Human Rights Bodies Respond to Coronavirus, Some Suspend Scheduled Sessions

UN Secretary-General António Guterres attends COVID-19 briefing
Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc FerréŽ

Various supranational human rights bodies have cancelled or limited meetings in response to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) assessment of the global risk posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the increasing number of travel restrictions imposed by national governments. [NGO CSW; HRC Bureau Meeting; WHO Press Release: Feb 28] Civil society’s participation has been hardest hit, most notably by the decisions to reduce the 64th session of Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) from two weeks to one day, and to cancel all side events at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s ongoing session. [NGO CSW; France24; VOA] Some human rights monitoring bodies and civil society organizations have also reminded States of their human rights obligations in the context of preventing the spread of coronavirus. [ACHPR Press Release; OHCHR Press Release; Amnesty International] On its webpage, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for one, encouraged participants in its March session to use videoconferencing to participate remotely. The human rights bodies’ decisions to cancel or modify meetings come after a February 28 letter from the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

CSW 64 Changes

The UN Secretary General sent a letter to the CSW Chair on February 28, 2020, emphasizing the need to consider the implications of the coronavirus “for all forthcoming intergovernmental meetings” and suggesting that the CSW hold a “scaled-down, shortened session” or postpone the session to a later date. The UN Secretary General considered the “increasing number” of travel restrictions as well as “the need to balance the continuation of essential activities with the protection of public health,” and recommended that the Commission “shorten and scale down the session.”

Following the UN Secretary General’s letter, the CSW decided to suspend its 64th session, which was scheduled for March 9 to 20, 2020, “until further notification.” See UN Women, CSW 64 Advisory. The Commission will only hold a procedural meeting on March 9, 2020 that will include opening statements, the adoption of a draft Political Declaration, and the adoption of draft resolutions. See id. The Commission has cancelled the general debate and all side events organized by Member States or the UN as part of the 64th Session. See id. The long-awaited 64th session marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and was planned to include discussion of the progress and remaining obstacles in the realization of gender equality. See UN Women, CSW64 / Beijing+25 (2020).

The NGO CSW Forum, which consists of a series of parallel events organized by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women during UN CSW sessions, has also been cancelled. See NGO CSW/NY, NGO CSW64 Forum Cancellation Notice. Specifically, the parallel events that have been cancelled are the Consultation Day, Reception, Conversation Circles Space, Artisan Fair, Rally, advocacy trainings, caucuses, and all 550 parallel events scheduled through the NGO CSW/NY office. See id.

Human Rights Council Changes

Moreover, on March 2, the Human Rights Council Bureau held a meeting to discuss how to proceed with the 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council, which began on February 24 and is scheduled to conclude on March 20, 2020, in light of coronavirus developments. [HRC Bureau Meeting] Taking into account the UN Secretary General’s letter to the Chair of the CSW and a separate letter by the UN Office at Geneva Director General, the Human Rights Council Bureau decided to cancel all of the side events scheduled for the 43rd Session, encouraged all representatives not to travel to Geneva for the remainder of the session, and suggested that all UN special procedures who are not currently in Geneva participate in the session via video conference. [HRC Bureau Meeting] For now, the rest of the conferences and meetings have not been postponed given the “significant challenges” that cancelling or postponing those meetings would pose.

States’ Human Rights Obligations

On February 28, 2020, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) became the first supranational human rights body to issue a statement directed at States in response to the coronavirus. [ACHPR Press Release] The ACHPR specifically called on governments to uphold their obligations under articles 1 (State obligations), 4 (right to life), 9 (right to receive information and free expression), and 16 (right to health) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Commission urged Sates to implement “human rights-based preventive measures,” allocate the resources necessary to adequately respond, follow WHO guidelines, and provide accurate and timely information about the virus. The ACHPR also called on States to treat all infected persons “humanely and with dignity” and ensure that any “restrictions imposed on public health grounds are lawful, respect human and peoples’ rights, are necessary and proportional.” [ACHPR Press Release] As of March 2, the ACHPR is the only regional human rights body to address State obligations with respect to the coronavirus.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, used the opportunity of addressing the Human Rights Council to call out “a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity” in response to coronavirus and to urge States to address this discrimination. [OHCHR] She also asked States to act without discrimination, with transparency, and with respect for the human rights to freedom of movement, food and clean water, humane treatment, access to health care, access to information, and freedom of expression in their coronavirus responses.


To date, the novel coronavirus – initially identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019 – has spread to 61 countries, with 127 reported deaths. [WHO Press Release: March 2] Despite WHO advice against travel restrictions, including quarantines, visa restrictions, or entry denials, many countries have imposed restrictions that some argue are discriminatory and may result in “criminalization-oriented public health measures.” [IPS; IntLawGrrls]

While the coronavirus has had a significant reach, the WHO considers the virus an epidemic that is currently affecting only a handful of countries (Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan) and that is still feasible to contain, not yet a pandemic. [WHO Press Release: March 2] To address its impact, the UN has allocated $15 million from its Central Emergency Fund to advance efforts aimed at containing the virus. [UN News] The money from the UN will go to the WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to investigate cases, monitor the spread of the virus, and operate national labs. [UN News] In total, the WHO estimates that it needs $675 million to fight the coronavirus. [UN News]

Additional Information

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