By Janet Sankale
The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis pose new threats to human rights, the United Nations said as the world marked the International Human Rights Day on Friday, December 10.
“Inequalities have fuelled the pandemic, and continue to do so. In turn, the pandemic has fed a frightening rise in inequalities, leading to disproportionate transmission and death rates in the most marginalised communities, as well as contributing to soaring poverty levels, increased hunger, and plummeting living standards,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, expressing concern that humanity is reeling from the setbacks of Covid-19, while at the same time struggling to make the radical changes necessary to prevent further environmental disaster.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the expansion of digital technology into all areas of our lives have created new threats to human rights,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Exclusion and discrimination are rampant. Public space is shrinking. Poverty and hunger are rising for the first time in decades. Millions of children are missing out on their rights to education. Inequality is deepening.”
Bachelet expressed concern at the phenomenon of unequal vaccine coverage. “By 1 December, barely 8% of adults had received one dose of vaccine in low-income families, compared to 65% in high-income countries,” she said.
“The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, by exacerbating inequalities and highlighting all the barriers and challenges facing the world today, shows us how far we still have to go to ensure that human rights are respected,” a message from Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay said, adding that the resulting school closures had affected the fundamental right to education.
The UN human rights chief also talked about shortfalls in social protections during the worst months of the pandemic. Quoting the International Monetary Fund, Bachelet said some 54 million jobs in Europe were supported between March and October 2020, keeping people and companies from going under. “Such assistance was less available in other regions,” she added.
On climate change, she said the crisis is further exacerbating discrimination, marginalisation, and inequity.
She also expressed concern about the growing debt crisis, which she said affects people in vulnerable situations and increases inequalities. “Globally, over half of least-developed and low-income countries are now in, or at high risk of, debt distress. In East and Southern Africa, debt-servicing costs grew, on average, from 60 per cent of GDP in 2018 to nearly 70 per cent of GDP in 2021.”
She explained that in order to pay the loans, many of the countries had introduced fiscal austerity measures, which inevitably affect health, education, infrastructure investment, and poverty reduction efforts, thus disproportionally impacting people in vulnerable situations and increasing inequalities.
To resolve some of the problems, Bachelet urged the world to embrace the Common Agenda set out by the UN Secretary-General in September 2021, which, she said, “… calls for renewed solidarity between peoples and future generations; a new social contract anchored in human rights; better management of critical issues involving peace, development, health and our planet; and a revitalised multilateralism that can meet the challenges of our times.”
Guterres said the key lies in respect for human rights. “Seventy-three years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principles set out in this simple Declaration remain the key to realising all human rights – civil, economic, cultural, social, and political – for all people, everywhere. Recovery from the pandemic must be an opportunity to expand human rights and freedoms, and to rebuild trust.”
Judge Piotr Hofmański, the President of the International Criminal Court, said the ICC plays an important role by addressing some of the “heinous” crimes that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the first place – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression – to ensure that they do not go unpunished, “and that victims can receive redress for the harm they have suffered”.
“There can be no justice without respect for human rights – and, conversely, justice is essential to the protection of human rights,” the judge added.
However, he said the court needs the cooperation of nations to ensure accountability for human rights violations.
He appealed to more states to join the ICC’s Rome Statute “to ensure equal protection for people everywhere… to deter atrocities… to give hope to victims everywhere in the world that a path to justice does exist.”
To mark the day, Human Rights Watch arranged for 11 landmarks to shine “bright blue”.
“These landmarks will illuminate in solidarity of the fundamental principles of human dignity that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms,” the organisation said.
Seven of the landmarks are located in Canada and two each in the US and Germany. Featured among them was the Empire State Building in New York, Niagara Falls in Canada, and the Olympic Tower in Munich.
“Human Rights Watch is proud to play a central role in confronting many of humanity’s biggest challenges by investigating human rights abuses, exposing them to the public, and offering solutions and generating intense pressure for change,” said Executive Director Kenneth Roth.
To celebrate the occasion, Amnesty International listed 33 human rights wins that its work has contributed to.
“It’s been a busy year for Amnesty International with positive changes taking place around the world. Laws have been rewritten, awards have been won, prisoners of conscience released, and our supporters have continued to campaign with passion to ensure people can live free from torture, harassment or unjust imprisonment,” the organisation said on its website.
The listed achievements include Amnesty’s report on how health workers around the world had been exposed, silenced, and attacked during the Covid-19 pandemic, and which led to the release of two medics in Egypt; the announcement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it would open formal investigations into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Philippine government’s deadly ‘war on drugs’, and crimes against humanity in Venezuela; the Webby Award it won for its microsite on the abuse of tear gas by police forces around the world; and the Decode Surveillance NYC project that saw more than 7,000 supporters from 144 countries map 15,000 surveillance cameras across New York City which can be used by the police to track people using facial recognition software. This helped campaigners to push local legislators for a ban on the use of the discriminatory technology.
The International Human Rights Day commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
The anniversary provides a moment to emphasise the protection and promotion of the rights of an individual. These rights include economic, social, and fundamental. The day also seeks to bring a sense of responsibility to the authorities and make them accountable for any human rights violation.
This year’s theme relates to “Equality” and Article 1 of the UDHR, which states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
The UDHR is rooted in World War II, when the Allied powers (United States, France, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) came together to oppose the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) and try to stop the atrocities that were happening as the aggressors threatened to overrun the world.
The international community vowed that the horrors of World War II should never be allowed again. They decided to create the United Nations Charter in response to the “barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind” during the Second World War. Its adoption recognised human rights to be the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace.
The UDHR is a milestone document that proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.
The declaration outlines 30 rights and freedoms that belong to all of us and which nobody can take away. The rights that were included continue to form the basis for international human rights law. The declaration, said to be the most translated document in the world, remains a living document.
It includes the right to be free from torture, the right to freedom of expression, the right to education, and the right to seek asylum. It includes civil and political rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and privacy. It also includes economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the rights to social security, health, and adequate housing.
The UDHR has given rise to a range of other international agreements which are legally binding on the countries that have ratified them. These agreements include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.