Author speaking: Lisa Heschl

Lisa Heschl is post-doctoral research and teaching fellow at the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, University of Graz.

The European Yearbook on Human Rights helps to better understand the rich landscape of the European regional human rights system and is intended to stimulate discussions, critical thinking and further research in this field. This year COVID-19 has shaped our lives and so the book.

In the Yearbook, we always try to respond to critical, actual and topical human rights situations and developments from different perspectives. Dedicate this year´s edition to Covid-19 and human rights in the pandemic basically stems from two interrelated considerations:

On one side, after the pandemic shaped our lives for quite some time, it just was the right moment to reflect on the impacts Covid-19 had on human rights and to assess the proportionality and necessity of state responses to the pandemic in light of human rights. We know that Covid-19 measures disproportionally impacted certain groups of people, marginalized communities, and certain individuals in society exacerbating existing shortcoming in the protection of human rights. We also now, the impacts state measures had on certain groups, are a result of previous human rights protection shortfalls. We wanted to ensure, that human rights lessons are learned also to ensure that in the future responses to crisis not only pay respect to human rights but are rooted in them.

On the other hand, we consider high-quality academic research as crucial to meet and counteract misinformation and distorted and misguided perceptions of human rights, their objectives, and functions. To lead a discourse about the impacts the pandemic and state measures taken is important and vital. However, it has to be rooted in research and not be driven by fears and emotions. The Yearbook genuinely aims to contribute thereto, providing high quality research on a variety of decisive aspects of the pandemic.

Still, I would like to highlight that this year´s edition, as all the others, includes a section on human rights developments not related to the pandemic. Research, for example on the human rights responsibilities of third states actors or the new EU`s Human Rights Sanctions Regime are of utter importance to strengthen awareness for human rights. Also, the yearly review of important human rights case law, helps to get a better understanding of human rights in Europe.

How would you define Human Rights in times of pandemic?

The human rights dimension of the pandemic is not only an enormous but also a multi-level one. On the one hand, the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated existing shortcomings in human rights protection. On the other hand, the role of the state in the pandemic had various human rights implications. State measures to combat the pandemic, such as restrictions of movement or the closure of schools, interfered with human rights and might even have violated them. At the same time, states under positive human rights obligations had to take measures to combat the pandemic in order to protect human rights. It is thus difficult or rather impossible to identify “the” human right affected most by the pandemic or “the” measure taken having the most severe impacts.

What became obvious due to the pandemic, that to build resilient societies, there is a need to strengthen human rights, their inalienability, and their justiciability at large. Further, human rights must be strengthened as guiding principles for state actions, related to the pandemic but also beyond crisis response measures. 

We are really proud that the Yearbook grasps all these different aspects addressing the human rights aspects of the pandemic in a comprehensive way.

How have states responded?

The variety of state measures to combat the pandemic are manifold and have often been taken as bundle. What we can see, however, that vulnerable groups, such as people in care facilities or migrants and refugees have been affected most and often disproportionately by state measures. It has to be highlighted as well that, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, state responses have had a rather ad-hoc character and had to be taken under the pressure of events. The crucial point in assessing these measures, is striking a balance between epidemiological necessities and the restrictions of individual rights. Human rights are not absolute, they can be limited under certain circumstances, for example if public health requires it. However, in such cases certain preconditions have to be met. For example, state measures limiting human rights have to be proportionate, they have to be prescribed by law and they have to be subject to judicial review. The contributions in the Yearbook address questions, whether state measures can be justified under human rights law or whether they violate human rights.

The pandemic has changed events such as elections for example, have we adapted well?

Whether we will be able to learn our lessons from the pandemic will only be visible when the next crisis strikes. It is important thus, to reflect as well on broader, underlying questions, such as questions about justice or inequalities as several contribution in the Yearbook do. Furthermore, to build resilient societies we will have to explore new approaches such as creating an EU Health Union or discussing more in-depth new rights such as the right to a healthy environment.

Have the European institutions complied with their role?

Especially at the beginning of the crisis we saw that states preferred a national way of dealing with the pandemic rather than to approach it jointly under the umbrella e.g. of the EU. However, as a pandemic is transboundary by its nature collective responses to certain issues were necessary and successful such as the purchase of vaccines by the EU. The institutions have also been strong in urging states to respect and protect human rights during the pandemic. Dunja Mijatovic, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, not only in the foreword to the EYHR 2021, used for example every opportunity to bring social rights at top of the agenda urging states to draw more attention to these often-neglected rights. Furthermore, as we are also confronted with democratic and rule of law backslides in Europe, the European human rights institutions are of utter importance for ensuring human rights standards in Europe.

However, as the emergence of new variants show, effective responses to the pandemic have o be global ones. We are also extremely grateful that Volker Türk, the Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG), provided in his contribution an insight to the efforts by the UN to coordinate global responses to the pandemic.

During the pandemic we have heard the expression Human Rights à la carte, what does it mean?

One of the most concerning things is that the universality and inalienability of human rights is questioned more and more. Political parties and persons discontent with current anti-Covid 19 policies base their rejection of measures on human rights arguments. However, their claims are often guided by a wrong understanding of human rights, neglecting the collective dimension of human rights. One cannot claim that the individual right to respect the private life is more worth than the right to health of the other. Furthermore, human rights are universal, that means they do not apply only for a narrow group of people but for all. There is a tendency that especially those political parties using human rights language to promote their anti-Covid-19 agenda, demand the restrictions of rights of people in their opinion not “belonging”, especially migrants and refugees. States will have to react to this tendency by fostering human rights education. The Yearbook contributes by raising awareness for human rights issues and offering high quality research on the most pressing human rights issues.

About the book

European Yearbook on Human Rights 2021

The European Yearbook on Human Rights brings together renowned scholars, emerging voices and practitioners, comprising contributions which engage with some of the most important human rights issues and developments in Europe. The Yearbook helps to better understand the rich landscape of the European regional human rights system and is intended to stimulate discussions, critical thinking and further research in this field.

Philip Czech, Lisa Heschl, Karin Lukas, Manfred Nowak, Gerd Oberleitner

November 2021
ISBN 9781839701627

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