A genuine human rights-based approach for our post-pandemic future

In memoriam of Prof. David Petrasek

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world we knew. It thrust many countries into healthcare, economic, and social crises. Far from over, the crisis presents opportunities for individual societies, states and for the world as a whole to rethink and “build back better”. To do so requires placing human life and human rights at the centre of public policy, law, programmes, and practices through a genuinely human rights-based approach.

In reacting to the pandemic, the main choice for governments was between two alternatives: to introduce strict anti-COVID measures precipitating an immediate and sharp economic downturn, or to adopt lax anti-COVID measures, hope for “herd immunity”, and try to keep the economy churning.

Under the strict measures scenario, the financial losses resulting from the economic slowdown would lead to fewer immediate deaths and would give the governments time to distribute the impending economic costs evenly (equitably) across the population through emergency economic measures, followed by tax and recovery. Under the lax measures scenario, the purportedly reduced economic losses would be paid for by lives lost in the short-term with long-term gain (so it was hoped). The USA, UK, Sweden, and Brazil—countries with lax COVID-19 regimes—have amongst the highest COVID-19 deaths per million rates regionally and globally; short-term pain they certainly have.

While the “additional” lives lost in countries with lax anti-COVID measures are being paid disproportionately by the most vulnerable populations, the economic “savings” are being reaped by the 1% who control the economy. Not only is this distribution patently unequal and unfair, it disregards fundamental values of human dignity and related norms.

If, in 2020, many governments are still willing to trade the lives of the vulnerable for the economic gains of the wealthiest, then it is fair to ask whether the 2030 Agenda is morally bankrupt.

It has become abundantly clear that governmental policies in response to COVID-19 produce disproportionate adverse effects on different groups. These have laid bare pre-existing inequalities and exacerbated many of them. Older persons in long-term care facilities, persons with disabilities in specialized institutions, the impoverished and detainees are among the many people gravely affected by the spread of COVID-19, together with Indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and minorities. Many women found themselves with reduced income, increased burden of family support for childcare and education, and facing domestic violence.

It bears recalling that 2015 was marked by the adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, proclaiming the grand objective to “Leave no one behind”. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fragility of this aspiration. If, in 2020, many governments are still willing to trade the lives of the vulnerable for the economic gains of the wealthiest, then it is fair to ask whether the 2030 Agenda is morally bankrupt.

In all of this, human rights have been too often an afterthought at best. Yet, the evolved corpus of human rights norms and standards, together with effective practices and options for governance, can provide the right answers. For this, human rights have to enter the public agenda as the main organizing framework in the form of a deep and genuine human rights-based approach (HRBA).

HRBA is not a new idea. It emerged 20 years ago sharing some common elements with Amartya Sen’s human development approach and the idea of “enlarging human capabilities”.

The United Nations defines HRBA as a framework for the process of human development that is normatively founded on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. Under HRBA, public policy and development are conceptualized in terms of providing individuals with human rights—guaranteed choice of opportunities and means for self-fulfillment. This is an obligation of the state and a core function of public authorities, with corresponding rights of individuals and groups to demand respect for and enforcement of their provision. Further, HRBA demands priority action for the most vulnerable to fulfill the ethic of “Leave no one behind”. Finally, HRBA places the very rights-holders at the steering wheel of the action as the primary agents in policy-making and development: “Nothing about us, without us!”

The HRBA can offer a clear and compelling direction to both the ongoing and post-COVID-19 measures. It provides guidance for action with equality and dignity being the highest values. It directs targeted and disaggregated action to address those who are behind. It requires that those especially or largely affected sit at the decision-making table and co-decide.

Unfortunately, in the prevailing crisis, HRBA has hardly been applied in either the strict or lax measures scenarios. Admittedly, a comprehensively applied HRBA entails some complexity and time, notably for inclusive participatory decision-making. It has been criticized as lacking specificity, including sufficient means of measurement, and for unproven efficacy. But it is arguably no more complex or time-consuming than the usual practices and it has the great benefit of being supported by a substantial corpus of largely agreed norms. What has been missing is a determined and comprehensive effort at its application. For example, had HRBA been utilized immediately when COVID-19 struck, preventive measures would have been in place early enough, care facilities for seniors would not have been “forgotten”, special measures to alleviate domestic burdens and violence would have been rapidly implemented, and emergency economic measures would have had a different focus and impact.

Human rights have to enter the public agenda as the main organizing framework in the form of a deep and genuine human rights-based approach. 

HRBA does not create “new” human rights, nor does it require the adoption of new instruments or even extra money. HRBA also does not purport to be a panacea. HRBA is about infusing full meaning and life to the decades-old and nearly universally adopted human rights standards and their promise, bringing them from the margins of specialist debates or popular slogans to the central machinery of global, national and local decision-making and governance.

Genuine HRBA, with all its key elements—human rights objectives, priority action on the vulnerable to “Leave no one behind”, and primary agency of the rights-holders (“Nothing about us, without us”)—needs to be adopted at every level of governance. This implies new mechanisms of inclusive and participatory decision-making, of conduct and accountability, with shifts in attitudes and responsible leadership. It implies a system-wide approach—more than just “human rights” labelling or even "human rights mainstreaming". HRBA is not about making human rights one element or dimension in mainstream processes; it is about making them the foundational framework and basis for the entire process of socio-political organisation and development.

HRBA can save lives, improve well-being, and contribute to sustainable peace and development.  Pursued with determination and applied systemically, HRBA will help every society, state and the international community “build back better”. It is overdue to apply it.


Many ideas for this article were inspired by or discussed with David Petrasek. Along with Prof. Packer and Prof. Delphine Nakache, until his last days Prof. Petrasek was a member of the PhD thesis committee for PhD candidate Slava Balan. The authors remain grateful to Prof. Petrasek for his dedication and careful guidance in human rights thinking and research.