Human Rights Cannot Be Put on Hold

When U.S. cities first began to brace for COVID-19, human rights advocates were gearing up for the 3rd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, originally scheduled for May 11. The UPR is a unique mechanism established by the U.N. Human Rights Council to facilitate periodic government peer reviews of the human rights record of each U.N. member state.

Between October and March, advocates submitted 139 stakeholder reports, participated in United Nations mission briefings, and met with the U.S. State Department and federal agencies, preparing to leverage the UPR to hear from the Trump administration on human rights, and to push forward recommendations that advance, rather than roll back, human rights. But, as a result of the current global pandemic, the U.N. Human Rights Council session, when the U.S. was set to be reviewed as part of the UPR, was postponed. (The U.S. review is now slated for November 9). With this postponement, a key opportunity for accountability has been delayed, but human rights cannot be put on hold.

U.N. human rights mechanisms can seem far removed from the devastating impacts of COVID, which are felt in profound and personal ways in our homes, streets, and communities. However, as the lone institutions with a mandate to ensure that human rights are protected globally and enforced at all times without discrimination – it is critical we continue to engage with these human rights bodies so that governments can be held accountable during this crisis, as well as in the aftermath.

To this end, an array of U.S. human rights organizations continue to press U.N. human rights mechanisms, and the U.S., to focus on the deep structural inequality that coronavirus has laid bare, address the human rights violations mounting in the virus’ wake, and to ensure that those most impacted are prioritized. That is because the recommendations that emanate from the UPR will only foster transformative and lasting change if they confront the root causes of the inequality we see today. This work – responsive to COVID-19 – reflects the collective efforts of grassroots members of the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) already engaged in the UPR, in conjunction with national groups, including the ACLU, and academic institutions, such as the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI).

In April, allies working as part of the USHRN UPR Taskforce penned a letter to the State Department calling for immediate action to ensure that federal, state, and local governments comply with their human rights obligations amidst the global public health crisis. The letter further underscored that the U.S. must include information about its COVID-19 response in the report it submits to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) as part of the UPR, to present a complete accounting.

Government self-reporting on human rights is often woefully inadequate, so a key component of ensuring a robust UPR is arming governments around the world with information about human rights on the ground here at home in the United States. Toward this aim, on April 15, a broad coalition of groups, under the leadership of the ACLU Human Rights Program, convened a virtual briefing for U.N. missions focused specifically on rights violations emerging in the context of COVID-19. Speakers addressed issues including housing, water and sanitation, incarceration, threats to democracy and voting, workers’ rights, rights of indigenous peoples and women’s rights, and shared recommendations that would improve human rights compliance in the U.S.

Of course, every country in the world is impacted by COVID, as well as the loss of platforms for accountability, like the UPR. Indeed, in addition to the U.S., Croatia, Jamaica, Mongolia, Malawi, and Libya are among the countries that should have participated in the UPR in May, but are now scheduled for review in early November 2020.

It is vital to ensure that these upcoming UPRs evaluate government responses to the current pandemic, including recovery and relief measures and highlight gaps in human rights protections that have resulted from the COVID-19 crisis. To this end, on May 21, human rights advocates from around the world sent a letter to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner and the HRC requesting the opportunity for civil society groups to supplement their submissions in advance of the November review, given that original stakeholder reports were written in October 2019. This way the UPR can offer a “more reliable and accurate assessment of governments’ compliance with their international human rights obligations, especially since the outset of the COVID-19 crisis.”

A final piece of this accountability puzzle is forging ahead with the proactive work of articulating norms and standards that prioritize equality, challenge all forms of discrimination and recognize that the impacts of coronavirus – and all public health crises – fall disproportionately on individuals and communities historically and presently marginalized. Laudably, the Human Rights Council took early action to engage with civil society and drafted a resolution on the human rights implications of COVID-19. In order to strengthen this resolution, the ACLU, HRI, and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty spearheaded a call by a call by a range of human rights advocates for the text to explicitly recognize the heightened vulnerability to COVID of people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty, and the need to concentrate on addressing the disparate impact of the virus, joining pronouncements by an array of U.N. and regional human rights bodies. The HRC’s most recent draft resolution on COVID recognizes that the virus “exacerbates existing inequalities” and highlights the need to center at-risk individuals, inclusive the homeless and those living in poverty, in responses to the pandemic.

Human rights norms emphasize our interconnections and interdependence. At a time when we are told to social distance and stay apart, that reminder could not be more necessary.

Image: A wide view of the Human Rights Council at its 19th regular session. During the day’s meetings Members considered the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reports of Ireland, Swaziland, Syria and Thailand, among others, as part of the Council’s process to periodically review the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

 

About the Author(s)

JoAnn Kamuf Ward

Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute and Supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic. Follow her on Twitter (@JoAnnKWard).