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COVID-19 | Virtual briefing of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

At the 9 April 2020 informal briefing of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the COVID-19 crisis, the High Commissioner, States and NGOs expressed concern about undue restrictions on human rights and emphasised the importance of including civil society in responses to the pandemic.

Click here to read more about ISHR’s coverage of COVID-19.

On 9 April 2020, the Human Rights Council held its first ever informal virtual meeting, at which the High Commissioner for Human Rights discussed the human rights implications of COVID-19.

ISHR led a large coalition of civil society organisations to coordinate three joint NGO statements which were delivered at the informal briefing. The statements involved a call upon States (delivered by CIVICUS, also available in French and Spanish), a call for the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights (delivered by Forum Asia, also available in French and Spanish), and a call upon the UN (delivered by ISHR).

The High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet expressed concern about the use of emergency measures to impose restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression, while also urging an end to blanket internet shutdowns.

She noted that in some States, “we have already seen reports of journalists being penalised for reporting a lack of masks, health workers reprimanded for saying they lack protection, and ordinary people arrested for social media posting about the pandemic.”

The High Commissioner further urged States to consult the expertise of civil society and human rights defenders, saying, “In every stage of this epidemic, including the recovery, efforts should be made to involve national human rights institutions, civil society activists, and human rights defenders. Those with long-standing involvement in economic and social rights, urban communities, and specific vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people, have gained many valuable lessons that can benefit all policy makers today.”

Several States, including the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Austria expressed concern about restrictions on the freedom of expression. The Japanese ambassador stated that “it is essential to ensure freedom of expression and of the press.” Austria devoted its entire statement to the importance of media freedom and the protection of journalists, emphasising that “free, independent, and pluralistic media plays an indispensable role in informing the public during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis” and that “it is crucial for societies and the international community as a whole that governments preserve a free, safe, and enabling environment for journalists and media workers and ensure that they can report on COVID-19 and inform about responses and consequences without undue interference.”

Sweden vocalised the need to “protect human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers, and the critical work they do to hold governments accountable.” Australia similarly noted that civil society has “a particularly important role to play in monitoring the impact of emergency measures.” Additionally, Tunisia recognised “the important role that civil society continues to play in supporting people in these crucial moments.”

South Africa stated that it has taken an approach to tackling the pandemic “based on consultations drawing on the rich tapestry of civil society in South Africa,” which is also “monitoring with the media, keeping an eye and constructively guiding government as a friendly force.” The European Union, in reiterating its support for keeping human rights at the front and center of the work of the United Nations, highlighted the importance of inclusive decision making, with civil society and access to information being key elements.

Watch the statement delivered by Civicus:


Watch the statement delivered by Forum-Asia:

Watch the statement delivered by ISHR:



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