COVID-19 and the sites of rights resilience

As we reflect on the place of human rights in the COVID-19 crisis, we should shine a light not only on ‘the state’ but on the local actors and processes that have contributed to the resilience of human rights constructs in the face of obstruction and repression. 

Lorenzo Cotula is principal researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group; Elaine Webster is director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law at the University of Strathclyde

Two people carrying containers on their heads

Informal food sellers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The city has announced that informal trading will be banned in the central business district when the lockdown ends (Photo: KB Mpofu, International Labour Organisation via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Public responses to COVID-19 have exposed the ambiguous relation between human rights and the state – configuring the state both as a threat, where wide-ranging emergency powers risk becoming permanent and sustaining transitions towards more authoritarian forms of government; and as an enabler, through calls for redistributive strategies to address the inequalities the pandemic has so vividly highlighted.

It is therefore unsurprising that reimagining that relation is emerging as an important theme in debates about the future of the human rights regime post COVID-19.

Yet the state is but one core part of a multi-layered landscape of human rights actors. For a start, we know that many human rights problems are rooted in transnational relations and global business practices that cross and bypass the boundaries of the nation-state.

And although many juristic approaches emphasise the role of the state as the ‘duty bearer’ in international accountability frameworks, analyses of human rights approaches must also consider real-life developments in local arenas.

A range of local relationships and experiences give life to human rights from the ‘bottom up’, and provide food for thought on advancing human rights in the COVID-19 context.

Paraphrasing Koen De Feyter, who spoke of ‘sites of rights resistance’ when linking local activism to the global human rights framework, we highlight the value of focusing on those linkages as key ‘sites of rights resilience’ during and after the pandemic.   

Resilience from the roots

Human rights approaches will only remain resilient in the face of crisis if they are seen to be of value and are used in addressing the pressing issues people face in their daily lives.

There is still much that we can and should learn from the modalities of bottom-up approaches, which could enrich our understanding of how such resilience might take root. To do so, we must draw lessons from the diverse approaches that have relied on human rights concepts to frame advocacy and action at local to global levels.

Actors engaged in local arenas include organised social movements, such as indigenous and agrarian movements, that have escalated local struggles into national and international advocacy; all the way to those striving for ‘everyday’ accountability, such as small-scale civil society groups working at the grassroots, and even local authorities (as states are not only diverse but also internally disaggregated). 

In many parts of the world, such varied actors have mobilised human rights to address wide-ranging socio-economic and political issues – from protecting rights in the face of ‘land grabbing’ in Cameroon, to promoting independent living for disabled people in Scotland.

They have often done so in partnership with national and international advocacy organisations that have supported them, conceptually as well as logistically, in framing issues through a human rights lens. 

These practical experiences provide insights for reflections about the place of human rights in the COVID-19 crisis. Approaches ‘from below’ are extremely diverse, as are the agendas they pursue. But many strategies have long driven the types of transitions now being advocated in response to the pandemic – including greater emphasis on socio-economic rights and on the human rights/climate change interface, and on confronting issues of socio-economic justice. A key question is how to learn from, and support, these developments. 

Further, locally grounded analyses have shed light on the meaning of human rights, and ways to advance them in complex political economy contexts. They recognise the important material aspects at play, but also, in Saurabh Arora and Divya Sharma’s words, how ‘power produces poverty’ – so rights strategies cannot just rely on the provision of goods and services but must necessarily renegotiate the power relations that sustain deprivation in the first place. 

These analyses have also linked local human rights issues to global arenas. In a recent IEL Collective video, for example, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, speaking with Luis Eslava, Clair Gammage and Annamaria La Chimia, discussed how realising the right to food from the bottom up might require reconfiguring the structures of international trade. 

These considerations do not de-centre the role of the state as the duty bearer under international human rights law. The scale of COVID-19’s economic impacts has fostered a growing sense that the pandemic will reconfigure the role of the state in socio-economic relations for years to come – and aligning that role with pursuit of human rights will have to be a key priority moving forward. 

But these considerations do shed light on the modalities of innovation in human rights thinking and action, that initiatives to sustain rights in a post-COVID context must harness if they are to succeed.

The considerations also identify themes any serious initiatives must engage with – such as the need to build on local experiences in shaping human rights strategies; the links that human rights have not only with material distribution but also with issues of power; and the need to recognise and tackle the ways global economic ordering shapes options for action at local and national levels. 

Spreading the roots

The COVID-19 pandemic, and public responses to it, compound the issues raised by other contemporary societal crises – including inequality, conflict and climate change. As reflective human rights practitioners and thinkers have observed, several of these crises are interlinked in their deep-seated causes and concrete manifestations. 

Like for other contemporary crises, human rights responses to the present juncture must be multi-faceted and multi-layered, and empirically informed by a fine-grained understanding of evolving human rights concepts and practices.

We need to look at the grassroots if we are to understand what creates rights resilience and how to support it, and if we are to shed light on both enablers and constraints to advancing socio-economic justice through human rights.

This blog originally appeared on the website of the Global Initiative For Economic, Social And Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR).

About the author

Lorenzo Cotula (lorenzo.cotula@iied.org) is principal researcher (law and sustainable development) in IIED's Natural Resources research group. He is also a visiting professor at Strathclyde Law School.

Elaine Webster is senior lecturer, director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law, and fellow of the Centre for Health Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

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