Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: the I mpact of State COVID-19 Recovery Measures Is Disproportionately and Negatively Affecting Indigenous Peoples

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a half-day panel discussion on deepening inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and their implications for the realisation of human rights, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the magnitude and scope of inequalities that had been created and exacerbated by COVID-19 were truly shocking. The human rights scars of this pandemic ran deep and they were growing deeper. COVID-19 had led to the first rise in extreme poverty in two decades: an additional 119 to 124 million people had been pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, and the number of people living with food insecurity had risen by 318 million, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization – amounting to an unprecedented 2.38 billion people. Vital gains were being reversed, including for women’s equality and the rights of many ethnic and religious minority communities and indigenous peoples.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate Economist, Columbia University, said that COVID-19 had not only exposed the grave inequalities within and between societies but had also exacerbated those inequalities. Access to the vaccines was extraordinarily difficult in emerging economies and almost impossible in most developing countries. The most artificial barrier right now was intellectual property. And that was why the waiver of the World Trade Organization was absolutely essential.

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, said that health rights were human rights. In most countries, today’s shocking gap between the vaccine-rich countries, where 70 per cent had been vaccinated, and the vaccine-poor countries, with only 2 per cent vaccinated, showed in stark relief that millions of people had been clearly denied their basic rights. It had been shown that there were enough doses to vaccinate the whole world by May next year by mobilising the doses of vaccine available in the West.

Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said that it was clear that the impact of COVID-19 was determined less by biological factors and determined more by structural and socioeconomic inequality, systemic racism and discrimination. Vaccine nationalism and profiteering around supply and demand approaches to vaccine production and distribution was a human rights violation and abuse being committed by States and businesses alike.

Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that as the world sought to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was essential that human rights drove policy reforms. There were key opportunities offered by the pandemic such as increasing investment in public services, treating care as a collective good, and abandoning vaccine nationalism.

In the discussion, speakers said that they were aware of the magnitude of the challenges resulting from the unprecedented spread of inequalities which had increased significantly as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some speakers said that the pandemic was no longer only a global health crisis, but it also represented a multidimensional crisis which during the past 18 months had deepened the severity of inequalities and social disparities. Support for the waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines was expressed. Some speakers urged all countries to put the peoples’ rights to life and health first instead of other considerations such as economic, political or other interests.

Speaking in the discussion were: European Union, Cameroon, Finland, Bahrain, Mauritius, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, China, Qatar, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Mauritania, Ecuador, Montenegro, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Nepal.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Penal Reform International, Associazione Comunita Papa Giovanni XXIII, Action Canada for Population and Development, Centre Europe – tiers monde, Terre Des Hommes Federation Internationale and World Vision International.

The Council also started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

José Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, presenting his annual report to the Council on the impact that the pandemic had had on the rights of indigenous peoples, was concerned about the impact of State COVID-19 recovery measures on indigenous peoples as State responses were disproportionately and negatively affecting indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples faced higher risks of infection and death from COVID-19, especially as new variants of the virus continued to emerge. Despite their increased vulnerability to the virus, vaccine roll-out for indigenous peoples, in particular those living in remote areas, had not been prioritised in most countries. Indigenous peoples were utilising their own traditional systems and existing jurisdictional power to implement and enforce measures against COVID-19.

In the discussion, speakers recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic had disproportionately affected indigenous peoples. Speakers agreed that it was essential to ensure access to vaccines without discrimination, and to address the specific needs of indigenous peoples in recovery measures. States were urged to end the marginalisation of indigenous peoples and ensure respect for their rights and their full participation in the planning and application of recovery efforts. Some speakers said that the protection of indigenous territories was central for indigenous peoples’ recovery from COVID as it promoted food security and sustainable livelihoods, and increased resilience in the face of future pandemics.

Speaking in the discussion were: Mexico, European Union, Denmark, Canada, Australia, United Nations Children’s Fund, Armenia, Indonesia, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Venezuela, Holy See, Paraguay, Russian Federation, United States, Peru, Malaysia, Nepal, Brazil, China, United Nations Population Fund, Cuba, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Cameroon, Panama, Marshall Islands, UN Women, Cambodia, Ukraine, Guatemala, Philippines, Belarus, Chad and Organization of American States.

At the end of the meeting, Cuba spoke in right of reply.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth regular session can be found here.

The Human Rights Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 September for the high-level panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. This will be followed by the continuation of the interactive dialogue with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the continuation of the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Half-day Panel Discussion on Deepening Inequalities Exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic and their Implications for the Realisation of Human Rights

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the magnitude and scope of inequalities that had been created and exacerbated by COVID-19 were truly shocking. The human rights scars of this pandemic ran deep and they were growing deeper. COVID-19 had led to the first rise in extreme poverty in two decades: an additional 119 to 124 million people had been pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, and the number of people living with food insecurity had risen by 318 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization – amounting to an unprecedented 2.38 billion people. Vital gains were being reversed, including for women’s equality and the rights of many ethnic and religious minority communities and indigenous peoples. Ms. Bachelet highlighted that States had committed to upholding and advancing human rights, including through the ratification of the human rights treaties and adoption of the 2030 Agenda. The pandemic had exposed many failures to live up to those commitments – and it had demonstrated the terrible economic, social, human rights and conflict-related effects of those failures.

The High Commissioner shared some lessons of COVID-19 as she said that embedding human rights in all decision-making processes made everyone safer and stronger. Joint action was needed; to act effectively, States must act together, in solidarity, to fairly distribute vaccines and help each other combat the impacts of COVID-19. Just as pre-existing inequalities had made States and communities vulnerable to contagion, and just as pre-existing failures to ensure social protections had exposed people to the worst impact of the pandemic’s socioeconomic devastation, so inequality in access to vaccines was creating setbacks to development and to human rights around the world – with potentially massive and long-lasting consequences. The High Commissioner said everyone must act together because it was right to do so – and because it was in everyone’s interest to do so. Universal recovery from COVID would place the world closer to the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda – for the benefit of everyone, in countries rich and poor.

Statements by the Panellists

JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ, Nobel Laureate Economist, Columbia University, said that COVID-19 had not only exposed the grave inequalities within and between societies but had also exacerbated those inequalities. Access to the vaccines was extraordinarily difficult in emerging economies and almost impossible in most developing countries. The underlying problem was a lack of supply, and while there might be several reasons for that lack of supply, anybody who had confidence in markets in general had to believe that most of the shortages could be overcome by markets. What the market could not address was artificial barriers. The most artificial barrier right now was intellectual property. And that was why the waiver of the World Trade Organization was absolutely essential. Everyone must work together to get a strong recovery from the economic downturn caused by the disease. Many countries had become over indebted. They began, even before COVID-19, with an excess of debt, but what was a challenge before COVID-19 had become an insurmountable hurdle. And so, the world would have to develop a better framework for addressing the issue of excess of indebtedness, and this would require the cooperation of all parties.

GORDON BROWN, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, said that health rights were human rights. In most countries, today’s shocking gap between the vaccine-rich countries, where 70 per cent had been vaccinated, and the vaccine-poor countries, with only 2 per cent vaccinated, showed in stark relief that millions of people had been clearly denied their basic rights. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 4.5 million lives had been lost while 220 million people had been infected. COVID continued to shine a magnifying glass to the disparities. Rich countries were stockpiling millions of doses of the vaccine. Their populations had been vaccinated 61 times more than populations in poor countries. Because of stockpiling in the West, by December, 1.2 billion vaccines could be hoarded, of which more than 100,000 may have to be thrown out if not donated soon. It had been shown that there were enough doses to vaccinate the whole world by May next year by mobilising the doses of vaccine available in the West.

TLALENG MOFOKENG, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said that the world was now in crisis because of COVID-19, however, millions of people had been in crisis for a very long time before the pandemic. It was clear that the impact of the COVID-19 was determined less by biological factors and determined more by structural and socioeconomic inequality, systemic racism and discrimination. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had also been determined by public health policy, transparency and leadership. The principles of accessible, acceptable, affordable, quality health care had become more evident during the race for a vaccine, the right to health was a human right for all. Vaccine nationalism and profiteering around supply and demand approaches to vaccine production and distribution was a human rights violation and abuse being committed by States and businesses alike. States, businesses and other stakeholders must comply with their international obligations to international assistance and cooperation, ensure that technologies, intellectual property data and know-how on COVID-19 vaccines were widely shared, and ensure that developing countries were supported in scaling up development, manufacturing and distribution capacities.

MAGDALENA SEPÚLVEDA CARMONA, Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that human rights were not only a set of common values, they were obligations that States had voluntarily assumed in their national laws and international treaties. These obligations were not to be disregarded in times of crisis. On the contrary, as the world sought to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was essential that human rights drove policy reforms. The weaknesses of public health and education systems had exacerbated societies’ vulnerability to COVID-19 and had aggravated inequalities. This was particularly true regarding gender inequality as women were overrepresented in the public service work force and were more dependent on such services. Ms. Sepúlveda Carmona listed some key opportunities offered by the pandemic such as increasing investment in public services, treating care as a collective good, and abandoning vaccine nationalism.

Discussion

Speakers said that they were aware of the magnitude of the challenges resulting from the unprecedented spread of inequalities which had increased significantly as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. There was no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, affecting most acutely those who were in vulnerable and marginalised situations and disproportionately affecting those who were furthest behind. Some speakers stated that the pandemic was no longer only a global health crisis, but it also represented a multidimensional crisis which during the past 18 months had deepened the severity of inequalities and social disparities. They reiterated the need for an international response based on cooperation and solidarity to confront the pandemic and encouraged the continuation of collective actions to promote scientific research and technology transfer. Calls were made for the participation of women in response and recovery strategies and the strengthening of their role, including in the planning and decision-making stages.

Some speakers regretted that current access to vaccines around the world was unequal and inequitable, affecting not only the right to health but also other human rights. All Member States and other parties concerned were urged to expand vaccine production and upgrade production capabilities of developing countries by export, donation, joint research and development, franchised production and transfer of know-how. Speakers further supported the call of the United Nations for fair and equitable distribution of and access to COVID-19 vaccines globally. Support for the waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines was expressed. Some speakers urged all countries to put the peoples’ rights to life and health first instead of other considerations such as economic, political or other interests. They stressed the importance of human rights in shaping the responses to the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery. One speaker called on all States to refrain from taking any unilateral coercive measures of an economic, financial or trade nature that may adversely affect equitable, affordable, fair, timely and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, in particular in developing countries, the results of which would result in exacerbating vulnerabilities in the targeted nations.

Concluding Remarks

GORDON BROWN, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, said that the world could not build back better without using the weapon that they had against the pandemic, which was the vaccine. They had solved the problem of production of the vaccine but had not solved the problem of distribution. Unused vaccines in the West should be airlifted to Africa and other low-income countries as quickly as possible. One and a half billion doses were produced per month, and soon two billion would be produced per month. The world could get these vaccines to people if it decided to distribute them equitably.

TLALENG MOFOKENG, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said that many Governments were not ready to waste and hoard the vaccines. The mental health and wellness of healthcare workers must be supported, as they were key in delivering quality services and healthcare for all. Concerning boosters, the Special Rapporteur said that they needed to make sure that everyone, everywhere who needed and wanted a vaccine should be able to get it. Developing nations must be helped immediately in financing and resourcing scientific development and distribution to ensure coverage for everyone.

MAGDALENA SEPÚLVEDA CARMONA, Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that the Council had a role to play to address the impact of austerity measures in the enjoyment of human rights and it was important that it continued to do so. The Council had a role to play to stop the insanity of austerity measures in many countries. Steps that States should take included robust measures to avoid tax avoidance. It was important to keep the commitment of States to keep up official development assistance. The Council should also be able to hold governments accountable in order to increase their expenditure in public services.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Presentation of Report

JOSÉ FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, presenting his annual report to the Council on the impact that the pandemic had had on the rights of indigenous peoples, was concerned about the impact of State COVID-19 recovery measures on indigenous peoples as State responses were disproportionately and negatively affecting indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples faced higher risks of infection and death from COVID-19, especially as new variants of the virus continued to emerge. Despite their increased vulnerability to the virus, vaccine roll-out for indigenous peoples, in particular those living in remote areas, had not been prioritised in most countries. Despite the continued threats to their lives and livelihoods, indigenous peoples were leading initiatives to recover from the pandemic and such initiatives were achieving positive outcomes. Rather than relying on government aid, indigenous peoples were utilising their own traditional systems and existing jurisdictional power to implement and enforce measures against COVID-19.

The Special Rapporteur said that some indigenous communities had reportedly been less impacted by COVID-19 thanks to their scientific knowledge of plants, roots and medicinal practices that historically were used to treat respiratory diseases and strengthen the immune system. Indigenous peoples were also seeking to restore and increase the use of traditional seeds and crops in order to strengthen their food sovereignty and long-term health resiliency . The protection of indigenous territories was central, as it not only helped indigenous peoples to recover from the health crisis, but also as it promoted food security and sustainable livelihoods, increasing resilience in the face of future pandemics. The inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples in recovery plans was impossible when States neglected or refused to recognise the existence and identity of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples had the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, free from discrimination .

Discussion

Speakers recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic had disproportionately affected indigenous peoples, and that response and recovery strategies must be the product of participatory, culturally appropriate processes based on a human rights approach. They were concerned that COVID-19 recovery efforts in many countries had failed to reach indigenous peoples and had even negatively affected them. Some speakers agreed that it was essential to ensure access to vaccines without discrimination, and to address the specific needs of indigenous peoples in recovery measures. Calls were made to end the marginalisation of indigenous peoples and ensure respect for their rights and their full participation in the planning and application of recovery efforts. Some speakers said that the protection of indigenous territories was central for indigenous peoples’ recovery from COVID as it promoted food security and sustainable livelihoods, and increased resilience in the face of future pandemics. Speakers regretted that the legal insecurity over their lands and territories, climate change, and natural resources’ pressure had placed indigenous peoples in a situation of vulnerability.

Speakers reiterated the importance of promoting and protecting the cultural values, patrimony and human rights of indigenous people, as well as to provide them with opportunities to continue to remain protagonists of their own cultural and social development. Other speakers said that indigenous women’s rights were a key priority as they were often the ones most affected by their underrepresentation in decision-making, access to land, safety nets and social services. The effects of their exclusion manifested in multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that spanned over generations. Speakers were concerned by the fact that indigenous children continued to face multiple barriers to the realisation of their rights. These patterns of inequalities had been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, with indigenous children being disproportionately impacted, in particular children with intersecting vulnerabilities. Speakers called on Member States to eliminate laws, policies and practices that discriminated against indigenous children.

Interim Remarks

JOSÉ FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, thanked the countries that had supported his mandate and committed themselves to the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Special Rapporteur noted that the pandemic was leading to increased discrimination against indigenous peoples. He emphasised the need to obtain the prior consent of indigenous peoples before implementing measures related to COVID-19, in particular to involve indigenous peoples’ organizations in the design and implementation of vaccination programmes. All measures taken must recognise the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, Mr. Calí Tzay said.

Discussion

Speakers thanked the Special Rapporteur for presenting his report and shared his view on the disproportionately negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on indigenous peoples. They took this opportunity to draw attention to systemic violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in some countries and urged him to take action to respond to them. Some speakers appreciated the notable effort made by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, took note of the recommendations he had made in his study, and recognised that today more than ever the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was the instrument that should be taken as a guide by States to guarantee the inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples in the different recovery processes. Some speakers regretted the exponential increase in the failure to take into account the rights of indigenous people in both the pandemic mitigation and recovery processes in accordance with article 21 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They welcomed the many examples of positive indigenous-led initiatives that took coordinated action at the community level and contributed to the fight against the pandemic through the use of their traditional pharmacopoeia and cross-cultural medical approaches to strengthen their immune systems and resistance to the virus.

 

Source: UN Human Rights Council

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