Having worked and lived in and around Geneva, Switzerland since 1998, where international cooperation on an array of fields, including human rights, humanitarian aid, health and migration are in the air somehow, I grew alarmed early on in the lockdown here in March 2020 when I realised that the blanket coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic was excluding so much other news from the headlines.
The pause button seemed to have been hit as our own organisation and so many others, knocked off kilter, were quickly adjusting to working and meeting online from home and struggling to reorganise activities with not being able to travel or meet in person as planned. This limbo – during which the usual organisational news bulletins and alerts were disrupted – was an illusory period of a strangely quiet calm. The only news from these channels for a time was about sessions being suspended, postponed or cancelled. The hiatus passed in the third week of March with calls starting to come through from the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and civil society to put a stop, for example, to the fighting in Syria and to localised violence in South Sudan, to release political prisoners and detainees in Yemen and human rights defenders in China. The shift was then made to addressing the economic, political, health and communication management, humanitarian aid and human rights challenges of the pandemic in countries on the ground and globally alongside the reports and calls from the thematic and country special rapporteurs and independent experts. To quote Ian Fleming's character James Bond, it seems that the human rights mechanism was "shaken not stirred", that their work picked up along with civil society and government actors to continue to call out and try to prevent human rights abuses as the global health crisis evolved and conflicts went on unabated.
Approaching Human Rights Day 2020 on 10 December, 72 years after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly, it seems that the theme, ‘Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights' chosen this year reflects the UN's own journey and priorities through the pandemic as well as its message to the world. What has been clear this year is that the social and economic inequalities, divides and ever-increasing gaps have been highlighted in an unprecedented way by the pandemic. It has been a time during which unequalled levels of profit have been made in some sectors while others have foundered to the point of closure and subsequent job losses and hardship. While the World Economic Forum has spoken of a reset of the current system others are clamouring for systemic change.
The UN in its Human Rights Day materials this year asks that human rights be put at the centre of recovery efforts, that a stop be put to all forms of discrimination, that inequalities be addressed through a new social contract, that participation and solidarity be fostered and sustainable development promoted with no one being left behind. These are lofty goals that can only be reached when it is agreed that they are needed, that they are in everyone's best interest and that this conviction emerges from all having been shaken and stirred to action.
Ms Lucy Howe LópezDeputy Exectuvie Director
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