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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

Child labour rises to 160 million – first increase in two decades

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Child farmers help to level fields in Balkh Province, Afghanistan., by World Bank/Ghullam Abbas Farzami

The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years – with millions more at risk due to the impacts of COVID-19, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF.

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward  – released ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June – warns that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.

The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labour, who now account for just over half of the total global figure. The number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – has risen by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016.

“The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship. Increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is essential. We are at a pivotal moment and much depends on how we respond. This is a time for renewed commitment and energy, to turn the corner and break the cycle of poverty and child labour.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures have led to an additional 16.6 million children in child labour over the past four years.

Even in regions where there has been some headway since 2016, such as Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, COVID-19 is endangering that progress.

The report warns that globally, nine million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic. A simulation model shows this number could rise to 46 million if they don’t have access to critical social protection coverage.

Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by COVID-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.

“We are losing ground in the fight against child labour, and the last year has not made that fight any easier,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Now, well into a second year of global lockdowns, school closures, economic disruptions, and shrinking national budgets, families are forced to make heart-breaking choices. We urge governments and international development banks to prioritize investments in programmes that can get children out of the workforce and back into school, and in social protection programmes that can help families avoid making this choice in the first place.”

Other key findings in the report include:

  • The agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of children in child labour (112 million) followed by 20 per cent in services (31.4 million) and 10 per cent in industry (16.5 million).
  • Nearly 28 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 years and 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labour are out of school.
  • Child labour is more prevalent among boys than girls at every age. When household chores performed for 21 hours or more each week are taken into account, the gender gap in child labour narrows.
  • The prevalence of child labour in rural areas (14 per cent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (5 per cent).

Children in child labour are at risk of physical and mental harm. Child labour compromises children’s education, restricting their rights and limiting their future opportunities, and leads to vicious inter-generational cycles of poverty and child labour.

To reverse the upward trend in child labour, the ILO and UNICEF are calling for:

  • Adequate social protection for all, including universal child benefits.
  • Increased spending on free and good-quality schooling and getting all children back into school – including children who were out of school before COVID-19.
  • Promotion of decent work for adults, so families don’t have to resort to children helping to generate family income.
  • An end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that influence child labour.
  • Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

As part of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour , the global partnership Alliance 8.7 , of which UNICEF and ILO are partners, is encouraging member States, business, trade unions, civil society, and regional and international organizations to redouble their efforts in the global fight against child labour by making concrete action pledges.

During a week of action from 10–17 June, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore will join other high-level speakers and youth advocates at a high-level event during the International Labour Conference to discuss the release of the new global estimates and the roadmap ahead.

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Human Rights

2021 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy

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Each year, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy assembles hundreds of courageous dissidents and human rights activists, diplomats, journalists and student leaders to shine a spotlight on urgent human rights issues.

The Geneva Summit is sponsored by 25 human rights NGOs from around the world. The Geneva Summit has been featured in media around the globe, including CNN, Agence France Presse, AP, The Australian, Radio Free Europe and ANSA.

This year, the 13th  Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy was held on June 7 and 8. The event was free to all the people who made online registration. This year the summit hosted different voices from different parts of the world.

In this year’s summit, the leading Turkish journalist Can Dündar who was arrested, jailed and forced into exile for his reporting on Erdogan’s government was one of the speakers addressing Human Rights and Democracy on the Fragility of Freedom and Democracy panel.

For the full text of the Fragility of Freedom and Democracy panel, click here.

The list of the other speakers is as follows:

Waad Al-Kateab, Syrian refugee and award-winning documentary filmmaker on the conflict in Syria

Rayhan Asat, Uyghur activist, sister of Ekpar Asat who was abducted by Chinese authorities

Nathan Law, Former member of Hong Kong Legislative Council who fled arrest & sudden leader of 2014 Umbrella Movement

András Simonyi, Academic & former Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S.

Prof. Irwin Cotler, Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada.

Gulalai Ismail, Pakistani women’s rights activist, former political prisoner who escaped the country

Tania Bruguera, Cuban political performance artist repeatedly arrested for her work

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition presidential candidate forced to flee after rigged elections

Jihyun Park, Escapee and survivor of a North Korean forced labor camp

Daria Navalnaya, Daughter of poisoned and jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Australian-British academic just freed after two years in Iranian prison as a victim of hostage diplomacy

Evan Mawarire, Zimbabwean protest leader, arrested six times and tortured for his human rights work

Yang Jianli, Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, survivor of Tiananmen Square and President of Initiatives for China

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Leading dissident against Putin regime, Chairman of Boris Nemtsov Foundation, survivor of two poisoning attempts

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, livestream, and more, click here.

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Human Rights

We can’t wait 267 years to achieve equal economic participation for men and women

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen numerous industries stumble as the crisis has hit many sectors’ productivity and employment rates. And in this scenario, women have been the hardest hit. According to the International Labour Organization, 5% of all employed women lost their jobs, compared with 3.9% of working men. The crisis has exacerbated the existing gender inequality in the labour market, widening gaps even further across several sectors

A report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), released in March 2021, shows that at the current rate of progress it will take around 267 years to close the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity. It’s a striking number that is the result of two conflicting trends. First, even though at a slow pace, the proportion of skilled women professionals is increasing. On the other hand, there is still an overall income disparity and women in leadership positions are a minority – women represent only 27% of all managerial positions, according to the same report from the WEF.

Advocating for economic equality means also advocating for a more sustainable and greener economy, and the post-COVID recovery is an opportunity to build back greener and more inclusive societies and economies. Sustainability cannot exist when inequality runs rampant. According to ILO, women have the tools and networks to create tangible sustainable solutions and influence how we produce, consume and market sustainable products.

Supporting the European Union Green Deal can be the driver for the global transition to a green economy, and this will only be possible if women are also among the protagonists of such transformation. Ensuring that women have equal access to skills development programmes for green jobs can be the pathway for a more inclusive and sustainable future. Women are globally poorly represented in crucial sectors to the greening of the economy, such as construction (9% of female participation), engineering (12%), and manufacturing (24%). The lack of targeted training and supportive policies may exacerbate already existing gender inequalities when progressing towards the green economy.

Women are important actors to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and promoting women’s access to high-quality green skills training programmes in high-demand sectors leads to a better future for all.

Thandiwe Banda, a beneficiary of one of UNIDO’s programmes in Zambia, graduated from the course in heavy equipment repair and set the example on how women can successfully partake in male-dominated fields. “Some of my colleagues would think that because I am a female, I wouldn’t deliver according to my supervisors’ expectations. But, when I was told that I was the first female to ever work in the mechanical department, I became more confident and aware that if I worked very hard I would open more doors for other females,” says Banda.

Engaging in the discussion on how we can make Thandiwe Banda’s professional journey a reality for other females is an important step towards boosting progress in equal economic participation and potentially establishing a more encouraging timeline for such.

To participate and contribute to the cause, join UNIDO’s Lab Debate at the 14th edition of the European Development Days (EDD21), which will take place virtually on 15 June 2021 at 16:20 (CEST). The session will explore the effects of private-public partnerships in engaging champions in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), who represent and advocate for stronger female participation in male-dominated sectors. Our panel of experts will explore the question: can the TVET system be the change-maker in providing industrial skills equally for a more sustainable future?

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