The Dangerous Impact COVID-19 Is Having On Human Rights

By Amanda Friedland

Everyone is affected by Covid-19 in some form. 

While many of our lives have been inconvenienced through limitations on gatherings and dining, there are millions of people facing a human rights crisis amid this ongoing pandemic. “Across the globe, illiberal or authoritarian regimes are using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on civil society, limit fundamental freedoms, and consolidate their control,” said Regan Ralph, President and CEO of the Fund for Global Human Rights. We spoke with her about this crisis and its effect on the UN’s Sustainable Goal 16, which calls for peace, justice and strong institutions. 

Tell us about The Fund for Global Human Rights Organization and what you do

The Fund for Global Human Rights is a public foundation that provides financial and strategic support to frontline human rights activists and organizations in more than 25 countries. For nearly 20 years, we’ve supported community-driven and grassroots solutions to some of the world’s most challenging issues—including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, migrants’ rights, youth and children rights, and land defense—by delivering resources and shifting power to the front lines, where it’s needed. We do this because the people most affected by human rights abuses are best equipped to develop their own solutions. To pursue their visions, they need financial support, capacity, skills, and a strong network of allies—and that’s what we deliver. By equipping locally rooted activists and organizations with these resources, we can build stronger, more resilient human rights movements with the power to create long-lasting social change.

We envision a world in which everyone lives with dignity and has the power to secure their rights to equality and justice. That’s a long-term project that requires strong, inclusive, diverse, and resilient human rights groups and movements that bring about meaningful, lasting change in attitudes, behaviors, laws, and lives.

How do you plan on achieving your goals?

Our theory of change is rooted in our values: respect, integrity, agility, sustainability, and inclusivity. Those core principles are at the heart of the Fund’s unique approach to grant-making. We offer general support grants, which equip activist groups to develop their own visions for achieving equality. We take smart risks on up-and-coming grassroots groups and leaders and support them as they dream big and overcome obstacles. Our program officers come from and live in the regions where they work, allowing them to have close, trusting relationships with local groups. We connect activists with each other, so they can share knowledge and work across boundaries or issues. And we foster organizations’ sustainability, investing in the long term because real, systemic change just doesn’t happen overnight.

How is COVID affecting SDG 16 (and what is SDG 16)?

SDG 16 is about promoting peace, inclusion, justice for all, and strong institutions. That’s a big basket that has in it everything from ensuring children are able to access social services to combating corruption at the highest levels of government. SDG 16 also emphasizes the importance of inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making. The Fund works on all these issues, and on other Sustainable Development Goals that SDG 16 is deeply interconnected with. Human rights are an integral part of the SDG framework and are central to the implementation of not only SDG 16 but all of the sustainable development goals. Without human rights, we will not be able to achieve the SDG targets.

COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on efforts to realize SDG 16. Across the globe, illiberal or authoritarian regimes are using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on civil society, limit fundamental freedoms, and consolidate their control. As Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, said, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures.”

What groups are most at risk?

The groups most at risk are the same groups who always face severe peril and prejudice: marginalized communities, including women; workers; those excluded because of their race, language, or ethnicity; indigenous peoples; and children. The pandemic has only exacerbated existing inequalities—and those ugly disparities are playing out in who has access to lifesaving medical supplies, who is able to benefit from government programs, and who is left outside in the cold.

How can we be proactive and help? 

More than ever, frontline activists need our help. From the pandemic to protests, 2020 has been a perfect storm—and human rights defenders are right in the middle. Such turmoil can feel overwhelming but it’s a time when we all need to do what we can, whether it’s giving monthly to a social justice organization, spreading awareness of human rights on Facebook or Twitter, or volunteering with civic organizations. When we join forces in ways big and small, we have the potential to make a real, lasting difference in peoples’ lives.

How are human rights activists responding? 

We’ve been awed and inspired by the resilience and ingenuity of the activists that we support. Nearly every organization has pivoted to address urgent new needs arising from COVID-19, without losing track of their long-term visions for the future. Whether it’s monitoring government abuses of power—like Spaces for Change is doing in Nigeria—or translating important public health information into indigenous languages—like the Karen Women’s Organization has done in Myanmar—frontline activists have stepped up to represent and meet the needs of their communities.

How are you responding?

One thing the Fund promises our partners is that we’re in it with them for the long haul. COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we work—staff travel is canceled, our offices are closed, and we practically live on Zoom—but we’ve adapted to ensure that our grantees can continue their vital efforts.

We also recently launched the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund in partnership with Namati, The Elders, Pathfinders, Justice for All, the Legal Empowerment Network, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency. COVID-19 is severely affecting grassroots groups. Many are rising to the challenge with innovation and resourcefulness. But even as they adapt their support for vulnerable people, they’re grappling with new risks that have emerged from the pandemic—and working with stretched budgets. Through the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, we’re committed to providing the support and resources they need.