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A post Covid-19 human rights agenda

Written by Rachel George


The establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948 was a groundbreaking moment for global consensus on the shared rights of all human beings.

This has since expanded into many treaties, conventions and declarations supporting the centrality and substance of human rights at the global level. The creation of UN human rights law brought forward a period of great optimism. During the drafting of the declaration, Lebanese politician Charles Habib Malik proclaimed it to be a “potent ideological weapon” that “if wielded in complete goodwill, sincerity and truth, can prove most significant in the history of the spirit”.

But 72 years later, we face an era famously termed the ‘endtime of human rights’ (subscription required). International human rights agreements are often violated without consequence, with their impact on directly improving state’s human rights records modest at best.

And Covid-19 has presented new, unexpected and unprecedented challenges to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as exacerbating suffering and violence from ongoing conflicts.

As we reflect on another International Human Rights Day, we have an opportunity to consider more complex aspects of the human rights picture – without losing sight of the need to protect established rights.

Our future focus should expand to building up a rights-based agenda that doesn’t only deal with high-level aspirational commitments. It must also engage honestly and more directly around the sticky, more complicated dimensions of human rights that affect us all.

Five key components of a forward-looking human rights agenda

Major challenges and questions for a forward-looking human rights agenda include:

1. The right to privacy and the right to safety and security

The relationship between the right to privacy (pdf) and the requirements of safety and national security is almost always delicate and complex.

Awareness of these tensions heightened after the 9/11 attacks, but new challenges including Covid-19 and environmental security mean that we need updated and more explicit understandings of how these rights are balanced.

This is particularly urgent in the context of expanding surveillance technology, including the sudden implementation of Covid-19 related phone tracking in many countries, with minimal public debate. Increasingly research is identifying possible tensions between global safety and security.

This includes the impacts on specific groups, such as women and racial and ethnic minorities. However, more work needs to focus on consensus-building around trade-offs and standards, to ensure human rights are promoted at their intersection in light of today’s most pressing security challenges, including global health security.

2. The right to freedom of expression and the right to protection from hate speech

Balancing freedom of expression and non-discrimination with protection from hate speech (pdf) will be another key challenge in a forward-looking human rights agenda.

And as the growth of racial equality movements this year around the world help demonstrate, there is a pressing need to address this issue head-on with sensitivity to various identities and vulnerabilities. The UN Secretary General’s new Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech offers one opportunity to expand thinking on these issues in a contemporary, digital context.

3. Freedom of mobility and the right to protection

Human mobility in a diversity of forms — ranging from migration to international and domestic travel — has been restricted for public health reasons in unprecedented ways both within and between states.

With the rise of state protectionism under Covid-19, countries need to balance the right to freedom of movement (pdf) with the obligation to uphold public health. Even before Covid-19, upsurges in nationalism to restrict migration, alongside public security and counter-terrorism policies restricting people’s movement, have long been at tension with human rights concepts of physical freedom and mobility. These issues will continue to take centre stage.

A renewed, direct global conversation on how they should interact is needed, particularly given today’s focus on future-proofing against pandemics.

4. State sovereignty and the right to self-determination

This longstanding global issue may have fallen from headlines in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it remains critical.

These struggles can be linked directly to Covid-relevant questions of state legitimacy and governance structures, while local routes to governance do not appear to be going away and nor should we expect them to.

As Brexit, Catalonian independence and separatist movements in Bangladesh remind us, urgent claims against the current sovereign state arrangements are increasing political divisions (subscription required) globally, which the current crisis will likely only exacerbate.

5. The right to digital access and the right to be protected from malign forces online

The UN has declared ‘online freedom’ to be a human right, but ongoing access gaps and malign forces make efforts to guarantee this right complicated.

Covid-19 has brought the issue of digital access even further to the fore, particularly for those in poverty.

Misinformation and disinformation online, both in relation to the pandemic and in its impacts on political and social issues, are also a concern.

A response to these tensions should take into account specific impacts on, for example, youth and women. One example of many is evidence showing the disproportionate targeting of female US political candidates attacked by ‘fake news accounts’. These groups also need expanded digital access in many countries.

Human rights in a post-Covid era

The global human rights project has come a long way. The fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the core UN human rights documents are still relevant today. Better enforcement of existing agreements and institutions can help progress global human rights (see, for example, ODI research on implementation gaps around women’s rights and international human rights law).

But a relevant, renewed and robust human rights agenda must grapple more directly with the sticky issues we too often shy away from, in addition to holding ground on previous areas of success.

In the context of Covid-19, establishing international consensus on a relevant rights-based order can only be achieved if we recognise and work directly on new and difficult areas as much as we celebrate and cling to past achievements. Both will be important for a post-2020 human rights agenda.