COVID-19 and its Human Rights Dimensions

Remarks delivered on 8 December 2020 at the Opening of the Panel Discussion on "COVID-19 and its Human Rights Dimensions" on the occasion of Human Rights Day.

Excellency Mr. Thongphane,

Distinguished Government counterparts, Development Partners, Civil Society Representatives,

Dear colleagues,

Sabaidee, good morning.

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December — on the very day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

This milestone document, for the first time, articulated the fundamental rights and freedoms to which all people, at all times and in all places, are equally and in-alienably entitled to – regardless of their ethnic origin, age, language, sex, religion, political opinion, or any other status.

As relevant today as it was on the day 72 years ago, it provides a foundation and powerful tool for a just and decent future for all.

This year’s Human Rights Day comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has infiltrated all corners of the globe, moving beyond a health crisis and magnifying the many entrenched social, economic, and human vulnerabilities already affecting this just and decent future of individuals, households, and communities all over the world.

The indiscriminate nature of the virus has exposed that the true crisis lies with our past failures to overcome long-standing structural inequalities, exclusion, and discrimination. Imagine that something so minuscularly small has managed to, so completely, overturn the very manner in which we organize our world. 

Even in Lao PDR, despite the lower caseload, we have seen how COVID-19 has exacerbated several of the country’s socio-economic vulnerabilities as many of our least protected groups – including migrants, children, the elderly, those living with chronic health conditions, persons with disabilities and women – have been disproportionately affected with the disruption to basic services, loss of income and limited capacity to adapt to the protracted pandemic.

When faced with such systemic challenges, it is important that we refocus our responses to place people at the center of our decision-making through a human rights-based approach.

A rights-based approach, underpinned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, equips all stakeholders with the tools that can analyze and break down many of the different forms of discrimination and empower those most vulnerable to fully participate in society.

It asks us to identify, to listen to, and partner with diverse populations, and together build our public services and governance systems that are responsive and accountable to all and, that can priorities and lift those most marginalized and left furthest behind.

Today’s Panel Discussion should highlight how a human rights-based approach is an important element in unlocking the societal structures that enable grass-roots resilience, build equality and opportunity, and better position individuals, households, and communities to respond to COVID-19 and, to learn from what works and what doesn’t, to build a better protection from future shocks and disasters.

Here in Lao PDR, there have been several examples of such inclusive and human rights-based approaches in responding to the threat of the pandemic that I am sure will be elaborated further by the WHO and IOM Panelists and other participants here today.

These include the Quarantine Centers improving practices to better meet the needs of women migrants and, the health response coordinating with the disability sector and ethnic groups to ensure risk information and life-saving advice are available in multiple mediums and languages.

We have seen the implementation of swift lockdown measures when the risk of an outbreak has increased, yet the Government has been equally responsive in finding ways to relax measures when safe to do so to limit the impact of confinement.

There has been a positive engagement with many of Lao PDR’s Civil Society Organizations and Non-Profit Associations that have been contributing to the front-line response, stepping in to fill gaps in essential services and assisting those least protected. Together with media and Community Radios, CSOs have also engaged with disseminating life-saving advice and promoting solidarity across the diverse communities here in Laos.

This improved social dialogue and encouraging lines of cooperation can serve as fundamental cornerstones in building a people-centered recovery that better protects vulnerable groups and invests in local, inclusive solutions to building back better.

In February, the UN launched a Call to Action to put human dignity and the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of our work. The report emphasized that human rights cannot be an afterthought in times of crisis. COVID-19 is the opportunity to put such a promise to the test.

We are all in this together – the Government, communities, civil society, the private sector, and the broader international community. The virus threatens everyone and no one is safe until we all are safe. By applying a human rights-based approach to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can build more effective and inclusive solutions that not only help overcome the virus but enable us to unlock the future we want. Human rights uplift everyone.

I look forward to hearing from our diverse cross-section of the Panelists today on what is an important dialogue that provides not only valuable insights into why the human rights dimensions of COVID-19 matter across all sectors, but hopefully how we can take these lessons forward into our recovery operations, aspirations and beyond. 

I thank you.

Speech by
Ms. Sara Sekkenes
Resident Coordinator
Ms. Sara Sekkenes_Photo
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office
Other entities involved in this initiative
European Union
German Technical Cooperation
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation