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COVID-19: Countries, businesses must safeguard human rights as virus spreads

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As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread globally, the UN’s top human rights official appealed on Friday to put rights “front and centre” when implementing preventative measures. 

Liz Throssell, spokesperson in the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), said rights chief Michelle Bachelet, had noted “people who are already barely surviving economically, may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.” 

Carbon emissions drop? 

Meanwhile, as record temperatures continued in the northern hemisphere, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) indicated that it was still too early to say whether the global epidemic might lead to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to the World Health Organization, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has neared 100,000 worldwide, with some 3,300 deaths and more than 80 countries now affected. 

Since the virus emerged in central China in December, WHO has urged countries repeatedly to adopt infection containment measures without delay, as these will give health services more time to prepare for a worst-case scenario. “This is not a drill…This is a time for pulling out all the stops,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said on Thursday.  

Be prepared for ‘unintended consequences’ 

Echoing the need for swift action from all countries facing the global threat – based on her past experience as a medical doctor and as President of Chile – Ms. Bachelet also cautioned that Governments needed to be ready “to respond in a range of ways to unintended consequences of their actions aimed at the coronavirus. Businesses will also need to play a role, including responding with flexibility to the impact on their employees.” 

The High Commissioner’s statement added: “We’ve got lockdowns, quarantines and other such measures to contain and combat the spread of COVID-19. They should always be carried out in strict accordance with human rights standards and in a way that is necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk.” 

The High Commissioner’s comments follow an earlier appeal at the Human Rights Council, now meeting in Geneva.  

Then, as on Friday, she urged Member States to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens from the health threat posed by COVID-19, and also from any stigma faced by those who had contracted the respiratory disease. 

Most at risk are already marginalised 

The most vulnerable are those on low incomes, isolated rural populations, people with underlying health conditions, people with disabilities and older people living alone or in institutions, the High Commissioner explained. 

“The High Commissioner is not speaking out about specific countries”, Ms. Throssell said. “What she’s doing is making a universal call to Governments to really consider the impact on economic and social rights by the steps they take – that’s why she’s saying it’s so important for human rights to be at the front and centre.” 

Ms. Throssell added: “There are plans in different countries to tackle crises, but I think we all would agree it is somewhat unchartered. And that’s why she’s encouraging States to share information on good practices; steps that they have taken to mitigate, to alleviate the impacts, the effects of the steps they take; steps that are in many cases extremely necessary to combat, to contain COVID-19.” 

In a related development, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that although the coronavirus would likely have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming because of the expected global economic slowdown, it was too soon to say how great that impact might be. 

What is clear is that “2020 has started out where 2019 left off, with record temperatures. It was the warmest January on record (in Europe)”, said WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis, citing data released on Thursday by the Copernicus European Union Climate Change Service.  

Economic effects likely linked to emissions 

“Obviously, the impact on carbon dioxide emissions will depend on the global economic slowdown as a result of the coronavirus,” Ms. Nullis added, noting that it was still “early days. A lot depends on…the repercussions on international transport.” The international aviation industry is reportedly facing a $113 billion loss in sales due to the virus this year, according to projections. 

Any future assessment of the virus’s impact would have to drill down into data on global energy consumption, the WMO spokesperson explained. 

“Any sort of depression in economic activity…reduction in electricity production from coal-powered plants, a reduction in transport, will make a difference”, Ms. Nullis said. “But we also need to look at efficiency gains. If these plants are running at half-capacity, or if you’ve got planes flying which are a quarter full, that’s not really going to make a big impact.” 

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Human Rights

COVID crises highlight strengths of democratic systems

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The UN Secretary-General, on Wednesday, urged the world to “learn from the lessons of the past 18 months, to strengthen democratic resilience in the face of future crises.” 

In his message for the International Day of Democracy, António Guterres explained in the wake of COVID-19, this meant identifying good governance practices that can counter all kinds of emergencies, whether public health, environmental or financial. 

“It means addressing the egregious global injustices laid bare by the crisis, from pervasive gender inequalities and inadequate health systems to unequal access to vaccines, education, the internet and online services,” he said.  

For the UN chief, along with the human toll carried by those most deprived, “these persistent historical inequalities are themselves threats to democracy.” 

Participation of all 

The Secretary-General argues that strengthening democracy also means embracing participation in decision-making, including peaceful protests, and giving a voice to people and communities that have traditionally been excluded. 

“The silencing of women, religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, human rights defenders and journalists is an impediment to creating healthy societies,” Mr. Guterres said. 

For him, “democracy simply cannot survive, let alone flourish, in the absence of civic space.” 

Emergency powers 

In his message, António Guterres also stresses the importance of phasing out emergency powers and legal measures by governments, which in some cases have become repressive and contravene human rights law.  

He explains that some States and security sector institutions rely on emergency powers because they offer shortcuts, but cautions that, with time, “such powers can seep into legal frameworks and become permanent, undermining the rule of law and consuming the fundamental freedoms and human rights that serve as a bedrock for democracy.” 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary-General warned that “every crisis poses a threat to democracy, because the rights of the people, in particular those most vulnerable, are all too quickly ignored.” 

It is for that reason that protection of rights in times of crisis is a key element of his Call to Action for Human Rights, issued in February of last year. 

As the world starts to look beyond the pandemic, Mr. Guterres called on the international community to “commit to safeguarding the principles of equality, participation and solidarity”, so that it can better weather the storm of future crises.

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Gender equality ‘champion’ Sima Sami Bahous to lead UN Women

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UN Secretary-General António Guterres today announced the appointment of Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan as Executive Director of UN-Women. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Secretary-General António Guterres described Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan, as “a champion for women and girls”, announcing on Monday her appointment to lead the UN’s gender equality and empowerment entity, UN Women. 

The UN chief said she would also champion gender equality and youth empowerment, as well as being a “keen advocate for quality education, poverty alleviation and inclusive governance”. 

Ms. Bahous brings to the job more than 35 years of leadership experience at the grassroots, national, regional and international level. 

She has expertise in advancing women’s empowerment and rights, addressing discrimination and violence, and promoting sustainable socio-economic development, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN chief said in a statement

The news came following consultations with Member States and the Executive Board of UN Women

Rich experience 

Most recently, Ms. Bahous served as Jordan’s UN ambassador in New York.   

Prior to that, she was the Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) from 2012 to 2016 and Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the Social Development Sector at the League of Arab States, from 2008 to 2012. 

The new UN Women chief has also served in two ministerial posts in Jordan as President of the Higher Media Council from 2005 to 2008 and as Adviser to King Abdullah II from 2003 to 2005.   

She has also worked for UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, and with a number of UN and civil society organizations, as well as teaching development and communication studies at different universities in her native Jordan.  

She is fluent in Arabic and English, and proficient in French. 

Tribute to outgoing head 

The UN chief said he was “deeply grateful” to outgoing Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, for the “commitment and dedicated service” she exhibited as head of UN Women. 

He also extended his appreciation to the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, who will continue to serve as Acting Executive Director until Ms. Bahous is in post. 

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An illustration of resilience and hope, in the face anti-Asian hate

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I Still Believe in Our City. MK Luff

The rise in hate crimes against people of Asian and Pacific Island heritage in the United States since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, inspired artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya to produce vibrant artworks featuring people of Asian heritage. Displayed in public spaces around New York City, the images, and the messages they convey, have made headlines around the world.

Brightly coloured posters, murals and displays appeared at bus stops, in subway stations and on landmark buildings across New York City in the Spring of 2021, part of a project commissioned by the City’s Commission on Human Rights called “I Still Believe In This City”, featuring works by Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya, the Commission’s artist-in-residence.

‘They lift us up as guardians’

Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya, an American neuroscientist turned artist, born in Atlanta to Thai and Indonesian immigrants, has long had a high profile in the art world, and her explorations of feminism, science, and community have often gone beyond galleries and media outlets, to protests and rallies, as well as on buildings and highway tunnels.

But her artistic response to the rise in anti-Asian hate since the COVID-19 pandemic has brought her a much wider audience: “I Still Believe In This City” has been covered by a host of major media outlets, including the cover of the renowned Time magazine, reflecting a new awareness of anger and violence directed towards Asian-Americans.

Whilst the works, which feature images of people of Asian and Pacific Island heritage, communicate positivity and an upbeat outlook, the accompanying text gives the viewer a different perspective, containing information about the darker context that inspired these pieces, such as “This is our home too”, “I am not your scapegoat”, and “I did not make you sick”, the latter slogan reflecting the targeting of people of Asian heritage, on the unfounded basis that they are primarily responsible for spreading COVID-19.

Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya says that the figures portrayed in the posters and murals represent “resilient, hopeful guardians, in the face of these horrible attacks against our community. They lift us up as guardians, keeping us safe, encouraging us to stand up for our rights”.

Art and human rights

The public art exhibition has been praised by UN Human Rights Minority fellow, Derrick León Washington, a New York-based cultural anthropologist, dancer and curator, who believes that art is crucial to promoting human rights: “art like Amanda’s is an important way to start difficult conversations. It is connected to lived experiences, and helps us to reach and touch different communities.”

The artworks, says Mr. Washington, “speak to the defiance of Asian-Americans in the face of anti-Asian violence. However, this is not just a New York or US story, and the UN Secretary General has expressed “profound concern” over the rise in similar attacks worldwide.”

“Racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders is not a new phenomenon”, says Carmelyn Malalis, chairperson of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “We all have stories from our youth, but it’s true that last year was particularly bad, because of the pandemic.”

Ms. Malalis points out that increased levels of anti-Asian hate took place in the context of a rise in all forms of racism, in New York and beyond. “In the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has been fighting against anti-black, and now anti-asian, antisemitic and other forms of xenophobia. This is a highly diverse city, and we want to see solidarity between all of our different communities”.

May we know our own strength

At the same time as the “I Still Believe in This City” artworks were being displayed in New York City, Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya launched another, more sombre piece, also in collaboration with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, entitled “May we know our own strength”. It grew out her reaction to a mass shooting in March 2021, which resulted in the death of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

“This installation slowly developed from shared stories of violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), but was open to anyone going through something difficult; it was a space for them to lay down their burden”.

Survivors of assault and other forms of abuse anonymously posted their stories, often deeply personal and harrowing, to an online submission form. Each submission activated a printer in the storefront, which relayed the stories onto ribbons of paper, whilst activating an incandescent lightbulb. Ms. Phingbodhipakkiya then weaved the stories into intricate hanging sculptures.

The artist says that she hopes the exhibition helped to transform the pain and loss of each story into “a new pathway for peace and gentleness, and a new way forward.

“So often”, she adds “when we see atrocious acts, we turn away. But, by shutting the door on others, we shut the door on our own humanity. Art can bring it back.”

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