26 May 2020
Using Human Rights to Leave No One Behind: COVID-19 Responses and Beyond
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The global COVID-19 crisis has starkly exposed and exacerbated inequalities within society.

If not addressed urgently, this will seriously undermine states’ efforts to achieve the SDGs and fulfil their human rights obligations.

Human rights give us a framework and methods for ensuring no one is left behind on the road to recovery.

The impacts of COVID-19 have not been felt evenly. The crisis has both laid bare and exacerbated existing inequalities. Depending on how states address the crisis, inequalities could become even more pronounced in the longer term.

In many countries, death rates have been higher among ethnic minorities.  The particular risks for, and disproportionate impact of the crisis on, various vulnerable groups in society, migrants and trafficked persons, people of African descent and LGBTI people, among others, have also been highlighted. Calls have also been made to address violence against children and violence against women and girls in this context.

Human rights give us methods for ensuring no one is left behind and realizing more equal development outcomes.

The virus does not discriminate, but its impacts are felt more harshly among those who suffer the consequences of discriminatory laws and practices. These patterns are exactly the barriers to human dignity and development that human rights, and by extension the 2030 Agenda, seek to address.

Inequality and discrimination can inhibit progress towards all SDGs. They threaten not only to leave vulnerable groups behind but can push the most vulnerable groups even further behind. Well before the COVID-19 crisis, inequality was highlighted by UN Secretary-General as a significant impediment to progress the world over.

The SDGs and human rights are intrinsically linked and mutually reinforcing frameworks, with over 92% of SDG targets reflecting provisions of international and regional human rights instruments and international labor standards. Therefore, patterns of vulnerability, inequality, and neglect that the COVID-19 crisis exposes also reflect states’ overdue obligations on non-discrimination under international human rights law, and unfulfilled commitments under the 2030 Agenda.

Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting human rights principle and a fundamental right. The 2030 Agenda pledges to leave no one behind. Respecting these analogous principles can help to limit the disproportionate effects on specific vulnerable groups in society now, while also mitigating longer-term impacts that could push them even further behind.

How do we ensure no one is left behind on the road to recovery from the crisis? We have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis with a better understanding of how inequality can hamper progress not only for vulnerable groups but for everyone. The vision of “building back better” is emphasized in the landmark policy brief by the UN Secretary-General entitled, ‘COVID-10 and Human Rights: we are all in this together,’ which highlights the “underlying structural inequalities and pervasive dis­crimination that need to be addressed in the response and aftermath of this crisis.”

Human rights can guide these efforts. Human rights give us a framework and methods for ensuring no one is left behind. They can ensure more equal development outcomes. If applied properly, they can have a transformative impact. There are decades of lessons from the application of human rights standards, principles, and methods that can shape COVID-19 responses and bring us back on track to achieve the SDGs. Inequality does not only concern SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), but the whole 2030 Agenda. As the Secretary-General’s brief explains, “Responses that are shaped by and respect human rights result in better outcomes in beating the pandemic, ensuring healthcare for everyone and preserving human dignity. But they also focus our attention on who is suffering most, why, and what can be done about it. They prepare the ground now for emerging from this crisis with more equitable and sustainable societies, development and peace.”

Addressing inequality using human rights as guidance means:

  • Identifying who is left behind – now even further behind as a consequence of COVID-19 – and in which areas. The need for adequate and disaggregated data to inform strategies to address the particular challenges of those furthest behind is even more urgent now, and human rights provides ample guidance for this.
  • Using human rights frameworks and recommendations as guidance for measures to be taken, policies and laws to be adopted, and special measures where necessary. Given the close linkages between human rights and the SDGs, the recommendations of human rights bodies are a goldmine of qualitative analysis and guidance that can be used to help design laws, policies, and actions to tackle discrimination and inequality in all sectors.
  • Using human rights to guide the adequate and meaningful participation of vulnerable groups in decision-making on the design of policy frameworks, strategies, and actions to tackle discrimination and inequality, to ensure that they respond to their real needs and situations.
  • Urgently tackling discrimination by reviewing and revising legal frameworks where necessary. Eliminating formal discrimination requires ensuring that a state’s constitution, laws, and policy documents do not discriminate on grounds prohibited in human rights law.
  • Going beyond the elimination of discriminatory laws and policies to eliminate discrimination in practice. Eliminating discrimination in practice requires paying sufficient attention to groups of individuals that suffer historical or persistent prejudice. Special measures in programming, budgeting, capacity building, and other areas need to be taken urgently to address the specific concerns and needs of vulnerable groups in all sectors so that moving forward, we can start with a more level playing field. Again, recommendations from human rights bodies can guide these efforts.

The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) has published a paper with broader considerations on using the human rights and SDG frameworks to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

The author of this guest article is Francesca Thornberry, Chief Adviser on Human Rights and Development, Danish Institute for Human Rights

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