Human rights ‘battered’ by pandemic, warns UN’s Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet speaking at a press conference on the eve of Human Rights Day, 9 December 2020. Credit: Keystone/Martial Trezzini

Speaking at a press conference to mark Human Rights Day today, the United Nations' (UN) high commissioner for human rights criticised some governments' leadership during the pandemic and stressed the need to "recover better".

UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has denounced the “reprehensible” leadership shown by many governments during the pandemic, which has left human rights “battered” and highlighted drastic social, racial and economic inequalities.

Speaking at a press conference on the eve of Human Rights Day today, Bachelet said Covid-19 had “shone a stark spotlight” on the world’s failure to uphold human rights, noting that, had adequate social and economic protections been in place for a higher proportion of the population, the impact of the pandemic would not have been so catastrophic.

Failure to uphold human rights. “2020 has taken its toll not only across all regions and virtually all countries, but also on the full range of our human rights, be they economic, social, cultural, civil or political,” she said. “Covid-19 has zeroed in on the fissures and fragilities in our societies, exposing all our failures to invest in building fair and equitable societies. It has shown the weakness of systems that have failed to place a central focus on upholding human rights.”

Bachelet referred to the failure of many countries to sufficiently invest in healthcare as “extremely short-sighted”, and noted that the events of 2020 had exacerbated deep social divides between rich and poor populations, while also highlighting the disproportionate impact of the virus on marginalised groups. She also referred to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests as bringing “racial injustice and police brutality” into focus and called for “far-reaching structural changes'' to deal with systematic racism.

“Covid-19 has very clearly demonstrated that inequalities and discrimination not only harm the individuals who are directly affected, and unfairly impacted – they create shock waves that ripple across the whole of society,” she said.

'Reprehensible' leadership. The UN human rights chief condemned the attitude of some political leaders and governments' handling of the Covid-19 crisis, saying she was astounded by figures who continue to “play down” the impact of the virus and dismiss lifesaving preventative measures.

“A few political figures are even still talking casually of 'herd immunity' as if the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives is a cost that can be easily borne for the sake of the greater good. Politicising a pandemic in this way is beyond irresponsible - it is utterly reprehensible ”, Bachelet said.

She also criticised countries that had used the pandemic as an excuse to curtail rights to free expression, assembly and participate in public life. She said some governments had taken advantage of the pandemic to “shut down political dissent and criticism” including delaying elections, citing Uganda and Myanmar as “two important examples where Covid-19 restrictions appear to have been instrumentalised by the ruling parties to restrict the right to political participation ”.

While denouncing the “politicisation” of the pandemic in the United States, Bachelet said she felt confident that President-elect Joe Biden would give greater priority to human rights and multilateralism, citing a “series of promising pledges” including an end to the separation of migrant families and the construction of the Mexican border wall, an overhaul of the asylum system and a return to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Building a more resilient future. Bachelet declared the need to learn from the events of 2020 and “recover better” to “build more resilient, prosperous and inclusive societies”, and noted that immediate action is needed to combat the threat of climate change in particular. Repairing the multilateral system, she said, is key in this recovery, as is the involvement of civil society.

Bachelet also took the opportunity to stress the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s rights, which have been “set back decades” in areas such as sexual and reproductive rights. She asserted that the involvement of women in decision-making and priority-setting after the pandemic is vital to “recover better”, noting that several of the countries viewed as having handled the pandemic most effectively, including New Zealand, Finland, Taiwan and Germany, are led by women.