Despite COVID-19, Human Rights Council carries on with its work virtually

The current COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the global community into unchartered waters.  Worldwide lockdowns and social distancing measures to mitigate the spread of this deadly pandemic have forced us to adapt to new routines and lifestyles, and navigate virtual meeting technologies, many for the first time. 

President of Human Rights Council, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), holds video conference meeting with her Bureau, 1 April 2020 © Human Rights Council Presidency

By now, practically all UN bodies have either postponed or cancelled their meetings resorting to alternative means of conducting their affairs.  Since suspending its 43rd session on 13 March, following a series of incremental precautionary measures and tightened restrictions by Swiss authorities, the Human Rights Council, and its secretariat staff from the UN Human Rights Office, have been conducting their business on a variety of virtual teleconference (VTC) platforms.

“The human rights protection work of the United Nations must go on, not least because the human rights issues out there in the world have not gone away. It may not be business in the usual sense, but we are working to carry out business as usual to the best of our abilities under these unprecedented circumstances”, remarked Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger of Austria, President of the Human Rights Council for 2020.  “The global Coronavirus pandemic has offered us opportunities to be more creative and sharpen our virtual teamwork skills”, she added.

The Bureau of the 47-member human rights body tested its skills today when it held its first formal meeting via VTC.  Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger and her four Vice-Presidents conducted a virtual meeting to discuss a series of issues on its packed agenda.  Among the issues discussed were alternative working methods vis-à-vis virtual meeting technology, ways of how the Council could best address the human rights implications of the current crisis, possible scenarios for resuming the formal work of the Council once circumstances are back to normal and ways to maintaining contact with all stakeholders, including civil society.

“We are taking every opportunity to carry out our work, stated Ambassador Tichy-Fisslberger. “We are closely following what is happening in the real world and exploring ways to spread our messages in as many imaginative ways as possible to those who most need to hear them.  It need not be in a conference room, or even in person.  It can be done in a virtual manner”, she added.

Following the pattern of online engagement, over recent days the Council’s independent experts have issued several urgent appeals to States to ensure their COVID-19 measures were deeply rooted in human rights.  These include calls to safeguard the right to health, adequate housing, clean water, to privacy and freedom of expression online rights. 

Connecting people from various walks of life has been the Council’s business from the time it was established 14 years ago.  As stated by the Special Rapporteur on racism and discrimination last week, “Crises like the coronavirus pandemic remind us that we are all connected and that our well-being is interdependent”.  Ever since its first meeting in June 2006, it has been providing a unique setting where States and representatives from civil society can connect and exchange views on a wide range of human rights issues, including those which other organisations are unable or even unwilling to discuss.  Under the present circumstances, this work is being done virtually.

"These times require us to go even deeper into the human rights work.  We need to consider the impact that this pandemic and the resulting situation may have on almost all the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration”, add the Council President.

The Council is not entirely new to the concept of remote participation.  It commonly features video messages by participants unable to attend its meetings in Geneva, and its commissions of inquiry without access to their countries of concern regularly conduct their interviews with human rights victims and witnesses on skype and other online platforms.

“What this virus has shown us is that the present crisis unites us all; there are no ideological or political splits involved.  We share a common preoccupation for human lives and the consequences of this crisis around the world, but especially on the most vulnerable populations”, stated the Council President.  She added:  “The crisis also proves that when we work collectively with a sense of purpose, we can achieve so much more to advance our common agenda to promote and protect human rights around the globe, regardless of the setting or being physically or virtually together”.

1 April 2020

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