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Nordic Ministers' op-ed: Human rights and democracy key to leaving no one behind in global fight against COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to accelerate the global trends of democratic backsliding and weakening respect for human rights. It is intensifying existing inequalities, hitting those who are already marginalised, subjected to discrimination and living in poverty the hardest.

The Nordic governments advocate international cooperation, solidarity, human rights and democracy in fighting the pandemic. Disproportional response measures may have serious and far-reaching repercussions for human rights and democratic principles. We are concerned that some governments are taking advantage of the pandemic by using it as a pretext for violating human rights, shrinking the democratic space and redrawing the global playing field.

Thankfully, we have seen the international community act. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has led the way by calling for a global ceasefire so the world can focus on fighting the pandemic, and by placing human rights at the forefront. The UN human rights system, the UN humanitarian and development system and the World Health Organization have played leading roles in addressing the important challenges of COVID-19.

In support of such efforts, our five governments are striving to make sure that human rights, democracy, the rule of law and gender equality are at the centre of the immediate and long-term global response. We must build back better and greener, and we are ready to show leadership in strengthening international cooperation in the years to come.

To that end, we need to do four things:

We must mobilise internationally. The COVID-19 pandemic is a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis. Through the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community has committed to leaving no one behind. We must uphold this commitment and ensure that all measures respect human rights.

We must ensure transparency and access to reliable information. The voices of independent media and civil society, including human rights defenders, must be protected and promoted. Their monitoring and reporting will contribute to holding governments accountable. It is also imperative that we counter disinformation and propaganda, and work closely with the media, tech companies, the private sector and civil society, as well as other stakeholders.

We must ensure a gender transformative perspective in the global response. The pandemic is linked to increased levels of sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices. Also, the full enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) – such as access to modern contraceptives, safe and legal abortion and comprehensive sexuality education – has worsened considerably.

The burden that COVID-19 places on health care systems must not be used as an excuse to restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights services for all women and girls. We stand together to remove structural discrimination and will continue to promote women’s economic and political empowerment and their full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Finally, we must remain vigilant to ensure that international standards and principles do not slip. Any action to fight COVID-19 must not undermine international law, democracy or democratic institutions.

Now is the time to mobilise to protect and strengthen the multilateral system and the rules-based international order. The multilateral institutions need political and financial support. And the public’s trust in democracy and democratic institutions needs to be reinforced.

Today, we will have a discussion with leading representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe, UNESCO, the OSCE and civil society. Together, we are backing our words with action, taking the lead in making sure human rights, democracy, the rule of law and gender equality are at the heart of the world’s response and recovery.

We are prepared to share the Nordic experience of building trust through combining leadership with transparency, and cooperation between national and local government institutions as well as with civil society. We are also prepared to use our voice and experience whenever human rights, democracy, the rule of law and gender equality come under pressure.

Responding to the pandemic must not come at the cost of weaker democracies or more human rights violations. On the contrary, an approach based on democracy, gender equality and human rights is key to fighting COVID-19 and realising the 2030 Agenda.

 

Denmark:
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Jeppe Kofod
Minister for Development Cooperation, Mr Rasmus Prehn

Finland:
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Pekka Haavisto
Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Mr. Ville Skinnari

Iceland:
Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation, Mr Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson

Norway:
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Ine Eriksen Søreide
Minister of International Development, Mr Dag-Inge Ulstein

Sweden:
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Ann Linde
Minister for International Development Cooperation, Mr Peter Eriksson