On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. WHO, a global health agency, defines a pandemic as a global spread of a new disease.
Suspensions, Cancellations, and Rescheduled Meetings
Even before the WHO’s declaration, as the coronavirus spread throughout the world, the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States (OAS) began curtailing international human rights meetings ̶ meetings that serve as key spaces to advocate for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women’s rights.
In February, the UN Secretary-General recommended to Member States that delegations and other stakeholders refrain from travelling to any UN Headquarters. Thereafter, the UN suspended its 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council (Feb. 24 – Mar. 20, 2020), urging delegations not to travel to Geneva, Switzerland.
In New York, the UN Commission on the Status of Women suspended indefinitely its 64th Session (Mar. 9-20, 2020) though it opened briefly for a procedural session adopting a political statement and other resolutions.
The UN also indefinitely postponed the 19th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (April 13-24, 2020) to be held in New York. The Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, Indian Law Resource Center, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and National Congress of American Indians had been approved to carry out a side event during the session on the movement to eliminate violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women.
At the time of writing, the UN has placed a hold on the 13th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (June 8-12, 2020) scheduled for Geneva, suggesting that participants not make travel arrangements.
The Bonn UN Climate Change Conference has been postponed to October 4-12, 2020, with pre-sessional meetings set for September 28-October 3.
It is unclear yet whether the UN will proceed with its 44th (June 15-July 3, 2020) and 45th (Sept. 14-Oct. 2) Sessions of the Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva.
Statements on COVID-19 and Violence Against Women by the UN and OAS
Addressing Gender-Based Violence Must be a Key Part of All National COVID-19 Response Plans
Recognizing that domestic violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations, the UN is urging immediate actions.
On April 6, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on countries to address the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls associated with government-imposed lockdowns. The Secretary-General noted that “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.” Secretary-General Guterres urged governments to prevent and redress violence against women as a key part of their national COVID-19 response plans, outlining the following domestic violence recommendations to help improve the situation:
- Increase investment in online services and civil society organizations,
- Make sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers,
- Set up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries,
- Declare shelters as essential services,
- Create safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers,
- Avoid releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form,
- Scale up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys.
Growing Shadow Pandemic of Violence against Women and Girls
Agreeing with the UN chief’s statement, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, reported that “we see a shadow pandemic growing of violence against women.” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka noted that with more than 90 countries in lockdown and four billion people sheltering at home from COVID-19, reports of domestic violence are rising and demands for emergency shelter are heightened across the world, including the United States, all at a time when health services are stretched thin and domestic violence shelters are full. She warned that such limitations “fuel impunity for the perpetrators,” and the situation creates “a perfect storm for... violent behavior behind closed doors.” She also urged that every country with specific funding must consider women’s helplines and shelters as essential services, with broad efforts to increase awareness about their availability.
Statements on COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples by the UN and OAS
Indigenous Communities Suffer Particular Vulnerability to the Global Pandemic
International human rights bodies are further recognizing that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the global pandemic.
The UN has created a website on COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples that includes the latest information and useful resources by the United Nations and WHO. It also includes statements by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and other UN-mandated bodies; statements and recommendations by Indigenous peoples organizations; reports and public service announcements on COVID-19; and news articles about Indigenous peoples and COVID-19 beginning in March 2020. You can view the website here: bit.ly/2zACVj8
Anne Nuorgam, Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stated the “pandemic presents a grave threat to indigenous peoples around the world” and urged “Member States and the international community to include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak.” She also issued a message urging Member States “to take immediate steps to ensure that indigenous peoples are informed, protected and prioritized during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also issued a statement on April 6, 2020, emphasizing that Indigenous peoples will suffer the effects of the coronavirus disproportionately and in different ways. The Expert Mechanism urged early action in the crisis stating that: “We call on all States to fulfill their human rights obligations, guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to protect the health and lives of indigenous peoples. In following WHO advice, we urge you to ensure that indigenous peoples become your partners in this endeavour, and that you provide culturally acceptable healthcare, as well as food or other humanitarian relief, when necessary, and without discrimination. States should acknowledge and accommodate the cultural, spiritual, and religious rights and responsibilities of indigenous peoples when considering measures to respond to the virus. As with the adoption of any measures that may affect indigenous peoples, their free, prior and informed consent, grounded in the right to self-determination, should be sought.”
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), issued a statement titled “Indigenous Peoples & the COVID-19 Pandemic: Considerations.” Observing that indigenous peoples and especially indigenous women and girls often are disproportionately affected by epidemics, the UN DESA reiterates that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “establishes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples” and then recommends a number of considerations for governments and representative institutions and for UN entities, private sector, and nongovernmental organizations.
The OAS General Secretariat has issued a press release calling on member countries to pay special attention to indigenous populations during this global health crisis. The General Secretariat urges local, regional, and national authorities in member countries to protect the health and well-being of indigenous peoples using an intercultural approach, as established by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the OAS. Additionally, the General Secretariat recommends that member states use specific policies and programs to sustain indigenous communities’ economies to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.
The OAS has also issued a “Practical Guide to Inclusive Rights-Focused Responses to COVID-19 in the Americas” which is available in Spanish, which you can view here: bit.ly/3d35DI0. The English version will follow soon. The guide is intended to support member states in responding to this global pandemic and to offer tools to consider in responding to the particular circumstances of vulnerable groups. Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro cautioned that the ability to survive the pandemic is less likely for those in situations of poverty and extreme poverty and for groups historically discriminated against like women and indigenous peoples. Accordingly, the OAS and its guide states “that the member states must place emphasis on guaranteeing the right to health of these groups, using objective and reasonable criteria of distinction, based on the equalization of opportunities to bridge the inequality gap, and avoid arbitrary differences in treatment.”