Human Rights in the Context of COVID-19

FIDH is a network of 192 human rights organisations across 112 countries.
This political statement contextualises and analyses the human rights threats posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic and positions FIDH in the global dialogue on current and specific human rights issues.
The Statement is divided into five sections. Sections 1-3 outline the political and economic drivers which preceded the pandemic, the impacts of which have laid bare the inability of States to address poverty and inequality within their societies. Sections 4-5 reaffirm the global values of the Federation and its raison d’être.

1. Since the beginning of the 20th century and notably since the 1970s and 1980s, the promulgation of a neo-liberal policy has shaped international monetary policies in agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, and influenced many agencies within the United Nations and Intergovernmental system, including the World Health Organisation.
This policy has impacted and permeated the public policies of many governments in the global North and South, as well as exacerbated class divisions in societies where deep inequities were already prevalent.

As a result, States have been unable to fulfill their civic duties and responsibilities. In countries with democratic constitutions and legal systems, elected governments, regardless of their political affiliations, have principally served market and private interests which have been responsible for social inequalities within their countries as well as among other nations. With increasing interconnectedness, globalisation has impacts beyond national borders.

States have failed or at best been largely prevented from fulfilling their democratic mandate to guarantee the rights and protection of their citizens under international human rights laws and norms. Several States have, in fact, subjected their citizens to repressive and draconian laws whereby heavy surveillance and arbitrary detention risk becoming the norm.

2. The neo-liberal systems and structures have had direct consequences as observed in the absence of an appropriate reaction to COVID-19 and its development into a global pandemic, as well as in the discriminatory and authoritarian nature of the responses to the crisis:

a). Despite the warning of epidemiologists and other experts, States were not prepared to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, as they had previously proven unable to cope with other health crises (malaria, AIDS, Ebola) and major long-term catastrophes such as climate change.
The public health systems and policies collapsed almost everywhere, even in the most developed countries. Structural adjustment programmes and neo-liberal economic policies have fundamentally shifted the paradigm of public governance to support market interests and public budgetary restrictions called for by the international financial institutions (IFIs), at the expense of peoples’ right to life, health, food and other basic rights. Public health has been turned into a commodity instead of a public good, with policies which are now measured in numbers of deaths and infections.

b). When far-reaching policy reversals and huge financial support packages were adopted to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis, they often favoured corporate interests and higher income earners while neglecting the fundamental needs of the middle classes as well as the most vulnerable in society. In fact, according to a report published by the Institute for Policy Studies, “during the 11 weeks from March 18, when U.S.A. lockdowns started, the wealth of America’s richest people surged by over $565 billion, while 42.6 million workers filed for unemployment, the report said.”

This, while women, the homeless, the street children, the child labourers, the informal workers, the ‘gig’ workers, those without Internet access, migrants, refugees, the stateless, Roma/Gypsies/Sinti/Travellers, Dalits, indigenous and First Nation populations, LGBTI+ persons, people living in war and conflict zones, prison detainees, the phycially and mentally challenged and older individuals in retirement homes who were disproportionately affected by the crisis, were often left out of the governments’ responses.

This global health crisis has thus underscored what FIDH has been denouncing since its inception: the growing inequalities within our societies, systemic and institutional racism, discrimination and violence which are rooted in socio-economic policies, which are designed to serve a few – and not the many. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston decried the ”social Darwinism philosophy that prioritises the economic interests of the wealthiest, while doing little for those who are hard at work providing essential services or unable to support themselves.”

c). In the same context and surfing on a wave of popular anxiety, many countries around the world have been using this crisis to extend their power and aggressively engaged in curtailing the fundamental rights and individual freedoms of their citizens. What is now happening reminds us of how the USA government and its allies in Europe and elsewhere responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by embarking on a war , the premise of which was informed by lies and in pursuit of greed. Far from curbing the threat of terrorism, states have muzzled free and open societies and further suppressed the right to self-determination.

Likewise, in the Covid-19 crisis, under the guise of emergency legislation, many states enacted citizenship and anti-terrorism laws to reinforce their authoritarian rule instead of focusing on containing the spread of the virus. There were some who even went as far as releasing convicted criminals instead of political opponents and human rights defenders. These measures were coupled with ad hoc digital surveillance tools - a godsend for authoritarian regimes seeking to control and crush dissent.

d). The crisis has served as an opportunity for many governments around the world to take advantage of the increased media coverage of the crisis and thereby unabashedly strengthen and accelerate human rights violations.

As such, FIDH member organisations have denounced the acceleration of: illegal land grabbing notably of protected natural areas; colonisation; foreign occupation; illegal military interventions; anti-LGBTI+ legislation; the reduction of sexual and reproductive rights; support to violent non-State extremists such as the Taliban, ISIL, Boko Haram, RSS, the 969 Movement, the Neo-Nazis, the Klu-Klux-Klan, and other white supremacist movements. Our members also denounce how several governments are rescinding their support of the International Criminal Court - the last recourse to international justice for perpetrators of grave crimes.

3.  Yet, while this crisis unfolds, popular protests and social movements are escalating, releasing underlying anger and demands for justice and equality. Prior to the enforcement of lockdown measures, and from the very first days of the lifting of the stay-at-home restrictions, young and old have taken to the streets across the world to march for just and fairer societies, against corruption and authoritarian power, against the neo-liberal policies of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and the global banking system, for a moratorium and a reduction of the debt, and in support of a basic universal income.

They have used media and social networks to decry misogyny, violence against women/girls and feminicide, ecocide, militarism, and, more recently, to denounce institutionalised and systemic racism, state violence through police brutality towards people of colour, mass incarceration, and xenophobia including islamophobia and anti-semitism. These popular manifestations are the inspiration of our movement and embody the hope that change will come.

4.  As human rights defenders, our primary challenge is to reclaim the socio-economic, cultural and political foundations of life, livelihood and freedom. Our dignity as human beings and our right to protect our respective communities from all predators and coercive powers must be at the heart of all State policies. Since 1922 when FIDH was created, the defense of human rights has required that defending individual rights and freedoms goes hand in hand with democratic values and concepts, namely, the universality of rights , dignity and the defense of all rights for all peoples everywhere. The world must put an immediate end to all forms of discrimination, racism, stigmatisation, misogyny and violence against women and girls.

5. Lastly, driven by our values of liberty, solidarity, justice and equality, FIDH’s core objective is to unite those fighting for a fair and just world. Our member organisations are on the ground at national and regional levels, working together to expose violations, hold perpetrators to account and advocate for societal change. For the repressed and violated, we are the outraged witness who challenges impunity; for human rights defenders we are the determined support system for change; for governments and policymakers we are the expert source of fact and evidence, and for perpetrators we are the feared guardian of accountability.

In the context of the pandemic and in light of the continued oppression of human rights defenders, we the members of the International Board of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) are united in defining and defending our common purpose to fight for a world where the rule of law thrives and discrimination in all its forms is eliminated.

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