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Covid-19 policies and their impact on human rights in Europe

27 April 2021

 Intervention by

Birgit Van Hout

UN Human Rights Regional Representative for Europe


I would like to share three reflections on the lessons we can draw from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to combat it, which – I think we all agree - have taken their toll on the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights enshrined in the international human rights treaties.

Covid-19 thrived on pre-existing human rights deficits

The first reflection is that the Covid-19 pandemic thrived on pre-existing human rights deficits. I would start with the overreliance of States on institutional care for older persons and persons with disabilities. Today, we know that the high death toll in Europe was directly linked to the high rate of institutionalization. Yet, for many years, human rights bodies have been calling on States to transition to family and community-based care, a call that went often unheard; in some countries, the sector of institutional care actually expanded significantly. We need a fundamental shift in our interaction with older persons, away from paternalistic and ageist approaches.

Another pre-existing human rights gap was the insufficient investment in mental health, a deficit that contributed directly to the mental health crisis we are facing today.

Covid-19 also found fertile ground in inequality and social exclusion. Decades of systemic discrimination have resulted in a very high overlap in Europe between people’s race and ethnicity on the one hand and their socio-economic status on the other. Yet, for decades, structural racism was either denied or ignored and, while some positive initiatives existed, the political will to create a level playing field was largely insufficient. Today, we know that this led to a disproportionately high death toll among minorities. This is particularly tragic considering States’ renewed commitment to leave no one behind in the Sustainable Development Agenda. We can only wonder if the high death toll could have been prevented had countries in Europe given more attention to the implementation of 2030 Agenda.

Democracy takes long to build and is easily eroded

My second reflection is that democracy takes long to build and is easily eroded. We are facing an unprecedented challenge to human rights, the rule of law and democracy as a result of anti-Covid policies. Under international law, States may restrict certain rights to protect public health. They also have certain additional powers if a state-of-emergency, threatening the life of the nation, is publicly declared. But, in either case, restrictions need to be necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory and time-bound. The burden rests with the State to demonstrate that these conditions are met. Restrictions must be kept under constant review and lifted when no longer essential.

Certain restrictions to freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, the right to education, and freedom of religion have proven disproportionate to the public health gains made. More and more we hear that people do not adhere to the measures adopted, and there have been legitimate concerns about executive overreach or lack of democratic debate. Some countries are tilting towards repressive measures to enforce compliance, and heavy-handed security responses.

In this context, I would like to highlight the expert advice of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in counterterrorism who analyzed the consequences of sustained emergencies on human rights and the rule of law. She recommended that, in situations of long-term emergencies, courts and oversight bodies should take a more skeptical view of the necessity and efficacy of State measures. As she wrote, and I quote: “The longer the emergency, the higher the burden of justification for the State, and the greater the emphasis should be on the costs of sustained human rights limitations for individuals and groups.” This, of course, requires that the judiciary is independent.

In some parts of the continent, efforts to advance human rights were stagnating or actively rolled back well before the pandemic broke out. I am thinking about the eradication of corruption, effective parliamentary oversight, the independence of judges and lawyers, freedom of association, media pluralism, civil society space, the protection of human rights defenders, gender equality, or the independence of national human rights institutions and equality bodies.

That is why we encourage the European Union and its member States to uphold the rule of law in the Union. To facilitate this, our regional office has compiled the findings of the international human rights mechanisms on the rule of law in all EU countries and shared them with the European Commission as well as on our website. We also encourage the EU to continue to prioritize human rights in its engagement with candidate countries.

On the question of vaccinations, our office has been calling for access to clear health information, in accessible format, across different media, and in all languages. As regards the European Commission’s proposed Digital Green Certificate to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN human rights mechanisms have yet to pronounce themselves, so I can only respond in terms of general human rights principles. The first one echoing the importance of robust data protection safeguards. What we know from data-capturing processes so far, as reported by the High Commissioner to the Human Rights Council, is that often systems to limit the processing of data to what was strictly required for specific health-related purposes were not in place. Similarly, there need to be transparency guarantees and protocols to protect against data breaches. Then, of course, there is the principle of non-discrimination.

Human rights as a roadmap

My third reflection is that if anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it’s the demonstration of the practical value of human rights. The international human rights treaties can serve as a roadmap out of the current crisis, help to prevent future crises, and make our societies more resilient.

We are already seeing some promising developments: a recommitment to global solidarity and multilateralism, international cooperation for expanded debt relief, COVID-19 vaccines as a global public good, the recognition of the importance of a strong public universal health-care system and social protection for all, regardless of a person’s ability to pay, and a renewed discussion on the core economic and social rights obligations of States – what has to be implemented immediately and what can be progressively realized. The pandemic has also created a momentum for tackling structural discrimination, poverty and homelessness in Europe.

Our success or failure in making this a reality greatly depends on our readiness to put people at the centre and to put in place a new social contract, as our Secretary-General has said. This is where the pandemic teaches us an important lesson about trust. For the recovery to be successful, people’s trust in institutions needs to be restored and this requires meaningful participation, transparency, and government accountability. In conclusion, human rights are the best vaccine - they must remain our compass, in policy and in action. Thank you.





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