The UN has called for the protection of human rights in COVID-19 responses given concerns the pandemic provides cover for further persecution of political and human rights activists, and that the crisis will exacerbate inequality. It is tempting to imagine these as distant threats, peculiar to oppressive regimes.
But here’s the thing – all you need for human rights to be under threat is a crisis. Here are five ways that, even in the most generous and equitable societies, a crisis puts pressure on human rights:
1. In a crisis, decision making happens quickly, with reduced scrutiny, reduced consultation and reduced analysis of outcomes. This is made worse if public sector capacity is weak, if data is poor or, as is the case with COVID, parliament cannot function as usual. Ultimately, this leads to a high risk that crisis responses unintentionally exacerbate existing inequality.
2. Human rights gains can easily slip back as crises lead to poverty increases, or as specific programs are diverted or stalled. Crises puts stress on social structures which can result in increasing racism, discrimination and violence.
3. Crises lead to rapid budget and policy reprioritisation, which often side-lines human rights commitments, services and institutions, either because they are not perceived as immediately relevant, or are considered an unaffordable luxury. The risk of de-prioritisation also applies to data and analysis which underpin evidence-based policy. Also concerning is that this re-prioritisation carries across into efforts to repair post-crisis budgets, often disproportionately impacting the most marginalised.
4. In crises, constraints on our rights become more acceptable – especially limits on freedom of movement and protection of privacy. While these may be justified, proportionate and time bound, it is critical to understand how these restrictions impact vulnerable populations and to monitor for unintended and unequal consequences.
5. Crises often crowd out the focus on day-to-day human rights concerns. In Australia, long-standing issues of gender inequality, the rights of First Nations peoples, poverty, disability rights and aged care remain urgent – Royal Commissions on these last two might be stalled, but will resume. Similarly, the Religious Discrimination Bill, which directly threatens women’s health, remains in play, as does the wholly unnecessary Senate inquiry into the family law system. There is a risk that when these processes resume, they will receive less scrutiny than otherwise because the human rights landscape has increased in complexity and activists and advocates will be exhausted by COVID-19.
The good news is that right now is always the best time to fight for human rights, and there are some straight-forward things we can focus on right away. Here are five actions that are relevant today:
- Bake it in: The parliament has established a select committee on COVID-19 to scrutinise the government’s response. This is an important step, but the terms of reference for the committee is 43 words long, with no mention of human rights. Submissions are open, which is an opportunity to propose that this and all future COVID responses include specific focus on human rights and equity of outcomes, including for the most vulnerable.
- Take an intersectional approach: Support the efforts of First Peoples, women’s rights organisations, CALD communities, LGBTQI+ organisations, seniors, and disability advocates to develop appropriate responses and protect essential services and funding.
- Invest in data, analysis and policy capacity: Specifically, get behind the ABS time use survey which is being conducted this year after a 14 year gap. This survey will be critical for understanding the impact of working from home on the division of household labour and we’ll need future surveys for comparison. Advocate for census data on sexual orientation and gender identity, so we can better understand impacts across the community. Advocate for the reintroduction of gender-responsive budgeting and support increased budget and staffing levels for the Australian Public Service. The APS needs appropriate resources to implement gender-responsive budgeting, properly collect and analyse data, and consult with affected communities – all foundations for developing evidence-based and equitable policy responses.
- Clear away the distractions: Call up your MP and ask them to scrap the already discredited Family Law inquiry and the Religious Protections Bill – which if already enacted would have been disastrous for COVID responses.
- Stay informed: The Australian Human Rights Institute puts out a weekly newsletter on the human rights dimensions of COVID, while Human Rights Watch has put together an excellent checklist on human rights in COVID responses. Amnesty International Australia is keeping a close eye on domestic developments and you can also keep up to date through the Australian Human Rights Commission.
There are complex and potentially course altering debates brewing on the nature and structure of our social safety-nets, the relevance of capitalism, the nature of paid and unpaid labour, and our over-reliance on inequitable power structures.
We are more likely to get these discussions right if we take intersectional human rights as our starting point and invest in data and inclusive analysis. There’s no need to wait for snap back or its alternatives – we can push for these things right now.