Remarks by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), President of the Human Rights Council, at the “virtual conversation” with Special Procedure mandate holders on COVID-19


30 April 2020

30 April 2020, 15.00 (Geneva time)


Good afternoon. A very warm welcome to all of you at this virtual session, which is a first informal conversation on the work of the Council’s so-called Special Procedures, that is its Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts etc. in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

I am very grateful to all the members of the Coordination Committee of these Special Procedures and in particular its chairperson, Ms. Anita Ramasastry, as well as the former Chairman and ex-officio member of the Coordination Committee, Mr. Dainius Pūras, for helping us to make this session possible.

As you know the Special Procedures are often called the eyes and ears of the Human Rights Council, the fact-finders who help the Council keep track of what is going on all over the world in terms of human rights - including in areas, which are difficult to access. They spend all year on this very demanding work and often do not get enough time or space to make their work known to a wide enough audience. At least for that matter the current lock-down is a good opportunity.

We have now been through seven weeks of lock-down which the Council’s stakeholders and its mechanisms nevertheless using for some very creative and perseverant work.

These weeks have shown us that the Corona crisis affected essentially all kinds of human rights in one way or another: the right to life, the right to health, access to adequate housing, clean water and sanitation, food, information, freedom of assembly, women’s rights, children’s rights and, of course in particular, the rights of all the vulnerable groups.

The Coordination Committee not only helped us prepare for this session in a very creative and flexible way but in addition invested a huge amount of joint work into a what I think is going to be a precious souvenir of this meeting: an overview which has been distributed to all of you showing all the tools and means that mandate holders have developed to assist States and other stakeholders in their response to COVID-19, i.e.:

  • a general call by more than 60 mandate holders stressing that “everyone has the right to life saving interventions
  • a wealth of up-to-date information - almost on a daily basis,
  • recommendations both for national and international responses,
  • guidelines,
  • press releases, podcasts, video campaigns – you name it.

In a letter which I received together with all this material the Special Procedures put it this way: “COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the revitalization of universal human rights principles which – together with trust in scientific knowledge must prevail over the spread of fake news, prejudice, discrimination, inequalities and violence.”

And they called for the principles of non-discrimination, participation, empowerment and accountability to be applied to all health-related policies.

So, a very special bunch of virtual flowers goes to Anita Ramasastry who coordinated the preparations which, I think, turned out to be a lot more work than she ever anticipated and accepted to be with us now, even though it is still night in Seattle where she lives. And my very special thanks are also due to all the other five members of the Committee.

Dear Colleagues,

As I have mentioned in the past, I am collecting good human rights stories because I think the Council should not only focus on deficits. It should also be aware and share what has been achieved for the benefit of human rights.

As we already saw this at our last informal event on 9/4 with the HC –the COVID-19 crisis - despite its devastating impact in different parts of the world – has actually triggered a number of uplifting stories of solidarity and bravery. Let me mention a few examples:

The crisis showed, for example, that having a safe home can be central to human survival but many people do not have a safe home. These last weeks we have seen moratoria on evictions due to rental and mortgage arrears; we have seen deferrals of mortgage payments, extensions of winter moratoria for evictions of informal settlements, youth hostels being re-purposed and even hotel rooms being adapted for homeless people.

We have also seen governments improve access to water and sanitation including in informal settlements some of them including moratoria for payments.

We have seen countries do everything to preserve jobs, provide or extend paid sick leave or unemployment benefits; we have seen states provide childcare for essential service workers and we have seen special measures taken to expand domestic violence responses for victims of abuse.

Following statements by the Special Rapporteur on disabilities, sign language has been included in some official COVID-19 announcements.

And various States have begun to release from detention centres in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

We can only hope that these developments might be a first start to what the Secretar-General invited us all to do, which is to build back a better post-pandemic world. And he also reminded us that human rights can and must guide COVID-19 response and recovery.