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A Human Rights-Based Approach Saves Lives, Now and in the Future 

Blogpost on COVID-19 and Human Rights-Based Approach by Maria Green, Visiting Professor at Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

In times of crisis, a human rights-based approach becomes more essential, not less.

In times of crisis, a human rights-based approach becomes more essential, not less. It is a way to ensure that no one is forgotten, and that principles that matter deeply for human well-being are integrated into both immediate and longer-term policy response and implementation. 

We are in the midst now of making decisions that matter in three time-frames.

We are in the midst now of making decisions that matter in three time-frames.The first time-frame is the present, particularly in countries that are already hard-hit by COVID-19 and are making day-to-day choices to grapple with the urgent needs of people who are ill or facing financial crisis or the risk of becoming ill.

The second is the near future — the preparations for the next weeks and months of this pandemic, which is at different stages in different locations of the world. 

The third is the longer-term future. When a crisis as large as an epidemic or pandemic hits, systems and structures can undergo transformations that then become permanent.  

Decisions made now under crisis circumstances may shape entire health systems, labor systems, environmental conditions and more for decades to come.  

We must make sure that they do not leave people behind or with diminished protection from harm. In particular, we must use all tools available to make sure that we do not cause harm simply through not happening to think of particular issues or groups. Human rights is one of those tools. 

We must not leave people behind or with diminished protection from harm.

In this context, a human rights-based approach has two major components. The first is a set of general principles that can be applied during the different steps of just about any policy or program process. The second is a set of specific rights standards that are found in human rights treaties and other legal instruments, and whose relevance may be greater in particular contexts or sectors. 

The general principles include the following:

Here, part of the notion is that our task is to think about everyone, not just the biggest or most obvious groups, or the ones with most power.   This aspect of universality is implemented through concepts like non-discrimination and attention to vulnerable groups and the SDGs’ mandate of No One Left Behind.  

In the COVID-19 crisis, it can come out in ways as immediate as thinking about which communities might be particularly vulnerable to the virus or its impacts, or which communities might not fully benefit from the general public response.  It is in play when a government makes sure that public health information is available in minority languages, or when a company testing a promising new drug makes sure that the tests include potential impacts on all age groups and on both men and women, among other categories. 

It is in play when a local government takes steps to house homeless people in the midst of the epidemic, or to protect internal migrants who are trapped by travel restrictions. It is in play when discussions of access to an eventual vaccine consider the needs of all people in all countries. And it is in play when data is disaggregated to help invisible disparities become visible so that they can be addressed. 

A disability scholar once said that we too often design public spaces as though every user were a large 25-year-old man in perfect health.  The notion of universality is one way to prevent equivalent issues in the COVID-19 response. 

Access to information

Here, what is at stake is whether or not people have access to accurate information that they need, both to protect their own health and well-being but also to understand, respond and participate in public (or even sometimes private, for instance inside a business, where relevantdecision-making. 


This refers to ways for individuals and groups to have a voice in decisions that affect them.  In the COVID-19 context, it can be understood in particular to highlight the importance of consultation with members of communities that might be at risk of being inadvertently left behind, in order to make that vital things are not left out.  Perhaps a stay-at-home order will not work if most members of that community do not have refrigerators, for instance, and must shop for food every day, or must work to eat every day. Or, an order to not visit elderly parents might be flagged as so culturally unacceptable that it will not be obeyed without special efforts to communicate the science involved. 


Things can go wrong. Accountability refers to ways to bring that to light when it happens, to do investigations if necessary, and to fix whatever needs fixing.  It refers not only to courts, but to many different systems that can be implemented. It is in play when a health system accepts and responds to complaints about inadequate care, but also in informal structures, administrative procedures, the court systems, whistleblower protections, etc. 

In addition to these and other cross-cutting human rights principles, there are many specific substantive standards that can be relevant in pandemic responses to COVID-19 at local, national and international levels.  There are standards around the right to health, for instance, that give guidance of the availability and quality and accessibility of health services (including affordability and geographic accessibility) and access to health information.  There are standards around declarations of states of emergency, and around protection of privacy, and to help to address stigma and discrimination against people who have become ill. 

There are standards around access to education and to food, and the protection of workers, around specific groups such as older persons and persons with disabilities, and around the ability of all to benefit from scientific progress.  And many more. 

Human Rights-Based Approach

In a human rights-based approach, people in government or any other kind of institution (an NGO, an international organization, a donor, a business, etc) can draw on these principles or standards as relevant at all stages of a policy or project cycle, from assessment of needs to planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.  

A human rights-based approach to deciding on at what is measured at the assessment stage, for instance, can save lives by helping to bring the potential needs of vulnerable groups into the planning from the beginning, not only after terrible events have made the vulnerabilities more apparent. And so on during the other stages. Looking to human rights standards is a straightforward way to help responses to the COVID-19 disruption not exacerbate or further entrench existing inequalities or other problems in the rush to deal with the immediate emergency. It is also a tool that can be used to help the responses achieve positive broader goals. 

Five years from now, all of our lives, no matter what country we live in, will have been affected by national and international decisions, sometimes made under great strain, on everything from health services delivery to the financing and distribution of vaccine research to environmental impacts of which industries get supported, to questions of privacy and misinformation and freedom of the press. We will all benefit if those decisions are made with the help of universally recognized human rights principles and standards. 

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts – read more here

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