UN Human Rights in East Africa: Leave no one behind during COVID-19

Portrait of Nwanne Vwede-Obahor, head of UN Human Rights’ East Africa Regional Office, February 2020. ©WATHI

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in East Africa, UN Human Rights’ regional office, based in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, has been contributing to the development of COVID-19 preparedness and response plans by the UN Country Teams in that region by embedding human rights perspectives which particularly focus on vulnerable groups.

That office has taken the lead in ensuring that disadvantaged groups have access to information on COVID-19 through various platforms, and has been collaborating with Governments, the African Union, UN Office on Drugs and Crime and UN Women to target detainees and women across Africa.

We spoke with the head of the UN Human Rights East Africa Regional Office, Nwanneakolam Vwede-Obahor, to find out what have been the main challenges for her and her colleagues to continue their mission during the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

These have been trying times for all of us on different levels, almost like a seismic change in the direction of the work that we had envisaged in our annual work plans. We made the decision not to forget everything else even as we focus on COVID-19. Nonetheless, we have had to pivot significantly and focus, with colleagues, on working on the response to COVID-19 with the various UN country offices of the countries we cover directly: Tanzania, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea that we started covering recently; as well as the African Union which the Regional Office covers.

What is UN Human Rights doing in East Africa to protect people’s rights during this pandemic?

We have been working on the provision of technical advice, being part of drafting teams of different documents such as response plans, humanitarian appeals, development plans, as well as socio-economic analyses of the impact of COVID-19. We are also working with the other offices in East Africa to coordinate the COVID-19 report for the region. We have also done a significant amount of work on risk communication and community engagement. We have included in the health information, human rights provisions on the issues of non-stigmatization and discrimination, particularly in regards to access to healthcare and testing for whosoever is suspected of having symptoms of COVID-19.

In Ethiopia, particularly, we approached the Government to use the Information Engagement and Communication material that has been developed between the Government and the UN, and we asked for approval to include non-stigmatization and discrimination clauses. We also translated that material in eight local languages and in Braille for persons with vision disabilities. We are also developing a sign language version of the same documents. We have worked with a civil society consortium in Ethiopia to disseminate that information, including a comic strip on COVID-19 we produced for children.

The Regional Office has also been providing technical guidance and advice to the African Union. We have had meetings with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and we sit on the East Africa Regional Collaborative Centre of the Africa CDC. Our Gender Unit supports the Women, Gender and Development Division of the AU (WGDD) and we have just come up with a call for action for AU Member States.

We are monitoring state of emergency proclamations in our area of coverage to ensure that they do not infringe on rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of association and of speech, right to life, right to highest attainable standard of health, and right to education. The civil society organizations’ network in our region has been fantastic in liaising with us to give us real time information on their work on response to the pandemic, in the area of monitoring states of emergency, advocacy, risk communication and community engagement, amongst others.

We are also organizing webinars with human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, on the impact of COVID-19 on their work and on self-care.

What have been the biggest challenges and lessons learned thus far for your office during the pandemic?

I was telling myself that this pandemic reminds me of the saying, "Man plans and God laughs." We will keep planning but we need to be agile. We have had to pivot immediately to be able to respond to the needs of the people we serve.

The work we have all been doing on socio-economic analysis has opened my eyes to how much more we need, particularly in Africa, to get civil society organizations to look at the plethora of rights. Most organizations only focus on civil and political rights, which is extremely vital, but there is a place for civil society organizations and National Human Rights Institutions to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights. We have been working with these partners to participate in the discussion on socio-economic issues.

It also has been enlightening to see how we are not generally trying to think differently when we produce socio-economic analyses. But the policy briefs that have come from the UN Secretary General and UN Human Rights on socio-economic analysis have been extraordinarily helpful to push the argument for human rights, particularly as we think of building back better. We have been supporting countries for a long time, but once this pandemic started things fell apart in an instant. It exacerbated all of the issues we had pointed out before the pandemic: the intersectionality of certain factors like poverty, level of education, the lack of access to health services... This pandemic has helped confirm what the UN is there for, to show Governments how to do better for those who could possibly fall through the cracks.

Why is it important to stand together, for human rights, during this pandemic?

The UN has a standard idea of vulnerability: women, children, internally displaced persons, migrants, refugees and the elderly. However, even for the elderly, we do not have data in Africa. We have for a long time been pushing issues of persons with disability but I have not seen a proper analysis of disability data in Africa either. It has become obvious that this pandemic affects everybody, not just the vulnerable, and even amongst the vulnerable, there are groups of people on whom we never capture data: the homeless in Africa. We do not have distinct categorizations on the urban poor either. Inclusivity of data has become a big gap and Governments continue to develop responses to the pandemic with standard figures, even though the very people I have listed are the ones prone to infection by COVID-19 because of their living conditions. We need to widen our definition of vulnerability and produce more inclusive data.

And this leads to the question of building back better. If we do not work towards ending the pandemic as a collective, then we stand a chance of it recurring repeatedly. There needs to be more engagement with community-based organizations, to also build their ability to speak for themselves. When people are informed and involved in decision-making there is no stigmatization or discrimination. I cannot think of a better example than this pandemic to show us why it is important to stand up for everyone's rights. If people say, “We are in this together,” then we should really all be in this together.

20 May 2020


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