2020 was a harrowing year for people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic raced across pre-existing fault lines in every society, exploiting and enlarging human rights gaps. From discrimination and inequalities in access to core rights and services, such as health care and social protections, to the censorship of criticism – which undermines sound policy and erodes public trust – lethal vulnerabilities have been created. 

As we at the UN Human Rights Office stepped up our monitoring and developed new strategies, working methods and data-based analytic tools to anchor human rights in responses to the pandemic, it became obvious that our significant experience in combating discrimination and inequalities makes us highly qualified to help societies to not only recover from the immediate medical and socio-economic wounds – but also to repair key underlying weaknesses. 

I am proud of the speed and efficacy with which we shifted to pandemic operations so that we could continue implementing almost all of our planned work – even in the face of budget restrictions – while also addressing the many new challenges posed by the global pandemic with respect to human rights. 

This Annual Report outlines a wide variety of examples. We mapped the needs of groups with unequal access to social protection and health care in countries such as Serbia, Ukraine and other European States where vulnerable groups included Roma people, persons with disabilities, homeless people and LGBTI persons. In Serbia, we worked with national partners, including civil society, Roma representatives and government officials, to produce a deep dive assessment of over 700 Roma settlements – some of them lacking electricity, clean water and sewage systems. This could prove transformative, enabling both the United Nations and national authorities to step up delivery of targeted support.

We provided UN Country Teams across every region with support from development and economic and social rights experts to address the impacts of COVID-19, develop methodologies and present policy options aimed at enhancing revenue generation, social spending and social protection.

Our field presences monitored the situation of older persons and migrants, including many trapped at borders or held in migrant detention centres, for instance in Bolivia, Guatemala and Panama. We also advocated for better access to health care and crucial services for persons with disabilities.

Across nine countries in West Africa, we rapidly mapped differential and often intersectional vulnerabilities based on gender in order to collect quality data and inform the adoption of human rights-based policy. We also worked with groups of talibé children in street situations, who were forced to beg and faced exposure to violence and COVID-19 infection, to integrate them into families or childcare.

In every region, we consistently advocated for medical experts, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public to be able to speak out without fear or censorship. Participation in public decisions is a right. It is also key to shaping better, more effective policies through frank and continuous feedback. And it is the only way to build public trust – which is crucial to navigating any crisis. 

We supported increased engagement by civil society and key partners to ensure that any policy is better informed and more effective. Last year, 126 civil society organizations from across Somalia submitted a joint report for their country’s third Universal Periodic Review, a coalition of 27 CSOs submitted the first alternative report on Jamaica and Rohingya groups living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps issued the first UPR report on the situation of Rohingya people in Myanmar.

In Mexico, we helped to set up a Climate Justice Network with more than 25 civil society groups, which issued a joint proposal to the Ministry of Environment that included specific recommendations regarding the integration of human rights into the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

And globally, we developed and distributed extensive and practical policy and technical guidance to ensure that human rights are situated at the heart of the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts of States, UN partners, national human rights institutions and civil society. By embedding human rights recommendations within the UN’s Common Country Analyses and Sustainable Development Cooperation Frameworks and developing detailed checklists and other evidence-based tools, we helped to translate the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights into practical action – leveraging the full power of the UN family in support of life-saving human rights goals on the ground.

In these pages, you may be surprised to discover a wealth of human stories – stories that highlight the impact of our training programme for human rights defenders in Thailand; provide insights into our work with indigenous communities and business actors in Cambodia and with victims of torture in Lebanon; outline why we have strengthened a partnership with the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs; and feature our efforts with WHO and Oxford University to launch a series spotlighting comprehensive sexuality education, contraception, maternal mortality and morbidity and violence against women. 

You will also find people speaking out about the need to revisit and reform laws in Sudan; details about our work with Latin American judiciaries to dismantle harmful stereotypes about women and ensure that legal decisions are based on facts and not beliefs about the roles of women and men; the importance of supporting Syrian civil society actors in their struggle to claim their rights; and how one woman in Kenya, whose child was suffering from lead poisoning, led her community to a groundbreaking court case that may durably alter conditions in communities poisoned by toxic chemicals from extractive industries. 

For this – and more – we have many to thank, beginning with you, our donors. Last year, you contributed to our highest-ever level of voluntary financial support, and we, like those who benefit from our work, are truly grateful. 

I am convinced that at this crucial moment in history, the work we do can help save societies, economies and individuals from shattering injustice. And I trust that we can continue to count on your support as we look to the future.

Thank you for standing up for human rights.
Michelle Bachelet
High Commissioner for Human Rights
May 2021
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