Vaccines against COVID-19 Must Be Considered as a Global Public Good

OHCHR

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-seventh regular session, hearing from Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Council, and Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who presented an oral update on her annual report as well as a report on the central role of the State in responding to pandemics.

Presenting an update on her annual report, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the fifteenth anniversary of the Council coincided, sadly, with a time of grave setbacks in human rights. Navigating a clear way out of the complex COVID-19 crisis, and towards an inclusive, green, sustainable and resilient future, would be the work of this generation of world leaders – or their downfall. The Secretary-General’s Call to Action on Human Rights was a blueprint that connected, more closely than ever before, the United Nations pillars of development, peace and security, and human rights. His New Social Contract, underpinned by a New Global Deal of solidarity, which more fairly shared power, resources and opportunities, as well as his United Nations-wide Common Agenda were bold steps that placed unprecedented emphasis on the power of human rights to ensure sound and inclusive development, sustainable peace, and societies grounded in trust. The Office of the High Commissioner’s Surge Initiative, set up in September 2019, had played a key role in upgrading the economic expertise of its field teams at a crucial moment. The High Commissioner spoke about human rights developments in a number of countries. 

Turning to her report on the central role of the State in responding to pandemics, the High Commissioner stated that failure to meet human rights obligations undermined the resilience of health systems as well as health emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts – thus States should step up investment in health and social protection systems. Overall, the pandemic had either disrupted or reversed hard-won progress on achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals. If radical steps were not taken to protect economic, social and cultural rights and support low-income countries, the outlook would remain bleak. Many developing countries were trapped between a debt crisis and a development and human rights crisis; vaccines against COVID-19 must be considered as a global public good.

In the interactive discussion, speakers emphasised that COVID-19 impacted not only the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights – the pandemic must not be used as a pretence by governments to create undue restrictions on democracy or commit human rights violations. Vaccines had become a new frontier on the road to equality: developing countries had received only 0.2 per cent of doses of all administered COVID-19 vaccines, taking the world further away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Speakers called for fair and more equitable global distribution of vaccines, technological transfer and the ramping up of local production. The elimination of the pandemic could only be achieved if the populations of all countries were vaccinated, as speakers agreed that international and regional solidarity was essential. It was important to address the impacts of climate change, keeping mitigation and adaptation as a top priority on the road towards recovery from COVID-19.

Speaking were Paraguay on behalf of a group of countries, Estonia on behalf of a group of countries, Cameroon on behalf of the Group of African States, Mauritius on behalf of a group of countries, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, European Union, Indonesia on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Côte d’Ivoire on behalf of a group of countries, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, China on behalf of a group of countries, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt on behalf of the Group of Arab States, China on behalf of a group of countries, Cuba, Switzerland, Ecuador, Germany, Senegal, Indonesia, Libya, Australia, Ecuador, Fiji, Bangladesh, Montenegro, Costa Rica, China, Syria, Brazil, Japan, Bahrain, Armenia, Iraq, Libya, Togo, Chile, India, Republic of Moldova, Mexico, Maldives, Algeria, Iran, United Nations Population Fund, Egypt, United States, and Kenya.

At the beginning of the meeting, Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council,  explained that the Bureau had noted that, pending a decision by the General Assembly on the representation of Myanmar in the Human Rights Council, the secretariat would not be in a position to process requests regarding the participation of anyone as part of the delegation of Myanmar in Council meetings, including during this forty-seventh session. After a discussion, the Council postponed the consideration of the report of the Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar and approved the programme of work, with the understanding that the holding of interactive dialogues with Myanmar during this session would be subject to further consideration by the Bureau and the Council.

Speaking on the discussion on Myanmar were Austria on behalf of the European Union, Indonesia, Philippines, Netherlands, France, Germany, Russian Federation, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Republic of Korea, Mexico, United Kingdom, Denmark, Czech Republic, China, Venezuela, Japan, and Eritrea.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-seventh regular session can be found here.

The Human Rights Council will next meet this afternoon at 3 p.m. to conclude its interactive discussion with the High Commissioner, and then hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.

Opening Statement by the President of the Council 

NAZHAT SHAMEEM KHAN, President of the Human Rights Council, opened the session by welcoming delegates and reminding them of the extraordinary modalities for the session. She explained that the Bureau had noted that, pending a decision by the General Assembly on the representation of Myanmar in the Human Rights Council, the secretariat would not be in a position to process requests regarding the participation of anyone as part of the delegation of Myanmar in Council meetings, including during this forty-seventh session. The President stated that the issue of the holding of interactive dialogues with Myanmar during this session would be subject to further consideration by the Bureau and the Council. 

Speakers expressed their concern over the situation in Myanmar in the aftermath of the military coup.  Some speakers stated that there was no legal obligation for the country concerned to take part in the interactive dialogues, in contrast to the Universal Periodic Review process; therefore, the dialogues with Myanmar should go ahead.  Other speakers noted that the involvement of concerned countries was part and parcel of any constructive dialogue, and a fundamental principle of this Council, therefore the dialogues should be postponed if Myanmar was unable to participate. 

Speaking in favour of holding the interactive dialogues despite Myanmar’s inability to participate were Austria on behalf of the European Union, Indonesia, Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, Denmark, Czech Republic and Japan. 

Speaking against were Philippines, Russian Federation, China, Venezuela, and Eritrea.  Brazil said it supported any decision taken by the Council as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, and Mexico said it hoped that an acceptable solution was found that all delegations could agree upon.

The Council then postponed the consideration of the report of the Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar at this session and approved the programme of work, with the understanding that the holding of interactive dialogues with Myanmar during this session would be subject to further consideration by the Bureau and the Council.   

Presentation of the Oral Update on the High Commissioner’s Annual Report

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the fifteenth anniversary of the Council coincided, sadly, with a time of grave setbacks in human rights. Extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice were rising. Democratic and civic space was being eroded. Navigating a clear way out of the complex COVID-19 crisis, and towards an inclusive, green, sustainable and resilient future, would be the work of this generation of world leaders – or their downfall.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action on Human Rights was a blueprint that connected, more closely than ever before, the United Nations pillars of development, peace and security, and human rights. His New Social Contract, underpinned by a New Global Deal of solidarity, which more fairly shared power, resources and opportunities, as well as his United Nations-wide Common Agenda were bold steps that placed unprecedented emphasis on the power of human rights to ensure sound and inclusive development, sustainable peace, and societies grounded in trust. The Call to Action would be an unprecedentedly powerful human rights mainstreaming instrument, particularly at country level. The Office of the High Commissioner’s Surge Initiative, set up in September 2019, had played a key role in upgrading the economic expertise of its field teams at a crucial moment.

Turning to country situations, Ms. Bachelet said that, in Afghanistan, she was alarmed by the sharp increase in violence and civilian harm. She urged all parties to resume the stalled peace talks and to urgently implement a ceasefire to protect civilians.

The situation in Belarus also continued to deteriorate, with severe restrictions on civic space, including the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association; raids against civil society and independent media; and the judicial persecution of human rights activists and journalists.

In both Chad and Mali, she had been deeply concerned by recent non-democratic and unconstitutional changes in government, which inevitably represented a significant challenge to human rights, and which had weakened the institutional protection of democratic freedoms.

Regarding China, it had now been a year since the adoption of the National Security Law in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, on which her Office had expressed serious concerns.  It had been closely monitoring its application and the chilling impact it had had on the civic and democratic space, as well as independent media. Separately, she continued to discuss with China modalities for a visit, including meaningful access, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and hoped this could be achieved this year, particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continued to emerge.

In Colombia, nationwide protests had been ongoing since 28 April, against a background of a pre-existing economic crisis and deep social inequalities aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her Office condemned all forms of violence, called for full respect for the right to peaceful assembly, and encouraged dialogue to resolve the crisis.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Ms. Bachelet was deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict, including extrajudicial executions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; sexual violence against children as well as adults; and forced displacement. In many other parts of Ethiopia, alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement were linked to increasing polarisation about longstanding grievances.

In Haiti, political turmoil continued, linked in part to disagreement about the organization of a referendum on a new Constitution, and the organization of elections in September. The authorities should guarantee the right to vote under secure conditions.

Mexico had held its largest ever elections earlier this month amid numerous challenges. She was alarmed by the high level of political violence in the electoral context.

In Mozambique, the High Commissioner was alarmed by the growing conflict in the north, with grave abuses of human rights by armed groups including the brutal killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, child abductions and exploitation. Women and girls were reportedly particularly targeted.

In the Russian Federation, the High Commissioner was dismayed by recent measures that further undermined people’s right to express critical views, and their ability to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled in September. The High Commissioner called on Russia to uphold civil and political rights. She further urged the authorities to end the arbitrary practice of labelling ordinary individuals, journalists, and non-governmental organizations as “extremists”, “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”.

In Sri Lanka, she was concerned by further Government measures perceived as targeting Muslims, and by the harassment of Tamils, including in the context of commemoration events for those who died at the end of the war. Noting a continuing series of deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged criminal gangs, Ms. Bachelet said a thorough, prompt and independent investigation should be conducted.

Her Office was close to finalising the United Nations Joint Programme on human rights with the Government of the Philippines. She emphasised the importance of protecting and ensuring the full participation of civil society and the independent national human rights institution.

Presentation of the Report of the High Commissioner on the Central Role of the State in Responding to Pandemics

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that as of last week, there had been over 176 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported globally to the World Health Organization, with over 3.8 million deaths. The report highlighted that the central role of the State during pandemics and other health emergencies was to mount a robust health response while upholding human rights. Failure to meet human rights obligations undermined the resilience of health systems as well as health emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts – thus States should step up investment in health and social protection systems. The economic cost of the pandemic had been catastrophic: around 255 million jobs were estimated to have been lost during 2020, nearly four times the figures of the global economic crisis in 2008. The pandemic may have pushed up to 150 million people into extreme poverty by the beginning of 2021, and global hunger was on the rise with over 130 million people becoming more vulnerable to undernourishment last year.

Overall, the pandemic had either disrupted or reversed hard-won progress on achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals. If radical steps were not taken to protect economic, social and cultural rights and support low-income countries, the outlook would remain bleak. Respecting, protecting and fulfilling economic, social and cultural rights, and prioritising universal health coverage and universal social protection, were required. Many developing countries were trapped between a debt crisis and a development and human rights crisis; vaccines against COVID-19 must be considered as a global public good. The exclusion of women from COVID-19-related policymaking and decision-making, was egregious, leading to a failure to adequately address the gendered social and economic consequences of the pandemic. A human rights economy that upheld dignity and rights of all and promoted sustainable development that left no one behind was needed. States had to step up investment in health and social protection systems, while policies that discriminated against women and marginalised populations and groups had to be repealed, rescinded or amended.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers emphasised that COVID-19 impacted not only the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights – the pandemic must not be used as a pretence by governments to create undue restrictions on democracy or commit human rights violations. Vaccines had become a new frontier on the road to equality: developing countries had received only 0.2 per cent of doses of all administered COVID-19 vaccines, taking the world further away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Speakers called for the fair and more equitable global distribution of vaccines, technological transfer and the ramping up of local production. The elimination of the pandemic could only be achieved if the populations of all countries were vaccinated, said speakers, adding that international and regional solidarity was essential in this regard. It was important to address the impacts of climate change, keeping mitigation and adaptation as a top priority on the road towards recovery from COVID-19.

Speakers agreed that the pandemic had exacerbated existing inequalities and had disproportionately affected persons in vulnerable situations, especially women and children. Freedoms of expression, speech or assembly must not be harmed as a result of the pandemic, with some speakers expressing concern over backsliding in several countries. Other speakers highlighted that the risks faced by healthcare workers made them human rights defenders. Urging international solidarity, speakers said the international community should redouble efforts to achieve economic recovery, notably in developing countries, lest progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 3 be slowed down. Speakers welcomed the High Commissioner’s recommendation to ensure that the recovery was gender-sensitive, and asked if she could share best practices on the involvement of women and girls in recovery efforts.

Some speakers touted measures taken by their governments to respond to the pandemic, such as granting pardons to prisoners. Stressing that COVID-19 had shown that no nation could succeed alone in the face of a pandemic, speakers spotlighted the G7+ efforts in a global COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which provided vaccine doses to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for distribution through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). They called on States to continue donating vaccines. High-income earning countries had stockpiled vaccines largely for their populations in ways that undermined universal and equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, some speakers pointed out. And yet, other countries had played a critical role in the development of these vaccines during the trial stage.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/06/morning-vaccines-against-covid-19-must-be-considered-global

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