Protecting economic and social rights during the pandemic: How have NHRIs responded?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Europe have continued to support people to enforce their economic and social rights. They bring testimonies from the ground and make sure that government’s actions are anchored in human rights. The impact of their work shows that, with their human rights expertise, NHRIs can inform national and regional responses to COVID-19 to build back better societies.
In response to the pandemic, many European governments have adopted fiscal stimulus packages to support workers, businesses and other affected groups. At the regional level, the EU agreed on its Recovery and Resilience Facility and Next Generation EU recovery plan while tasking Member States with the development of national recovery plans. The Council of Europe Development Bank has also committed additional “timely, flexible, and targeted financing” to support its Member States.
Many of these exceptional measures could set an example for long-term resource mobilisation that leads to better enjoyment of economic and social rights, contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, without a consideration of human rights, they could risk widening existing inequalities. As independent and pluralistic institutions, NHRIs are well placed to advise states and regional bodies on aligning recovery and resilience policies with human rights standards.
How NHRIs have responded
Since the beginning of the pandemic, European NHRIs have swiftly monitored and reported on the impacts on people’s rights to health, housing, education and labour, including social protection. They have given advice to policy makers and informed the public about their rights.
Monitoring and reporting
Despite the emergency lockdown measures, NHRIs continued their monitoring work while adapting to the circumstances. For instance, the Georgian NHRI has started developing a distance monitoring methodology for homeless and older persons living in institutions to continue activities as usual in case on-sight visit were no longer possible. In Belgium, Unia, Myria and the Combat Poverty, Insecurity and Social Exclusion Service collectively monitored different aspects of governments’ responses to the pandemic, including impacts on vulnerable groups, and reported within the framework of Belgium’s upcoming UN Universal Periodic Review.
As soon as lockdown measures were lifted, NHRIs promptly restarted on-site monitoring visits to capture the immediate impacts of the measures and the pandemic. The Georgian NHRI monitored the situation of people living in social housing and their access to water, and communicated with the local authorities to address these issues. As with the NHRI of Georgia, the Moldovan NHRI (Office of the People’s Advocate) collected information about people experiencing homelessness, a group facing particular difficulties due to ‘stay-at-home’ orders.
Advising public authorities
Due to their thorough and independent monitoring, NHRIs are well-placed to advise authorities and policy-makers on the human rights dimensions of economic and social policies, including in the context of COVID-19. For example, the French NHRI (National Consultative Commission on Human Rights) analysed the impact of the nationwide ‘stay-at-home’ order on the right to education and asked the government to guarantee that all children can access education.
The Slovak NHRI (Slovak National Centre for Human Rights) conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on the right to housing and gave recommendations to state and local authorities. In Bulgaria, the NHRI(Office of the Ombudsman) collected concerns from parents and asked the government about schools’ preparedness for the new school year and e-learning possibilities.
Promoting human rights
As ‘bridge builders’ between different actors, NHRIs have supported civil society, cooperated with the media and organised public events to address key economic and social issues. For example, the Ukrainian NHRI (Office of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights) organised training for civil society on pension rights and monitoring of budget expenditure in relation to COVID-19. The Polish NHRI (Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights) held regular public discussions to address systematic problems in the public health sector and demand action from the government.
Similarly, the Danish NHRI (Danish Institute for Human Rights) cooperated with a news outlet to inform the public of the very low wage levels of the essential workers, who are mostly women, as well as the harsh employment conditions faced. The Great Britain NHRI (Equality and Human Rights Commission) published guidance for employers to navigate their COVID-19-related decision making in ways that do not discriminate against employees.
Lessons for recovery and resilience policies
Learning from NHRIs’ experiences and recommendations, governments, as well as EU and Council of Europe actors, should put in place systematic and regular human rights impact assessments on all COVID-19 policy proposals and measures. This can help to avoid disproportionate impacts on vulnerable groups at risk of being left behind and uphold international human rights standards. The UN Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the (Revised) European Social Charter and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as applicable national laws, can be used as frames for this assessments.
NHRIs’ mandate and expertise can be instrumental in this process, as they apply a human rights-based approach in their work and undertake human rights impact assessments of proposed policies (for example, see NHRI guide on human rights and poverty). They can also analyse budgets from a human rights perspective to ‘leave no one behind’ and protect people from discrimination and inequalities that COVID-19 recovery efforts could potentially exacerbate.
The EU should involve NHRIs, along with civil society and social partners, in advising Member States when implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights and during the European Semester. To come out stronger together from the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and the EU should take NHRIs’ views into account, based on international and regional standards, in order not to repeat mistakes of past crises where too many people in Europe where left behind.
By putting human rights at the centre of short-term responses to COVID-19, governments can work towards long-term reduction of poverty and inequality and achieve economic and social rights for everybody in Europe. NHRIs are there to help make that a reality.
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