Human Rights Bodies: Schedule & Procedural Changes Amid Covid-19 Pandemic (May 2020)
Universal and regional human rights oversight bodies have postponed or cancelled their upcoming sessions and suspended some procedural deadlines as a result of the developing COVID-19 pandemic, while striving to maintain other activities. Beginning in mid-March 2020, almost all human rights bodies have suspended their meetings and travel through at least May, with the European Court of Human Rights extending its exceptional measures to June 2020. Moreover, quarantine measures in many of the bodies’ host countries are further impacting the way staff and appointed experts can carry out their work. Some human rights bodies have adopted measures that will enable them to continue some of their work remotely and some have already held virtual meetings. On May 1, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights became the first human rights body to announce that it will hold a virtual period of sessions in July 2020.
As more information becomes available in the month of May, this post will be updated. For future or past monthly updates on human rights bodies’ schedule & procedural changes, see the IJRC monthly overviews. To view human rights bodies’ past and future activities, visit the IJRC Hearings & Sessions Calendar.
*Last updated May 26, 2020
The United Nations has suspended all meetings and conferences in Geneva, limiting entrance to those who must be on UN premises for essential official business. See UNOG, Meeting and Events Calendar. The UN’s decision to close its headquarters to all but essential work and meetings, together with States’ decisions to recall diplomats, has suspended all non-essential activity at the UN headquarters through at least May 31. See UN Secretary General, Letter to staff on extension of telecommuting, 17 April 2020. While authorities in Switzerland have begun to ease certain restrictions under “strict compliance with precautionary measures,” New York state has ordered residents to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until at least mid-May.
United Nations human rights treaty bodies will not hold in-person sessions until the end of August 2020, at the earliest. See OHCHR, Information note on human rights treaty bodies summer sessions, 15 May 2020. UN special procedure mandate holders have postponed country visits scheduled for May. The Universal Periodic Review Working Group’s upcoming sessions, including its May 2020 session, will be postponed several months. The UN Human Rights Council suspended its February-March session on March 13, 2020, but its June session is still scheduled to take place.
Regionally, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) have postponed their upcoming sessions and implemented measures to address COVID-19’s effect on their working methods. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has cancelled hearings at least through June and announced a series of “exceptional measures,” while the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) has extended current deadlines in response to COVID-19. [ECtHR Press Release; ECSR Press Release: Deadlines] In the Gambia, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Washington, D.C., and France, authorities have also implemented varying restrictions regarding travel, events, and social distancing that will affect these bodies’ activities and staff. Neither the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) nor the Arab Human Rights Committee have announced changes to their schedules.
UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies
On March 16, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that the UN human rights treaty bodies will not hold any sessions through at least May 2020. [OHCHR Press Release: Treaty Bodies] This means that five treaty bodies’ upcoming sessions will be postponed. They are the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Committee Against Torture, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The other five treaty bodies do not have sessions scheduled before June 2020, but three have already postponed or suspended activities planned for March 2020. The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) suspended its March visit to Argentina and postponed its planned missions to Bulgaria, Australia, and Nauru. [OHCHR Press Release: SPT] The Human Rights Committee suspended its March 2020 session with two weeks left on its agenda. The Committee did hold constructive dialogues with States, but it is unclear how or when the Committee will proceed with adopting the relevant concluding observations or the pending lists of issues. [OHCHR Press Release: Treaty Bodies] The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) and Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) completed their February and March sessions, and their subsequent sessions are scheduled for June and September, respectively.
During their sessions, treaty bodies review States’ reports and responses to a specific list of issues through the State reporting procedure, receive additional information from nongovernmental organizations and national human rights institutions, engage in an interactive dialogue with each State’s representatives, and then adopt concluding observations detailing the progress and remaining challenges in the State’s implementation of the treaty.
Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) postponed its 23rd Session, which was scheduled to take place from March 9 to 27, due to a lack of quorum because of the COVID-19 outbreak. It was to consider the State reports of Bangladesh, Djibouti, Estonia, Hungary, Laos, and Venezuela. The CRPD will apparently not yet adopt the pending concluding observations that it would have adopted in March, given that the Committee has not yet held the constructive dialogues with the relevant States. The CRPD decided that its March pre-sessional working group would adopt the pending lists of issues for Angola, China, Croatia, Georgia, Indonesia, Malawi, Mauritania without holding a session (which would normally involve consultation with other stakeholders, including civil society, on the lists of issues).
Committee on Enforced Disappearances
The Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) opened its virtual 18th Session on May 4, 2020. During the session, which was originally scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 9, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland, the Committee only adopted the session agenda and programme of work, and adopted lists of issues for Panama and Brazil ahead of their interactive dialogues. The CED did not hold interactive dialogues with Iraq, Mongolia, and Switzerland to assess their compliance with the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, as originally planned. The review of State reports and their interactive dialogues have been postponed to the 19th Session, which is currently scheduled to take place from September 7 to 25, 2020. [OHCHR Press Release: CED] For more information on the CED, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Committee on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW) has postponed its 32nd Session, which was scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 3, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland. The CMW had scheduled interactive dialogues with Cabo Verde, Chile, Paraguay, and Rwanda to assess their compliance with the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. During the session, the CMW was also going to consider and adopt list of issues for Syria ahead of its interactive dialogue, and consider list of issues prior to reporting for the Congo and Nigeria as part of its simplified reporting procedure. For more information on the CMW, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has postponed its 101st Session, which was scheduled to take place from April 20 to May 8, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland. The CERD had scheduled interactive dialogues with Denmark, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Switzerland to assess their compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. For more information on the CERD, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Committee Against Torture
The Committee Against Torture (CAT) has postponed its 69th Session, which was scheduled to take place from April 20 to May 15, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland. The CAT was scheduled to hold an interactive dialogue with Bolivia to assess its compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. During the session, the CAT was also going to consider list of issues prior to reporting for Afghanistan, Argentina, Bahrain, Ireland, Mali, Panama, Paraguay, and Korea as part of its simplified reporting procedure. The CAT has postponed its interactive dialogues with Cuba, Iceland, Kenya, Montenegro, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay until its 72nd Session, which is currently scheduled for April or May, 2021. For more information on the CAT, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Committee on the Rights of the Child
The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has postponed its 85th Session, which was scheduled to take place from May 11 to 29, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland. The CRC was scheduled to hold interactive dialogues with Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Eswatini (Swaziland), and Tunisia to assess their compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For more information on the CRC, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Working Group
The Human Rights Council’s UPR Working Group has postponed its 36th Session, which was scheduled to take place from May 4 to 15, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland, until November 2 to 13, 2020 (the current date for its 37th Session). [OHCHR Press Release: UPR] According to its tentative timetable, the Working Group was scheduled to hold interactive dialogues with Belarus, Liberia, Malawi, Mongolia, Panama, the Maldives, Andorra, Bulgaria, Honduras, the United States, the Marshall Islands, Croatia, Jamaica, and Libya regarding their obligations under UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights instruments to which the State is party, the State’s voluntary pledges and commitments, and applicable international humanitarian law.
The UPR Working Group’s 37th Session will be postponed until January 2021, the predicted date for the 38th Session, and all subsequent sessions will be postponed accordingly. [OHCHR Press Release: UPR] As a result, the last session of the 3rdUPR cycle will take place in January 2022. [OHCHR Press Release: UPR] For more information about past, present, and future UPR sessions, including timetables and lists of troikas (a group of three Human Rights Council Member States that facilitates the review of each country), visit the UPR sessions webpage or visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
At least four independent human rights experts, known as UN “special procedures,” have postponed their scheduled country visits in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at least one working group has postponed its private session.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health postponed the visit to New Zealand, originally scheduled from March 23 to April 3, 2020.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief postponed the visit to Malaysia, originally scheduled from March 26 to April 8, 2020.
The UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children postponed the visit to Mexico, originally scheduled for May 11 to May 19, 2020.
The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent rescheduled its 26th Session, which was scheduled to take place from March 30 to April 3, to November 30 to December 4, 2020, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Three other working groups have sessions scheduled for May 2020 that are likely cancelled or postponed given current restrictions on in-person meetings, but these working groups have not yet announced changes to their schedules:
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will hold its 121st Session virtually, from May 11 to 15, 2020. The session was scheduled to take place in San José, Costa Rica.
The UN Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises is scheduled to hold its 26th Session from May 11 to 15, 2020.
The UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice is scheduled to hold its 28thSession from May 26 to 29, 2020.
During their country visits, special procedures mandate holders assess both the overall human rights situation in the country and the issues specific to their thematic focus. Experts also meet with civil society, government, and national human rights institutions when they visit a country. Their findings are published later in reports addressed to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. See OHCHR, Country and other visits of Special Procedures. For up-to-date information on forthcoming country visits, review the Special Procedures’ Visits document and visit the OHCHR website. For more information on each special procedure, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has postponed its 66th Ordinary Session, which was scheduled to take place from April 22 to May 12, 2020, in Banjul, The Gambia. [ACHPR Press Release: Session] The ACHPR has tentatively rescheduled the 66th Session to May or June 2020, subject to confirmation, depending on how the situation develops. [ACHPR Press Release: Session] The ACHPR has, so far, not announced any suspension of deadlines for parties to communications (complaints) pending before it. For more information on the ACHPR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) ended its 56th Ordinary Session on March 20, 2020, a week before the session was scheduled to end. [AfCHPR Press Release: COVID19] The African Court held two hearings prior to the session ending, and was also scheduled to examine 20 applications and render six judgments before it suspended the session. [AfCHPR Press Release: 56th Session] It is unclear how the 56th Session’s suspension impacted its review of applications and judgments. On May 5, the Court announced that it would hold its 57th Ordinary Session virtually from June 1 to 26, 2020. [AfCHPR Press Release: Virtual] Moreover, since March, the Court has ordered non-essential staff to work from home and “key departments with limited staff to carry out their duties on shift-basis until further notice.” [AfCHPR Press Release: COVID19] These measures, aimed at “ensur[ing] staff safety and business continuity,” will continue until further notice. [AfCHPR Press Release: Virtual] On May 18, the Court also announced that it would suspend the computation of all time limits (with the exception of time limits related to Provisional Measures) until at least July 31. [AfCHPR Press Release: Suspension] For more information on the ACtHPR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
European Committee of Social Rights
The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) has announced that it will hold its 312th Session virtually, from May 11 to 14. [ECSR Press Release: Session] The session was originally scheduled for March 23 to 27, 2020. [ECSR Press Release: Complaints] The Committee will also proceed with all of its “essential activities,” including its collective complaints procedure. [ECSR Press Release: Complaints] On March 25, the Committee announced that it will suspend all deadlines for parties with pending collective complaints from March 25 to May 15, 2020. [ECSR Press Release: Deadlines] The ECSR decided to suspend deadlines as a result of the lockdown measures that have been adopted by most European States. The ECSR will extend the deadline-suspension period if the lockdown measures are not lifted or reduced by April 30, 2020. [ECSR Press Release: Deadlines] The Bureau of the European Committee of Social Rights has met via video conference to continue its work regarding pending collective complaints and States’ reporting procedure. [ECSR Press Release: Video] However, no information has been published regarding an additional extension to the lockdown measures. For more information on the ECSR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has cancelled all hearings scheduled for March and April. [ECtHR Press Release] While the Court will continue its “essential activities,” such as the review of priority cases, all employees are now working remotely and the Court has been closed to the public. [ECtHR Press Release] Additionally, the Court has implemented “exceptional measures” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in line with decisions by France, where its seat is located, and the Council of Europe on this issue. [ECtHR Press Release] These measures include the suspension of the six-month time limit for submitting applications to the Court – a requirement under Article 35 of the European Convention on Human Rights – beginning on March 16; the suspension of the time limits allotted in proceedings that are currently pending before the Court, beginning on March 16, 2020; and the adoption of additional procedures, which the ECtHR has not elaborated on, to examine urgent requests for interim measures during this time. [ECtHR Press Release] Initially, these measures were suspended for a one-month period, until April 15, 2020. However, as of April 9, 2020, all of the exceptional measures have been extended for an additional two months, until June 15, 2020. [ECtHR Press Release: Extension]
Moreover, on April 15, the European Court announced various measures that it will implement to ensure that its staff is protected “from contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19” during the Court’s confinement period described above. [ECtHR Press Release: Functioning] These measures defer activities that “cannot be carried out remotely and…are not critically urgent.” [ECtHR Press Release: Functioning] During this time, the Court will continue to issue single-judge decisions, but will not notify the applicant(s) of such decisions until the confinement period is over; the Court will not notify respondent States until after the confinement period, unless the case is urgent; the ECtHR Grand Chamber, chambers, and committees will examine cases under a written procedure; and, only the Deputy Section Registrar (rather than the ECtHR Registrar) will sign decisions and judgments. Decisions and judgments reached during this time will only be communicated to the parties electronically. [ECtHR Press Release: Functioning] For more information on the ECtHR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has cancelled all of its planned activities for 2020, including working visits, hearings, and promotional visits. These will be “rescheduled as soon as is feasible.” [IACHR Press Release: Work System] On May 1, the IACHR became the first human rights body to announce that it will hold the 176th Period of Sessions virtually, from July 6 to 10, 2020. [IACHR Press Release: Sessions] Hearing requests that have already been submitted will remain in consideration. However, civil society members wishing to submit a “working meeting” request may do so via the IACHR online portal, which will be open from May 1 to 12, 2020. [IACHR Press Release: Sessions]
While the IACHR will continue its “core functions” with respect to its petition and case system, precautionary measures, and monitoring activities, it has adopted a series of measures and procedural changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that will impact deadlines, schedules, and timeframes for its various working methods. [IACHR Press Release: Work System] For now, and subject to new COVID-19 developments, the staff of the IACHR Executive Secretariat will work remotely. [IACHR Press Release: Work System] The IACHR will continue to process precautionary measures as usual, but it will not deactivate any precautionary measures in which the parties fail to provide updated information during this period. [IACHR Press Release: Work System]
With regard to its petition and case system, the IACHR initially suspended upcoming deadlines for petitions, cases, and friendly settlements for a one-month period, from March 19 to April 21, 2020. On April 21, the IACHR announced that the suspension period has been extended until May 21, 2020. There are some exceptions. The suspension period does not apply to the six-month rule for filing petitions under Article 46(b) of the American Convention, the timeframe that States must abide by under Article 51 of the Convention, and the time limit for States to respond to a new petition under Article 30(3) of the IACHR Rules of Procedure. [IACHR Press Release: Extension] The IACHR has stated that it will continue to communicate with parties regarding interrupted or extended deadlines, and has encouraged individuals to continue to submit information on petitions, cases, and precautionary measures via the online portal. [IACHR Press Release: Work System] To contact the IACHR directly, email: CIDHDenuncias@oas.org.
Moreover, on March 28, the IACHR announced that it has created a Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic (known as SACROI COVID-19, its Spanish acronym). [IACHR Press Release: SACROI] The SACROI is part of the IACHR’s strategy to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on the enjoyment of human rights in the region. [IACHR Press Release: SACROI] It is tasked with gathering evidence of COVID-19’s impact on human rights, monitoring State responses to the pandemic, identifying urgent cases within the petition and case system so that the IACHR can act in a timely manner, providing technical assistance for the development of State policies with a focus on human rights, following up on and monitoring recommendations, and conducting outreach and capacity building, among other tasks. [IACHR Press Release: SACROI] On April 10, 2020, the IACHR adopted a resolution on COVID-19 and Human Rights in the Americas (Spanish only), one of the main, initial results of the SACROI. For more information on the IACHR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has announced that it will hold its 135th Regular Session virtually, from June 1 to July 31. [IACtHR Press Release: Virtual] The session was originally scheduled to take place from April 13 to 24, 2020. [IACtHR Press Release: Session] The Inter-American Court initially suspended deadlines that are currently pending before the Court from March 17 to April 21, 2020. [IACtHR Press Release: Deadlines] As of April 17, 2020, the Court has extended the suspension of the calculation of all the time limits that are currently pending before it until May 20, 2020. It will reevaluate whether or not the deadline-suspension period will be extended on May 20, 2020. [IACtHR Press Release: Deadlines] For more information about the IACtHR, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.
ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) has not yet released any statement regarding COVID-19 or changes to its planned activities. As of April 30, the AICHR’s 31st meeting scheduled for April 20 to 25, 2020 remains on the AICHR calendar, with no events scheduled for May 2020. ASEAN announced its gift shop and other spaces in its secretariat would be closed to the general public, but has not made any announcements regarding its own events or staffing. News reports indicate Indonesia may soon impose quarantine requirements that may impact ASEAN and AICHR staff. [Bloomberg] Vietnam announced the cancellation of the ASEAN summit scheduled for early April, after imposing its own travel restrictions. [Reuters] This information is not reflected on the ASEAN website.
Arab Human Rights Committee
The Arab Human Rights Committee has also not made any official announcements regarding the coronavirus pandemic, although its chair – through the Committee’s Twitter feed – urged States to mitigate the social and economic impacts of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On March 24, 2020, the League of Arab States announced restrictions on staff working in person at headquarters, specifically excluding female employees with children and employees with health conditions from entering the premises, which may impact the Committee’s work. Egypt has also imposed a curfew and other measures which may impact staff of these institutions. [Reuters]
On February 28, 2020, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) became the first supranational human rights body to address States’ human rights obligations in response to the coronavirus. [ACHPR Press Release: COVID19] 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: COVID19] On March 24, the ACHPR issued a more comprehensive response, elaborating on States’ responsibilities regarding the principle of legality; non-discrimination; access to information; containment measures; challenges with compliance; the protection of vulnerable groups; conditions in prisons and places of detention; the right to health; the “special responsibilities” of individuals, the private sector, community leaders, and media and religious institutions; mitigation measures; and, monitoring and investigation measures. [ACHPR Press Release: Response]
Since the ACHPR’s initial statement, other human rights monitoring bodies and independent experts, as well as civil society organizations have elaborated on and reminded States of their human rights obligations in the context of preventing the spread of Coronavirus and protecting public health. [IACHR Press Release: Obligations; IACtHR Press Release: Obligations; OHCHR Press Release: Coronavirus; COE Press Release: Rights; Amnesty International] In particular, many have warned about the increased risk of domestic violence during COVID-19-related lockdowns and urged States to implement urgent measures to protect victims from abuse. [IACHR Press Release: Gender Perspective; OHCHR Press Release: Violence; COE Press Release: Violence] Human rights experts have also raised concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention and among refugee and migrant populations, and urged States to safeguard individuals’ privacy and rights to food and housing in the context of quarantine restrictions and enforcement. [OHCHR Press Release: Detention; COE Newsroom: Migrants; Thomson Reuters Foundation; OHCHR Press Release: Hunger; OHCHR Press Release: Housing] The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is maintaining a webpage on COVID-19 and its human rights dimensions that includes all press releases, statements, press briefings, and stories by the OHCHR, UN treaty bodies, and UN special procedures, including additional guidance on State obligations. See OHCHR, COVID-19 and its human rights dimensions.
For more information on other suspended sessions or the various human rights monitoring bodies, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.