Cancelled, postponed, virtual: COVID-19’s impact on human rights oversight

The supranational human rights framework has not been immune to the changes to judicial processes, policymaking, and advocacy wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Universal and regional human rights mechanisms have had to adapt to protect the health of their members, staff, and participants and to comply with local quarantines and international travel restrictions, while also fulfilling their role in guiding states’ pandemic responses. Civil society has faced those same limitations, sometimes in addition to crises within its own organizations, and at a time when accessing information on, or participating in, human rights oversight is more challenging and risky than ever.

While the pandemic could yet be used to further weaken human rights bodies or reduce civil society engagement with them, some bodies are adopting new practices that hold great promise for a lightweight, flexible mode of operation and expanded civil society access. Still, the old barriers to information remain, and as human rights oversight and civil society participation become even more dependent on technology and reliable internet access, many could be left out.

Beginning in mid-March, almost all universal and regional human rights bodies suspended their upcoming sessions due to COVID-19; in May, many began holding or planning virtual sessions. The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) and European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) were the first bodies to hold virtual sessions, last month. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) and its counterpart Commission (IACHR), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) and its counterpart Commission (ACHPR), and UN treaty bodies have followed suit for their sessions through at least July. Among the UN special procedures, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has held a private virtual session.

“Virtual” has different meanings, though. For example, while the UN treaty bodies announced they will work virtually through August, those that have held or planned virtual sessions have postponed constructive dialogues with States. The IACHR is holding confidential meetings and no hearings at its July session, but will hold virtual hearings for its September-October session. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is now holding virtual “closed hearings,” which will be available for viewing on the Court’s website. The UN Human Rights Council resumed its suspended 43rd session in June, just before its 44th session, and has combined in-person and remote participation, including for civil society.

Through the many postponed sessions, hearings, and visits, advocates’ access to human rights spaces has taken a hit.

Other bodies have not yet announced plans to move their work online. The Universal Periodic Review Working Group’s sessions have been postponed several months, pushing the last UPR session of the third cycle to January 2022 and prompting calls from civil society for supplemental submissions to be accepted. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) and the Arab Human Rights Committee have yet to announce changes to their schedules, though the AICHR met virtually earlier this month.

Human rights bodies have also extended or suspended deadlines for pending complaints. UN treaty bodies have issued a two-month extension of deadlines for registered cases and, unless explicitly noted on the relevant webpages, all other Sate and civil society submissions should continue as scheduled. The ECtHR implemented “exceptional measures,” currently in place until June 15, that include time-limit suspensions. The AfCHPR has also suspended its time limits (with some exceptions) until at least July 31. The ECSR suspended all deadlines for pending collective complaints until May 15; it noted it would extend this period if lockdown measures remained in place after April 30, but has not yet announced an extension. Similarly, the IACHR suspended upcoming deadlines for petitions, cases, and friendly settlements (with some exceptions) until May 21, and has not announced an extension. The IACtHR is the only body that has expressly resumed the computation of all deadlines, which had been suspended from March 17 to May 20. The ACHPR has, so far, not announced any suspension of deadlines for communications pending before it. 

Most headquarters’ localities (Geneva, Washington, DC) or countries (Costa Rica, France, the Gambia, Switzerland, Tanzania, the United States) have imposed quarantine measures or travel restrictions. Given the realities of the pandemic and states’ mitigation efforts, it is unrealistic to expect any mechanism to maintain the same level of productivity and outputs as before. Moreover, international travel has long been an essential component of human rights oversight, whether to convene experts for sessions or conduct country visits. Many human rights bodies also rely heavily on seasonal cohorts of interns and fellows from abroad.

If advocates can regularly, reliably, and meaningfully participate in hearings and meetings remotely, participation would become much more feasible for smaller and farther-flung organizations.

Yet, few bodies have clearly stated how they are adapting internally in the management of day-to-day operations, foreign travel, or recruitment. The IACHR announced that staff would be working remotely, and the ECtHR also implemented teleworking. The IACtHR early on announced the cancellation of its summer internship program. UN special procedures have postponed scheduled country visits through July and the IACHR cancelled all working and promotional visits for 2020, with the express expectation that they would be rescheduled when practicable. Just how reduced or altered each body’s functioning currently is remains a mystery to the public, though.

While some bodies were already set up to enable remote staff access to email and case and document management systems, and to correspond electronically (only) with parties, this is not true for all. For example, while the IACHR continues to accept petitions, hearing requests, and filings via its website, the ECtHR instructs applicants to file complaints by post. Regardless, all secretariats process postal mail and telephone calls from parties, advocates, and victims. Whether they can confidentially share documents internally and keep up with external correspondence will be a major test.

Despite how little we know about the internal adjustments, the stakes for civil society are clear. Beginning with the cancellation of side events and the general debate at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women through the many postponed sessions, hearings, and visits, advocates’ access to human rights spaces has taken a hit. The ways in which mechanisms planned and communicated (or not) any procedural or scheduling changes highlight the long-standing problems of spotty access to information and barriers to participation. And any reduction in human rights bodies’ capacity will necessarily impact advocates.

On the other hand, by extending deadlines and opening up virtual participation, human rights bodies have also taken long-awaited steps to expand civil society access. Many civil society organizations have welcomed these kinds of adaptations, among other recommendations. For example, if advocates can regularly, reliably, and meaningfully participate in hearings and meetings remotely, participation would become much more feasible for smaller and farther-flung organizations. If those hearings and meetings are then recorded and made available online (where they are not already), a world of knowledge would be preserved and available for all.

While challenging, COVID-19 provides an opportunity to make human rights oversight more inclusive and accessible in the future. To do so, human rights bodies must prioritize transparency and comprehensively address translation, security, and privacy considerations as they continue to alter their working methods. Of course, they will also need to ensure that moving activities online does not exclude those without internet access. Using a blend of new and old methods, human rights mechanisms could emerge from the pandemic more responsive and relevant to the people they work to protect.