The year of the pandemic laid bare our global human rights crisis. Now let’s fix it

Leaders ignore their responsibilities at their peril. Across the globe, people are organizing in extraordinary numbers, with a sense of common purpose that unites them across race, gender, age and social condition. 

By Ketty Nivyabandi & Alex Neve*

2020 has been a tumultuous year for human rights. 

Like a mirror held to our faces, COVID-19 has unveiled our deepest inequities: Older people, women, Indigenous peoples, Black and racialized communities, refugees and migrants, low-income and homeless people, and those living with disabilities have borne the brunt of the pandemic. 

The failure to respect the land and resource rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada once again led to confrontation and violence, notably in Wet’suwet’en Territory at the beginning of the year and the Treaty-protected Mi’kmaq lobster fishery more recently. 

Demands for action to address systemic racism against Indigenous, Black and racialized peoples in Canada grew more urgent, particularly with respect to police violence. 

South of the border, the profound divisions and ascent of hate under the Donald Trump administration reached frightening levels in the lead-up to and following the presidential election. 

Around the world, leaders undermine human rights every day with alarming boldness. They repressed peaceful protest in Belarus, Nigeria, Thailand and Hong Kong. They waged wars that ravaged civilians in Yemen, Syria, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ethiopia. They target and silence human rights defenders in Colombia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Burundi, Honduras, Turkey and India. They watch refugees drown in the Mediterranean and institutionalize cruelty at the U.S./Mexico border where more than 600 children have yet to be reunited with the parents from whom they were forcibly separated. And massive human rights violations persist in Venezuela, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and against Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar. 

All the while, the global climate crisis – an overarching human rights crisis of unprecedented scale – begs for decisive political action. 

These are grave challenges, the solutions to which all lie in universal human rights. 

Yet we hear very little about human rights from our leaders. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s throne speech in September, offering a roadmap “to build a stronger and more resilient Canada for everyone” only referenced human rights once, in connection with Canadian citizens arbitrarily detained in China. The same could be said of most governments globally. 

Leaders ignore their human rights responsibilities at their peril. Across the globe, people are organizing in extraordinary numbers for their rights to be upheld, with a renewed sense of common purpose that unites them across race, gender, age and social condition. In Canada, Indigenous and Black communities are joining in solidarity and struggle, bonded by the understanding that their freedoms are intimately tied. 

Earlier this year, the killing of George Floyd hit a global nerve, an unbearable reminder that the knee of white supremacy remains firmly on the world’s neck. In return, people poured into the streets – with women and young people so often leading the way – demanding accountability for centuries of racial violence. Their courage is often met with brutal force. Yet it does not give way; and it propels us towards real change. 

Clearly, it is time for leaders to follow the people’s lead. Human rights will see us through these turbulent times, if leaders have the wisdom and foresight to uphold them. 

The just-tabled legislation to make the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples law in Canada is a good start, and must be followed by implementation in collaboration with all Indigenous Peoples. 

So much more remains. The rights of women and LGBTIQ2S people must be upheld. Front-line human rights defenders must be supported, not vilified, for the essential role they play. Systemic racism cannot just be decried, it must be concretely uprooted. 

Nations and industries that bear the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis must halt its devastating impact on communities already unjustly exposed to human rights violations. 

And the inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 call for long-overdue action to uphold economic, social and cultural rights. 

Until governments and corporations are held accountable for their human rights responsibilities, justice and equality will remain elusive, and our futures unsustainable. 

When they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, governments agreed that, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” 

While that affirmation remains an illusion, more than 70 years later it has never been more true, more urgent, and – we believe – more possible. 

This op-ed was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on December 10, 2020 here. Ketty Nivyabandi is the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, succeeding Alex Neve, who was Secretary General from 2000-2020.