The UN’s Universal Periodic Review must respond to COVID-19

Given the scale of the human rights crisis brought on by the pandemic, the UPR must respond because it is uniquely suited to examine and respond with legislative and policy recommendations that not only tackle the current crisis but can assist in the eventual and long ‘build-back better’ post-COVID phase.

Health officers are seen at a women hostel near a glove-making factory before going to a hospital at Setia Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in November 2020. Malaysia's National Security Council (NSC) announced closures at 28 glove-making factories in the country after a spike in COVID-19 cases was detected among workers. EFE/EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the world with no clarity of when it will subside, the UN human rights system, including the UN treaty bodies and the Special Procedures mandate holders, has responded with statements, reports, and guidelines for states on how to ensure the protection of human rights during the pandemic. UN Agencies have released a number of resources. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued guidance for states to measure their responses. OHCHR, United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Development Cooperation Office  jointly prepared a checklist for a human rights-based approach to socio-economic country responses to COVID-19.

The global human rights crisis, however, continues unabated. Some disturbing examples of this include several government's enforcement of excessive confinement measures and actions, increased cases of police brutality, and further restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Inequalities in income and healthcare continue to intensify while women and girls are acutely affected by what UN Women refers to as a “shadow pandemic:” domestic violence, child marriage, and precarity of employment in the informal sector.

As the only inter-governmental, peer-review based human rights mechanism in the UN, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is yet to respond in a systematic manner in large part because the UPR’s periodicity does not lend itself to urgent responses. However, given the scale of the human rights crisis brought on by the pandemic, the UPR must respond. And the systematic and universal nature of the UPR process is ideally suited to examine and respond with legislative and policy recommendations that not only tackle the current crisis but can assist in the eventual and long ‘build-back better’ post-COVID phase.

The benefits brought about by the UPR in strengthening UN treaty bodies have already been evident for several years.

At the national level, the UPR since its inception in 2008, has catalysed national institution building, fostered inter-sectoral collaboration (for example, among National Human Rights Institutions—NHRIs—and Civil Society Organisations—CSOs, and initiated or added required depth to national action plans on human rights. The monitoring process that the UPR depends on has also led to the development of numerous tracking implementation methodologies and tools. All these institutional and procedural developments at the national level can now be harnessed towards COVID-19 responses consistent with international human rights commitments. The national mechanisms created in response to the UPR must also be used to monitor government responses to the health and livelihood crisis. A systematic, well-orchestrated strategy can also prepare the ground for a robust post-pandemic response, led by the UPR, for the entire UN human rights system. The benefits brought about by the UPR in strengthening UN treaty bodies have already been evident for several years. 

If a systematic response from the UPR is indeed possible, it would also begin to remedy one of the imbalances that continues to mark the UPR: the predominance of civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights (ESC) recommendations. A thorough treatment of the human rights violations that COVID-19 has caused would clearly indicate that the rights to health, housing, food, livelihood, and education, among other ESC rights, have been severely impacted. In the post-pandemic phase, the restoration of these rights will require immediate attention. If a focus on ESC rights can be enhanced in the UPR, states will be able to respond to protracted issues exacerbated by the crisis. Furthermore, ESC rights can contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda including improving health, housing, and living conditions across the world. Such a focus can assist in the inevitable task of arresting one of the lasting impacts of the epidemic: the increase in income and opportunity disparity exacerbated by the livelihood crisis

The recent November 2020 session of the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the UPR was a start. A number of countries, with Singapore and Cuba being the most active, made recommendations to states being reviewed at this session. Finland, Spain, Barbados, Ecuador, and Indonesia also made recommendations. These recommendations covered issues such as the need to protect the Roma population; strengthening essential health services, mitigating economic and social isolation of persons with disabilities and children; mitigating the negative impact on education; strengthening the protection of freedom of expression; and increasing the participation of women in the framework of COVID-19 response. 

While these recommendations are welcome, the process thus far is of an arbitrary nature. Given the scale of the pandemic and the length of time its impact will continue, especially if we consider the post-COVID recovery period, it is important that the UPR comes up with a more systematic, coordinated response.

A number of suggestions can be made by the UPR to move towards a systematic response to the pandemic and its aftermath. First, states that are appearing for their UPR in the January 2021 session can be asked to present their COVID-19 situation and response. Recommending states can ensure that, based on this information, suggestions are made to ensure a better response to the pandemic, which may include  technical assistance.

Second, recommendations can also cover issues like the need to ensure that there is no backtracking on human rights commitments. Furthermore, they can make sure that COVID-19 is not used as a ruse for states to restrict human rights by intruding on people’s privacy increasing surveillance, making threats to human rights defenders., or by restricting civil society space.

Third, the UPR is geared towards constructive engagement with states through recommendations that call for international cooperation and technical assistance towards COVID-19 response and recovery. UN agencies and bi-lateral donors can take up these recommendations and plan their interventions in concert with the state they are based in. The excellent guidance note on maximising the use of the UPR at the country level, issued by OHCHR, can be adapted to include a UN system wide response to COVID at national levels based on the responses from the UN human rights system. 

Fourth, a welcome voluntary action by states, NHRIs, and CSOs has been the preparation of mid-term reports during the period between the UPR cycles. These reports can contain responses to the pandemic, detailing the use of national institutions and collaborative mechanisms created to track the implementation of UPR recommendations. 

Fifth, at its next general session in February/March 2021, the Human Right Council could consider adopting a resolution to institutionalize COVID response and relief into the reporting process for the UPR. Such a resolution could encourage states to provide challenges and good practices, including plans for dealing with the post-pandemic period. Recent analysis by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) on the impact of COVID-19 indicates that up to 200 million people risk falling into poverty; 71 million may fall into extreme poverty and 500 million people will lose jobs. UNICEF and Save the Children estimate that 150 million additional children are living in multidimensional poverty as a result of the pandemic. This is in addition to the range of civil and political rights already impacted. Such a colossal scale of dispossession and immiseration surely demands an urgent response from the UN human rights system. The UPR as a peer-review mechanism that has demonstrated impressive results in holding governments accountable to their human rights commitments must lead the way.



Miloon Kothari is an independent expert on human rights and social policy, and the president of UPR Info. He was the first Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing with the UN Human Rights Council.


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