“Catalyzing rights”: Identifying progress in moments of crisis

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How do we build on COVID-19 era human rights advancements so they can catalyze further and deeper change? Many have noted the transformational power of moments like the pandemic, conceptualizing such crises as “portals” and opportunities to “imagin[e] rights-based post-pandemic futures,” “redefine and transform the field,” and “build back better.” One step in enabling us to build on such advancements is to track them. 

In the spring of 2022, the Duke Law International Human Rights Clinic launched Catalyzing Rights: Index of advances during COVID-19, an interactive website that tracks the positive steps governments introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures advance human rights in 20 areas in the categories of civil and political rights, equality, governance, and social-economic rights. Indeed, while many authorities severely restricted rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, this tracker recognizes that some also sought to protect and even promote rights, including in ways that they had previously claimed to be impossible. 

By using good practices as a starting point, the Catalyzing Rights tracker departs from standard rights advocacy strategies that tend to rely on “naming and shaming.” As such, it may be met with some degree of caution or even suspicion. Identifying good practices can be fraught when, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, a government may be undermining rights in one area (e.g., rights to protest) while advancing them in another (e.g., access to telehealth). The methodology we used addresses this: each measure was vetted against criteria based on the nine core international human rights treaties and tailored guidance from human rights bodies on how to guarantee rights during the pandemic.

Notably, the inclusion of measures does not imply full compliance with human rights obligations, and further investigation into the implementation of these measures, including in partnership with social movements, is key. Ultimately, in many cases, advocacy for further compliance would be valuable. In cases where governments have been good in one area but rolled back rights in others, they should be held accountable for those rights violations.

To aid this process, Catalyzing Rights offers innovative approaches to human rights advocacy. First, by centering official laws, policies, and orders that seek to protect, promote, and advance rights, the project offers an alternative to the more typical practice of “naming and shaming,” as noted above. This tool can change the nature of how we in the human rights field advocate and the objectives of our advocacy. As such, the project clarifies a number of key principles that can be used as a methodology to assess whether a measure is rights-compliant. Other stakeholders provide similar guidance.

Second, advocates can cite tracked measures when urging their own local, state, and federal governments and other advocacy targets to take similar steps or to extend and expand current good practices. The tracker is deliberately populated by measures from diverse contexts, including with respect to geography, system of government, and socioeconomic status. This range of variables enables advocates to draw examples from comparable contexts, equipping them with an additional tool to counter government responses that their unique domestic context prevents learning lessons from others. Some organizations—for example, The Shift—have already cited tracked measures as evidence to decision makers and advocates that implementing policies to protect tenants during crises is both necessary and possible.

Third, a defining characteristic of measures in the tracker is that many of them address the intersectional impacts of the pandemic; as such, the tracker provides a model that advocates can use to fortify their arguments regarding how states’ obligations of non-discrimination translate to addressing multiple and intersectional forms. For example, the outdoor emergency shelters in Portland, Oregon, prioritized “people who identify as LGBTQ+” as well as “people from communities of color,” while South Africa provided “assistance to mainly target financially distressed small-scale farmers” in ways that prioritized “women, youth and people with disabilities.”

Fourth, and more broadly, drawing on the content of these concrete measures contributes to greater specificity and nuance around government obligations to “fulfill” economic, social, and cultural rights and what “appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures towards the full realization of such rights” means in practice. 

Finally, the tracker promotes accountability. In this “post-pandemic” period, governments have reversed and eliminated many pandemic-era measures. Examples include Canada ending eviction bans and rent increase freezes, Mauritius no longer extending “visas and permission of stay” for “foreigners whose visas and . . . permits” would have otherwise expired, and Togo terminating the provision of “monthly financial aid to the most vulnerable individuals and families” as part of its “NOVISSI cash transfer scheme.” This record of positive steps serves as a standard against which to hold governments accountable under international human rights law, preventing them from walking back rights, under the operational principle of non-retrogression, according to which states should not be permitted to “allow” rights protections “to deteriorate” without “strong justifications” for doing so. 

These lessons are not confined to the COVID-19 pandemic alone. Advocates have turned their attention to ensuring that measures advancing human rights remain for ongoing crises (whether the climate crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, the global food crisis, or the inequality crisis, among others) and ensure that human rights–centered measures are adopted in preparation for future crises, whether future global health or other types of crises.

To explore how to leverage the strategic and normative lessons learned from the progress on rights during the pandemic, our clinic organized an expert group convening on “COVID-19 and ESCR and Future Crises” in April 2023. Approximately 20 human rights experts from a range of fields—from the right to health and housing to water as well as poverty and inequality—gathered to address the following questions: 

  • How do we use international norms—particularly progressive realization and non-retrogression—to advocate to keep these measures in place and/or to further advance them going forward? 

  • How do we close any gaps in our international legal framework and ecosystem, whether by drafting new principles or guidelines or calling for new mechanisms? 

  • How can civil society and government stakeholders best be supported?

With these ongoing efforts, the Catalyzing Rights tracker and related work, including broader strategic discussions stemming from this and other efforts, allow for continued innovation and creativity towards a re-imagined post-pandemic era of rights realization.