Global pandemic provides an opportunity and an imperative for global human rights change


COVID-19 presents huge challenges and opportunities for human rights; including for human rights defenders, for human rights mechanisms and for the human rights movement. ISHR Director Phil Lynch shares nine key reflections on what it might mean.

Dear friends and supporters

I hope that you, your families, loved ones and colleagues are and remain in good health.

Quite possibly like you, I am currently working from home, writing this from a kitchen table shared with my diligent 14 year old daughter, Ruby, and my wife, Lucy, an economic, social and cultural rights advocate. Annabel, 12, and Leo, 9, are supposed to be doing school work in their bedrooms, but are more likely practising gymnastics and reading Harry Potter. I appreciate and am mindful of our privilege, with billions around the world confined in very different and far more difficult circumstances.

It’s been eight weeks since physical distancing and other extraordinary measures were imposed in Switzerland, as in much of the world. My ISHR colleagues are all working from home and in-person meetings of the UN human rights mechanisms have been suspended indefinitely, yet in many ways this isolation is making me realise that our collective work is more relevant and necessary than ever. COVID-19 presents huge challenges and opportunities for human rights; including for human rights defenders, for human rights mechanisms and for the human rights movement. I've been thinking on these and wanted to share nine key reflections on what it might mean.

  1. All human rights of all people are indispensable and interconnected. The failure of one State to respect freedom of expression and ensure access to information for its citizens, to listen to and protect whistleblowers, or to provide non-discriminatory access to high quality public health care can lead to catastrophic violations of the right to life in other States, as well as major restrictions on the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
  2. The work of all human rights defenders on all human rights is essential; from whistleblowers who first exposed the virus, to health workers servicing vulnerable groups like refugees and asylum seekers, to advocates and journalists working to ensure that emergency measures are proportionate and that governments are held accountable. COVID-19 has firmly established that human rights defenders are essential workers. 
  3. Now, more than ever, we need multilateralism, the UN and an international order founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. No country can singularly combat the virus, but every country acting unilaterally and without fully respecting human rights will worsen its spread and impact. The UN, and specialised agencies such as the World Health Organisation, may be imperfect, but it is only through States working with and investing in such bodies  motivated by a principled commitment to human rights, peace, security and sustainable development rather than by narrow and myopic self-interest and political agendas – that we can build a better world. Additionally, the safe and meaningful participation of human rights defenders and other civil society actors in these bodies and processes is essential to ensure that they are relevant and responsive to priorities and needs on the ground.
  4. Authoritarian and populist governments use crises – whether pandemics or threats of terrorism – to enact restrictive, repressive and intrusive laws and policies. We must be vigilant to ensure that this pandemic is not further used as a subterfuge to shut down civil society, to silence dissent, or to accrue unchecked executive power. The work of human rights defenders and UN experts is more important than ever to ensure measures are reasonable, necessary, proportionate and time-bound. Human rights defenders are playing a vital watchdog role, while UN Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies are providing authoritative expert advice.
  5. As a movement, we must strengthen our focus on inequality and on economic, social and cultural rights. It is clear from this crisis that non-discriminatory access to high quality public health, housing, education, food, water, sanitation and social protection is indispensable to the realisation of fundamental civil and political rights, including the rights to life, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of movement. It is also clear, as governments invest significantly in health care, in hospitals, and in protecting workers, that failure to do so previously has been a matter of political priorities and choice. As a movement we should build on this momentum. 
  6. A strong State, institutions and a strong social contract – underpinned by representative, democratic, transparent and accountable government at the local and national levels – are essential to the protection and realisation of human rights and to fundamental social protections. While not eschewing our role in holding governments to account, the human rights movement has an important and constructive role to play in building trust in  – and the legitimacy, transparency and responsiveness of  – governments and the state.
  7. We need more women leaders in government, in business and in civil society, including the human rights movement. There seems to be a strong correlation between those countries with populist, nationalist and chauvinistic male leaders and bad outcomes in this pandemic (think the US, the UK, India, Russia, Brazil and others), and a similar correlation between those countries with strong, multliteralist and compassionate female leaders and relatively good outcomes to date (think New Zealand and Germany, among others).
  8. Solidarity is a core value, both at the local and international levels. Acts of local solidarity – like people delivering food or checking in on elderly or vulnerable neighbours in their communities, or expressing gratitude to frontline healthcare workers through clapping, singing and music from their windows and balconies – are powerful expressions of our shared humanity. And acts of international solidarity – like sharing medical supplies or information about possible vaccines – are essential to protect human rights on a global scale. We really are all in this together. 
  9. Business as usual is not possible or desirable. We must learn and change from this pandemic, including by investing in adequate and accessible public services, protecting the environment and safeguarding biodiversity, eliminating vast and frequently unnecessary business travel, better valuing essential workers such as teachers, nurses and sanitation workers, and producing and consuming more locally and sustainably. Even more fundamentally, we must do more to protect those people and communities who vulnerable to marginalisation and discrimination, to reduce inequalities, and to redistribute economic and political power.

The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating both the vital importance and contemporary relevance of human rights, and the resilience and resolve of people and communities. Motivated by a commitment to the values of solidarity and shared humanity, and driven by a spirit of hope and ambition, we can and must seize this opportunity: for it is an opportunity to build an even more collaborative and connected human rights movement; it is an opportunity to safeguard and strengthen the international human rights system; it is an opportunity to recognise and protect human rights defenders as essential workers; and it is an opportunity to contribute to a more fair, equal, peaceful and just world for all.

Phil Lynch
Executive Director
International Service for Human Rights



  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • United Nations