Covid-19 pandemic and human rights


Containment has demonstrated the importance of respect and effective implementation of all human rights.

The containment measures, whether full lockdown or partial confinement, gradually put in place by nearly every government around the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has been under way for some months, have shown – if it was not already obvious – just how important it is to observe and effectively implement all human rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural), even as it has brought to light numerous violations of those rights.

Of particular concern is the way States have curtailed freedoms and introduced electronic surveillance of their populations.  We must of course be on our guard when freedom of expression is under threat, and resist all attempts at Orwellian surveillance – though neither the great powers nor the major IT companies waited for the advent of the coronavirus to begin spying on individuals, governments and international agencies and developing sophisticated communications technologies to do so.[1] However, it would be wrong to see that as the only issue.

The lockdown shows yet again that economic, social and cultural rights  – such as the right to food, the right to health, the right to housing, the right to work and the right to education – are as crucial as civil and political rights[2]. Let us not forget that the authorities keep insisting that the purpose of confinement and health barrier measures (physical distancing, hand washing, etc.)  is to protect the right to life of each of us; they are thus an expression of the value society places on human life.  What then of persons belonging to socially excluded groups, who are at particular risk of infection, such as those who live cheek by jowl in shanty towns with no running water?  Where is the effective protection of these people’s right to life when health measures are materially impossible for them to implement because their social rights have already been violated – no housing, no work, no food, no access to drinking water?  To take an example from Geneva, does a State really meet its human rights obligations when its police officers step in to halt the distribution of food to hundreds of people in need?  Is it acceptable that in rich countries there are tens of millions of people in need?  Is it tolerable that, in this day and age, the needs of almost half of humanity – food, water, adequate housing, decent work, education  – are to a greater or lesser extent unsatisfied?

These examples remind us that the violation of one human right can jeopardise the enjoyment of all the others.  Thus the denial in law or in fact of the right to housing triggers a slew of dramatic consequences and gives rise to multiple violations of human rights in the areas of employment, education, health, social relationships and participation in decision-making (no right to vote, for example).

By virtue of their international undertakings, States have an obligation to protect, promote and give effect to all human rights for all groups under their jurisdiction, and first and foremost the most vulnerable, such as children, older people, refugees, migrants and persons with disabilities.  They must also refrain from violating the human rights of groups in other States’ jurisdictions by measures such as food or medical embargoes.  In addition, States that have the means must show solidarity with States that for some reason (natural disaster, epidemic, lack of resources or technical capacity, etc.)  are not in a position to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights to their populations.

Yet in practice we see massive violations of human rights on all continents.  The current health crisis has not changed the situation; rather, it has thrown into relief once more the disparity between and within countries in terms of their capacity to respond and take adequate health measures.  For example, some States have imposed a strict lockdown and the wearing of masks for the entire population, while others have been much less strict or may even at first have refused to face up to the reality of the epidemic.  The fact that health experts do not yet know enough about the virus goes some way to explaining these differences, but they seem to have more to do with the resources States have at their disposal and their position on the ideological spectrum.

Some States believe the economy must keep going at all costs, no matter what the social utility of any given industry in an emergency situation and regardless of the risks to workers and public health, while at the same time they are unable to provide the population with medical or food products. In addition, most countries have no health care network worthy of the name, even in the West.

How did we get to this point?  The situation has its roots in the economic and political choices that have been made, whether willingly or under pressure, over the last few decades.  These decisions shut the State out of the economic arena and cut budget resources to the public sector, in particular in the field of health.  The role of States has been, to a greater or lesser extent, confined to security issues and the repression of their own people as they demand social justice and protest against the destruction of their living environment.

Many of the States around the world that were subjected to so-called structural adjustment programs or similar measures have witnessed the destruction of public services, such as education, health, water and transport, and of their peasantry (through, for example, abolition of aid to family farmers and liberalisation of the food market) – all of which are essential to the population’s enjoyment of human rights without discrimination – and the privatisation of those sectors.  In addition, such countries have often been compelled to abandon price and exchange controls and promote the free movement of capital.  Beginning in the 1970s, when they were imposed on indebted countries in the South, structural adjustment programs (or similar measures by other names) have since been extended to countries in the North, in the form of, for example, the stringent austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) after the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  As well as destroying public services and peasant farming, these programs have had other consequences such as increased poverty and financial insecurity, and greater inequality between and within countries.

The independent expert of the former UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council) on the effects of structural adjustment policies on the full enjoyment of human rights, Mr. Fantu Cheru, has explained the purpose of these programs and the impact they have had on a large number of countries around the world.  In his view, structural adjustment, which paved the way for the neoliberal counter-revolution, “goes beyond the simple imposition of a set of macroeconomic policies at the domestic level. It represents a political project, a conscious strategy of social transformation at the global level, primarily to make the world safe for transnational corporations. In short, structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) serve as a ‘transmission-belt’ to facilitate the process of globalization, through liberalization, deregulation, and reducing the role of the State in national development.”[3]

By submitting to structural adjustment programs, whether willingly or under duress, States (and we are talking about the majority of the Member States of the United Nations) relinquished not only their own – and therefore their peoples’ – sovereignty but also any possibility of guaranteeing the enjoyment of all human rights to all populations under their jurisdiction.

For most States, then, the picture is rather bleak, but what of their peoples and their citizens?  In general, the people have never stopped fighting for their rights, often at the cost of their lives.  The only reason we now have human rights, labour and environmental standards is because of struggles waged in the past by our forebears.

Yet there are those who would prefer to forget this legacy and put business rights ahead of human rights.  That is why it is essential to have a good knowledge of your rights, so that you can claim them and demand their implementation.  CETIM has pursued this task for the past fifteen years, publishing and distributing a series of papers on the economic, social and cultural rights of vulnerable groups (migrants and peasants in particular), and addressing topics being debated at the international level from a human rights perspective (poverty, mercenaries, transnational corporations, etc.).  Designed to educate, these publications have lost none of their relevance and topicality.[4]

Today, the young and the not so young are rallying for the protection of the environment, proclaiming quite rightly that environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked.  The effective implementation of all human rights will allow present and future generations to move towards this goal. An effective implementation of these rights is a matter of the utmost urgency.


Melik Özden, Director, CETIM


[1] Over 20 years ago the Echelon scandal broke out.  Echelon was the name given to a system for spying on all communications across the planet (telephone, fax, email and Internet), set up by the United States in collaboration with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  More recently, Edward Snowden, a former CIA agent, blew the whistle on the mass monitoring of global communications, including exchanges between members of foreign governments and international agencies, by the American and British intelligence services, in collaboration with the leading Internet companies.

[2] This was also why the Member States of the United Nations unanimously adopted a solemn declaration at the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993, stating that “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”, placing all rights on the same footing and creating no hierarchy of rights.

[3] See E/CN.4/1999/50, dated 24 February 1999. For more information on this subject, please see CETIM’s paper “Debt and human rights” (Geneva, December 2017), available in French, English, Spanish and downloadable free of charge.

[4] Published in two collections, Human rights series and Critical notebooks, they are available in French, English, Spanish and downloadable free of charge.

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