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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

Over 1.9 billion people in Asia-Pacific unable to afford a healthy diet

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A child is tested for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported health clinic in Bangladesh. According a UN report, malnutrition among young children and infants remains a pervasive problem in South Asia. UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and surging food prices are keeping almost two billion people in Asia and the Pacific from healthy diets, United Nations agencies said on Wednesday.

According to the 2020 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, the region’s poor have been worst affected, forced to choose cheaper and less nutritious foods. The report is jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“The outbreak of COVID-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, has led to a worsening of inequality, as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods,” the agencies said

“Due to higher prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for poor people in Asia and the Pacific to achieve healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensure food security and nutrition for all – and for mothers and children in particular.” 

As a result, progress is also slowing on improving nutrition, a key target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of 2019, over 350 million people in the region are estimated to have been undernourished, with an about 74.5 million children under five stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height). 

‘Impact most severe in first 1,000 days’ 

The UN agencies went on to note that while nutrition is vitally important throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two. 
“Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” they said. 

The agencies called for an integrated systems approach – bringing together food, water and sanitation, health, social protection and education systems – to address underlying factors and achieve healthy diets for all mothers and children. 

‘Changing face of malnutrition’ 

They also highlighted the “changing face” of malnutrition, with highly processed and inexpensive foods, readily available throughout Asia and the Pacific. Often packed with sugar and unhealthy fats, such food items lack the vitamins and minerals required for growth and development and also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The report urged governments to invest more in nutrition and food safety to promote healthy diets, as well as regulate sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children. It also highlighted the need for action within the private sector, given the sector’s important role in the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets. 

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Israel: ‘Halt and reverse’ new settlement construction

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (File) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

Israel’s decision to advance plans for some 800 new settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank, has sparked the concern of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. 

In a statement issued on Monday by his spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief urged the Israeli Government to “halt and reverse such decisions”, calling them “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. 

‘No legal validity’ 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that Israel’s establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. 

“Settlement expansion increases the risk of confrontation, further undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines”, he said. 

Pushing forward 

Israel has given the green light to 780 new homes in West Bank settlements on Sunday in a move widely seen as being influenced by the imminent transfer of power in the United States. 

Breaking with decades of US diplomacy, outgoing President Donald Trump, in 2019 unilaterally declared that the settlements no longer breached international law. 

Against that backdrop, Israel has been increasing construction and either approved or made plans for more than 12,000 homes in 2020, according to news reports.

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Spectre of unrest, violent repression looming over Haiti

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Fire residues and debris at a protest site in Port-au-Prince in July 2018. MINUJUSTH/Leonora Baumann

Increasing political tensions in Haiti coupled with insecurity and structural inequalities could result in protests followed by violent crackdowns by authorities, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned on Tuesday.

According to the office, criminal activities, such as kidnappings, gang fights and widespread insecurity have increased, with “almost total” impunity. 

Added to the volatile mix is resurging political tensions over the timing and scope of elections and a constitutional referendum proposed by the Government, OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva. 

“Calls for mass protests have been growing. This in turn raises concerns of renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests as seen during the months-long protests in 2018 and 2019, as well as during demonstrations in October and November of last year.” 

According to an OHCHR report on the unrest, protests started relatively peacefully in July 2018 but became increasingly violent over time, with many violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.  

‘Pattern of violations’ 

The report also documented violations to the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In 2019 demonstrations, barricades were set up that blocked people’s access to hospitals and passage of ambulances. Health facilities were also attacked, severely impacting the daily lives of the Haitian people, particularly those in a vulnerable situation. 

In addition, protesters and criminal elements imposed “passage fees”, further impeding the movement of people and goods and exacerbating economic hardship. 

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Ms. Hurtado said. 

‘Guarantee accountability’ 

The OHCHR spokesperson called on Haitian authorities to take “immediate action” to avoid repetition of such violations and abuses by ensuring that law enforcement officers abide by international norms and standards regarding the use of force when dealing with protests; as well as ensuring that gangs do not interfere with people’s right to demonstrate peacefully. 

She also urged the Government to guarantee accountability for past violations and abuses, ensuring justice, truth, and reparations. Alongside, Haiti should take steps to address people’s grievances and the root causes that fuelled the protests, she added. 

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfilment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Ms. Hurtado said, welcoming commitments made by the Haitian National Police to reform practices documented in the report. 

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