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Pandemic Dealt ‘Profound Blows’ to Human Rights Worldwide, High Commissioner Warns Third Committee, amid Calls for People-Centred Policies, Unbiased Response

Aside from weakening vital medical systems, damaging the global economy and slowing development gains, the COVID‑19 pandemic has also caused “profound, multi-faceted blows” to fundamental freedoms worldwide, curbing vital civil liberties, the United Nations human rights chief warned the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates continued their broad focus on protecting vulnerable communities.

In a half-day interactive dialogue, held virtually, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet introduced the OHCHR report (document A/75/36), outlining efforts carried out between 1 January and 30 June, 2020, across 87 field presences and 12 United Nations peace operations.  Although COVID­‑19 has led to restrictions on political and civil rights, the freedom of expression and of the media, “human rights-based policy is profoundly useful.”  Such measures can form a bedrock of protection, preventing the worst outcomes, she stressed.

She called for sanctions to be eased to enable medical systems to limit contagion, noting that humanitarian exemptions should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies.  In addition, better international cooperation must be ensured, especially in relation to sharing the benefits of scientific and technological progress, including access to a vaccine as a global public good.  

Outlining efforts to integrate human rights priorities into COVID‑19 national response plans, she said OHCHR has implemented new remote monitoring and information management systems via smartphones, ensuring greater visibility of the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable communities.  For example, in Colombia, she said OHCHR teams played a key role in disseminating information through indigenous-led radio stations, with significant participation by women. 

Turning to the right to development, she stressed the urgent importance of advancing economic, cultural and social rights, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.  Noting that systemic inequalities — when unaddressed — remain the root cause of harms, she said that in September 2019, OHCHR launched a “surge initiative” to strengthen human rights-based approaches to economic policies.  “I have also supported system-wide calls for urgent debt relief to give countries space to deliver on their people’s rights, including to health, food and water, housing and decent work,” she assured.

Noting that her Office was the first to resume meetings after they were brought to a halt by the pandemic, she said it has reached 200 decisions on individual complaints online since March, and continues to integrate human rights into United Nations operations in conflict and humanitarian settings.  Additionally, it has stepped up work in the context of electoral processes, notably as part of broader early warning and prevention efforts by the United Nations, including in Bolivia, Guyana and Guinea.

When the floor was opened for questions and comments, delegates covered a range of topics from budgetary limitations to concerns about the unfolding human rights situations in Xinjiang and Belarus.  Several representatives addressed the issue of unilateral coercive sanctions, with some justifying their continued use even in the context of a worldwide health crisis, and others categorically denouncing them.  In that context, the representative of Venezuela said sanctions are a “criminal policy violating the human rights of more than a third of mankind, including 30 million Venezuelans”.  Assailing the United States for its “immoral actions”, which led to “maximal calculated suffering and pain” and were intended to bring about a coup d’état in other countries, he asked about current actions being taken to effectively suspend sanctions. 

Echoing such concerns, the representative of the Russian Federation welcomed the High Commissioner’s call in March to lift unilateral coercive measures, but regretted that no “direct statements” had been made to pertinent States or international financial institutions, and that no proposal had been sent to the Secretary-General on the issue either.  However, the representative of Germany argued in favour of the continued use of “targeted” sanctions, noting they could be an important means to fight impunity in contexts where there is mass murder, including in Syria. 

Meanwhile, several delegates spotlighted human rights concerns in specific regions.  The representatives of Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang.  The representative of the United Kingdom asked if the High Commissioner would be able to visit the region, given the questions being raised about the situation there, including in an exceptional letter of concern issued by 50 Special Procedures mandate holders in June.  He went on to welcome the High Commissioner’s comments about the situation in Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in September, and said he supported efforts towards peacebuilding in the country. 

Turning to those issues, the representative of China “totally rejected” the “groundless accusations” made about the situations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, noting that several States had expressed support for China’s position in the Committee.  He went on to denounce the United States for ignoring its citizens’ right to life by its inadequate, botched pandemic response, and called on the High Commissioner to consider a visit to the United States to investigate the racial discrimination on the part of security forces who have arbitrarily arrested demonstrators.

Focusing on Eastern Europe, the representative of Lithuania, associating herself with the European Union, expressed concern about the situation in Belarus, and asked how the international community can allow for public debate and dialogue, and ensure accountability and investigations into human rights violations and abuse, given the country’s reluctance to engage.  The representative of Belarus called for the lifting of economic sanctions, expressing the Government’s commitment to multilateralism, and readiness to engage in partnerships and dialogue with States, as long as they are impartial, non-selective, non-politicized and avoid double standards.

Several delegates, including from Chile, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, raised concerns about funding for OHCHR, noting that it is not commensurate with the effective fulfilment of the Office’s mandate.  The representative of the Republic of Korea, speaking on behalf of the Human Rights/Conflict Prevention Caucus, called for increased cooperation between different actors, including OHCHR, the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission, and stressed the need for the pillar to receive necessary resources from the budget to fulfil its mandated activities.  On similar lines, the representative of Luxembourg stressed the importance of adequate resources and for their efficient use, asking how the Special Procedures mandate holders are meeting the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis — including the degradation of civic space in a number of countries — which are leading to curbs on freedom of expression and assembly.

Throughout the morning, several representatives focused on the budgetary situation, which has had a negative impact on the functioning of the entire treaty body system.

The representative of Ireland, endorsing the statement by the European Union, expressed disappointment over the budgetary situation, which has particularly affected the Special Procedures, and urged all countries to participate in the treaty body system’s ongoing review.  He expressed deep concern about the impact of COVID‑19 on the space for civil society and human rights defenders, asking about measures Governments can take to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable, notably women and girls, migrants, refugees, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex communities.

The representative of the Philippines meanwhile urged the High Commissioner to devote its scarce resources to programmes that make a difference on the ground, rather than on hostile resolutions.

Other delegates defended multilateralism as the primary means of upholding fundamental freedoms across the world.

The representative of Mexico described multilateralism as a vision guiding his country as it assumes its seat on the Human Rights Council for 2021–2023, following its election on 13 October.  Reiterating Mexico’s commitment to upholding international human rights standards, he said the Government likewise recognizes the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and examine individual communications, which will enhance adherence to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.  “We must address the fair claims of family members of disappeared persons,” he emphasized.

On a similar note, the representative of Greece, aligning with the European Union, underscored the need to maintain a strong multilateral system as the basis for supporting the effective functioning of the United Nations treaty body system. Pointing to the multidimensional effects of the COVID‑19 crisis, he said measures taken to fight the pandemic must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality, and be accordingly time-bound.  He asked how gender equality can be mainstreamed throughout the system to advance coherence in addressing human rights violations.

The representative of Indonesia, noting that a successful COVID‑19 vaccine will be a game-changer, underscored the importance of promoting “vaccine multilateralism” to ensure affordable health products.  Cooperation will be crucial to ensure a non-discriminatory approach, he said, asking whether a mechanism existed between OHCHR, WHO and other United Nations agencies to ensure equal rights and access to affordable vaccines and health products in the fight against COVID‑19.

Pointing to gains made, the representative of Canada welcomed that the High Commissioner included in her report numerous OHCHR success stories in integrating human rights priorities into COVID‑19 response plans, from Bangladesh and Ecuador, to Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro, among many other countries.  “It is always helpful to hear how the Office is doing in cooperation with civil society and States,” he said, asking what States should do differently if there is a second wave of COVID‑19, and about increasing transparency through the use of digital technologies.  He also requested answers to questions posed by the representatives of the United Kingdom and Lithuania about the situations in Xinjiang and Belarus.

Critiques of unilateralism, selectivity or responses to COVID‑19 that serve as a pretext to repressing human rights was another recurrent theme, notably expressed by the representative of Cuba, who denounced selective practices against countries in the Global South.  The pandemic has “uncovered the lack of political will of the most powerful and rich nation of the world,” she stated, “and despite collective efforts to deal with COVID‑19, the United States has removed itself from the World Health Organization [WHO] and resorted to unilateralism.”  She objected to the blockade against Cuba as a commercial war that reveals criminal tendencies.  She welcomed the High Commissioner’s call to lift sanctions during the pandemic.

The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea similarly said political selectivity and double standards are becoming more prevalent.  “Human rights should never be abused,” he warned, rejecting claims by the European Union aimed at overthrowing his country’s system.  Instead, the bloc should “clear up its own issues”, he said, recommending also that OHCHR abide by the principles of non-selectivity and non-politicization, as mandated. 

Equally critical was the representative of Syria, who likewise pressed OHCHR to pursue an objective approach away from selectivity.  She condemned the United States and various European countries that are forcing unilateral measures upon her country, particularly during a global emergency — actions that could constitute crimes against humanity.  She welcomed the High Commissioner’s 23 March statement calling for the lifting of sanctions on countries in crisis.

The United States representative said Governments must not use COVID‑19 as a pretext for repressing human rights, expressing alarm over China’s detention of 1 million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other predominantly Muslim minority groups in internment camps in Xinjiang.  He urged the High Commissioner to endorse the 26 June statement by 50 United Nations independent experts about abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, while also calling on Iran to release those jailed for defending human rights.  He condemned arbitrary detention and torture as means to silence dissent in both Nicaragua and Venezuela, and expressed disappointment that OHCHR maintains a database of companies operating in Israeli-controlled territory.

The representative of Latvia welcomed OHCHR’s call to action for mainstreaming human rights throughout the Organization.  Driving that point home, he expressed deep concern over human rights conditions in Belarus and occupied areas of Georgia, Syria and Yemen, as well as in illegally annexed Crimea, where OHCHR has documented violations to international humanitarian law.  He called for unfettered access of human rights monitoring missions to Crimea, pointing out that there are 70 Crimean Tatars among the 100 political detainees in the area, and that conscriptions of male Crimean residents continue.  He asked whether the transfer of some Ukrainians to other parts of that country constituted as “organized transportation of people”.

Ms. BACHELET, responding to questions on budgetary issues affecting the treaty body review, said States should adjust their resources formula to meet the predictable review calendar.  “A digital shift is the path in the future,” she stressed.  A dedicated online platform should be fully funded on the regular budget, covering case management, complaint procedure, and compensation of work online by treaty body experts.  Measures should be taken to modernize technology in countries that lack connectivity so they can fulfil their mandates.  However, online work “has its limits”, she said, and some mandates, including work on the prevention of torture, cannot take place online.  She underscored concerns around the continuing budgetary shortfall, noting that the prospect for the 2021 budget was quite concerning, and that staffing resources for the treaty body review should be funded by Member States.  Falling behind on their work has catastrophic consequences for those who turn to them for assistance.  However, she said she intended to address the issue “fully” at the 2020 Intergovernmental Working Group on the Council Review, which evaluates the work of the Human Rights Council.  “I am determined to not let it fail,” she stressed.

On civil society involvement, she said that the digital platform has enabled many more civil society organizations to take part in the March session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.  A guidance note on civic space will soon be launched to ensure that civil society is included in United Nations work.  The participation of people is key, as is the free flow of information as well as freedom of the press and expression. 

On the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, she said her Office is “following the situation closely” and has expressed its concerns bilaterally and publicly.  “We need to monitor the implications of the national security law in Hong Kong and the special administrative regions of China,” she said, adding that she hopes to visit Xinjiang to assess the impact of China’s policies there.

Responding briefly to concerns about sanctions, she said she had already called for sectoral sanctions to be lifted.

Turning to the issue of a “breach between New York and Geneva”, she welcomed the work of a cross-regional caucus in addressing it, stressing that the three pillars of the United Nations “must work together much more”. 

On the question about her Office’s immediate priorities, she said they are focused on better response and recovery, and address the needs of groups with intersecting forms of vulnerability.  Disaggregated data is needed to ensure policies are not leaving people behind.

Also speaking in the interactive debate were representatives of Chile, Italy, Afghanistan, Argentina, Pakistan, India, Portugal, Morocco, Qatar, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Algeria, Iran, Republic of Korea, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Poland, Eritrea, Costa Rica, Myanmar, Japan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Egypt and Mali.  An observer from the European Union also spoke.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 15 October, to continue its interactive dialogues on human rights.

For information media. Not an official record.