72 years ago today, on 10 December 1948, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The year 2020 has been extraordinarily challenging to upholding these principles and norms. COVID-19 has not only made visible cleavages in society but has also made existing inequalities more pronounced. As such, human rights have re-entered global discourses on policy-making and implementation in the past year. How can societies become more resilient?
Fuelling inequalities and highlighting new vulnerabilities
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that the Corona-crisis is exacerbating global inequalities and is beginning to show long-term social and economic implications. On a global scale, the World Bank warns the virus could push between 40 and 60 million people into extreme poverty. Half of working people could lose their jobs, reports the International Labour Organization (ILO). According to the World Food Programme, 265 million people will face crisis levels of hunger.
While some say the “virus does not discriminate”, this is not true: the virus discriminates against the most vulnerable and against those who already struggle. Women, irregular workers, the impoverished, refugees, persons living with disabilities, and many more face unprecedented challenges. Also new vulnerable groups have come to light, who experience an infringement of their human rights. Simply put, Corona crisis widens the gaps of existing human rights protection and lays bare deeply entrenched problems in society.
Reacting to a crisis in human development
“The crisis is not only a health emergency, but equal to a crisis in human development”, writes the UNDP. Indeed, COVID-19 reveals not only the issues often hiding underneath the surface of society, but also lays bare the stark differences in ability to mitigate the effects of the crisis on various levels. Existing support systems for the most vulnerable are weakened or rendered incapable, and reactive policies and measures taken in response to the pandemic are not able to truly “leave no one behind”.
Strengthening the ability of authorities to react to adverse circumstances is crucial to guaranteeing nobody is left behind. Equally, there is an undeniable need to reconsider and re-evaluate the nature of our social support systems and to lay the foundation for structures, processes and outcomes that prevent and mitigate negative effects as much as possible. The question therefore arises how to best cope with these new challenges and which actors are best suited to do so.
Human rights begin in small places, close to home
Local authorities are the closest to the people and are arguably most aware of the needs and particularities of local communities and groups. In the Sustainable Development Agenda, cities, municipalities and regions are crucial to realizing inclusive social development and to guaranteeing human rights for all. Therefore, it is also these actors who can make a significant contribution to coping with this crisis in a needs-based and rights-based manner.
Many cities around the globe were quick to digitalize information, to increase and adapt the range of services, and to forge unconventional alliances. Human Rights Cities aimed to do this with human rights as a guiding basis. While this is not a magic solution to preventing the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19, focusing on human rights implementation at the local level significantly contributes to increasing social resilience. Social resilience, in turn, can help flatten and mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic.
Human rights are key to social resilience
Creating sustainable and inclusive communities is a cornerstone of the Sustainable Development Agenda. However, Goal 11 can only be achieved if human rights and social resilience are put at the foreground of political decision-making. The pandemic, despite showcasing our flaws, is equally a window of opportunity for improved, evidence-based policy-making rooted in human rights. It has made visible imminent problems that require urgent and immediate action. The lens of human rights is useful for reacting to the crisis and can help lay the groundwork for inclusive services that truly “leave no one behind”. At the same time, using a human rights-based approach to policy-making, for example, can help societies absorb, cope and prevent such far-reaching effects from taking root in the first place.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has fittingly put this year’s Human Rights Day under the theme “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. Today’s Human Rights Day is “an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human rights in re-building the world we want, with global solidarity, interconnectedness and shared humanity”.
Against this backdrop, we at the International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights at the Local and Regional Levels under the auspices of UNESCO are validated in our mission. We facilitate the implementation of human rights-based approaches to policy-making, we moderate exchange of valuable knowledge and information, and we a build bridges between actors across all levels to guarantee human rights for all.