The world we want - now and after COVID-19

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Human Rights Day is a time for hope. It is a day that reminds us of what we all share in common and the world we aspire to create together. As we come to the end of a year unlike any other in living memory, it is important to reaffirm our shared vision for a better world.

This year also marked the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, with the UN Secretary General launching a global consultation to hear directly from people about their vision for the future. More than one million of us responded. A speedy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was obviously a top priority for the vast majority. Just as important, however, was the manner of the recovery, with people stressing the need for international solidarity and the need to address poverty and inequalities in those countries hardest hit by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has affected all of us. However, some groups of people have been plunged into situations of extreme vulnerability. They have seen disparities in access to basic human rights , like safe water and sanitation, healthcare, and education – become even more entrenched over the course of the year.

At the APT, we saw firsthand the impact of the pandemic on justice and detention systems. Persons deprived of their liberty were hit especially hard. The virus spread quickly in closed, overcrowded spaces. Poor access to drinking water and the sheer impossibility of physical distancing placed persons deprived of liberty – and those charged with their care – at heightened risk of infection. Measures imposed to limit the spread of the virus – including stopping visits from families and friends – only added to the sense of isolation and anxiety. In some places, it fueled fear and violence.

COVID-19 also exposed serious frailties in our justice systems, with some procedures – including custody hearings, which are a vital tool in the fight against torture and ill-treatment - either suspended or replaced with virtual hearings.

Across the globe, many governments imposed strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including imposing states of emergency and hard lockdowns. What has been particularly concerning is the excessive force that law enforcement agencies in many countries have used to enforce curfews and other restrictions, especially in poor and marginalised neighborhoods.

These restrictions did not stop people from taking to the streets in 2020, with an urgent and united call for just and safer societies. In too many cases, however, these peaceful demonstrations were met with violence from police and security forces, including dispersals, beatings and the use of tear gas and grenades. In some cases, demonstrators were killed or disappeared.

Despite these challenges, there are good reasons for hope. While COVID-19 brought restrictions for all of us, it also forced us to think and act differently. And the changes we made, we made quickly. For instance, in a matter of just a few weeks, some States took the bold decision to implement alternative measures to detention, an approach the APT and others have advocated for years. More broadly, discrimination, racism and gender bias are now being discussed as root causes of law enforcement violence within the United Nations, as part of a global movement for change.

Our hope is that these changes will help set the pathway towards a “new normal”. However, for our communities to build back better from the pandemic, we need to place solidarity and dignity at the core of our recovery efforts.

We can do this. Change is possible. We don’t have to return to old patterns after COVID-19. We can all contribute to a world that is just, fair, equal and inclusive. A world where transparency and accountability are the basis of our justice systems, and where justice is accessible to all. A world where “leaving no one behind” is not simply an aspiration but a practice that is built into our laws and policies.

At the APT, this is the world we want – now and after COVID-19. And this is the world we strive to achieve in our work, through partnerships, dialogue, innovation and, above all, solidarity.

Staff members