solve the problems that exist today a lot of time is spent trying to explain why they are vital. The UN is not internally reflecting about helping those in the system get through the pandemic. If you don’t have access to internet to attend virtual meetings for example you are unable to be in spaces to make your voice heard.”

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders
“The virus has hit the work of human rights defenders hard but there is clearly a growing awareness across the world that societies need to be reorganised to cope with global challenges like the pandemic or the climate crisis.” 

Surya Deva, member of the UN's Working Group on Business and Human Rights
"The pandemic has hindered the ability of the UN to respond effectively to human rights issues. Lack of funding for the UN's various initiatives is a case in point. But I think COVID-19 is an opportunity for the UN itself to build back better. For example, it could institutionalize the use of technology in activities to cut down avoidable travel, to make meetings more inclusive and climate-friendly.”