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Human rights ‘uplift everyone’; must guide COVID-19 recovery response, says UN chief 

Noting his February Call to Action to put human dignity and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of the UN’s work, Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out that today the world is facing “the biggest international crisis in generations”, stressing that human rights “cannot be an afterthought”. 

He emphasized that “people and their rights must be front and centre”, and that human rights “can and must guide COVID-19 response and recovery”. 

Human rights responses can not only help beat the pandemic by putting a focus on the imperative of healthcare for everyone, but also serve as an essential warning system — highlighting who is suffering most, why, and what can be done about it. 

 “We are all in this together”, the UN chief declared, adding that while the virus “threatens everyone, human rights uplift everyone”. 

Disproportionate impacts  

One of the report’s key messages is that as a global threat, the COVID-19 response needs to be inclusive, equitable and universal to effectively beat the virus. 

“We have seen how the virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do — exposing deep weaknesses in the delivery of public services and structural inequalities that impede access to them”, Mr. Guterres stated.  “We must make sure they are properly addressed in the response”.  

OCHA/Giles Clarke
At the Qanfoodah Detention Centre in Benghazi, Libya, male African detainees wait to be declared present at a morning roll call.

All hands on deck 

The report also underscores that everyone, across the entire globe, should be involved in the response.  

Advocating for “transparent, responsive and accountable” government during the pandemic, the UN chief upheld that civil society organizations and the private sector, also have “essential roles to play” and that civic space and press freedom are “critical”.   

Threat: Virus, not people

Against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, and a pushback against human rights in some countries, Mr. Guterres feared that the crisis may “provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic”. 

The report underscores that the virus is the threat, not the people, and emphasized that any emergency and security measures be temporary, proportional and aimed at protecting individuals.

“We see the disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response”, detailed the UN chief.  

Heavy-handed security responses will undermine everyone’s ability to stay healthy and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security, or even create new ones, which is simply “unacceptable”. 

No country alone  

To beat the virus, the report recognized that the world cannot afford to leave any nation behind. And as some countries are better equipped to respond than others, international solidarity is essential.  

“A human rights lens puts everyone in the picture and ensures that no one is left behind”, asserted the Secretary-General. “Human rights responses can help beat the pandemic, putting a focus on the imperative of healthcare for everyone”. 

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Rebuilding stronger 

Although the crisis has uncovered weaknesses in public service deliveries and inequalities that impede access to them, today’s response can help to shape that future – for better or worse, according to the report. 

“The best response is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law”, Mr. Guterres stated. 

While examining the immediate crisis, the report holds that it is also critical to consider the long-term – with a human rights focus for both the priorities at hand and in developing future prevention strategies. 

“Looking ahead, we need to build back better”, argued the UN chief, pointing out that, underpinned by human rights, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”. 

And strengthening economic and social rights bolsters resilience for the long haul –for future generations, climate action and biodiversity protection. 

“By respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow”, concluded the Secretary-General. 

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Secretary-General António Guterres records a video message about the COVID-19 pandemic.

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