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Voices from the Movement: Ken Roth on COVID-19 and Human Rights

May 13, 2020

Ken Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s leading international human rights organizations, which operates in more than 90 countries. A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Ken has conducted numerous human rights investigations and missions around the world. He has written extensively on a wide range of human rights abuses, devoting special attention to issues of international justice, counterterrorism, the foreign policies of the major powers, and the work of the United Nations.

In addition to HRW’s role as a Global Symposium partner, SCSC and the Samuel Family Foundation have long been engaged in a partnership with HRW’s Disability Rights Division to document the impact of social isolation on the rights of people with disabilities and the rights of older people. We have collaborated on the publication of two reports on the abuse of older persons, and our Social Connectedness Fellows have also worked with HRW to better understand social isolation facing older women in the Canadian workforce, migrants with disabilities in the Canadian legal system, and Indigenous youth in the Canadian justice system. SCSC will also be conducting in-house research in partnership with Human Rights Watch on the detention of forced migrants in Canada this summer. Earlier this month, SCSC, in conjunction with HRW, convened a group of leaders from around the world in an online gathering to discuss a new and positive vision for human rights in the age of COVID-19, climate change, severe inequalities, and social isolation centered around the Right to Belong.

We are pleased to share a global opinion piece by Ken in the Washington Post, where he emphasizes that the global health crisis must not be used as an excuse to disregard human rights. Rather than deploying the urgency of the pandemic to erode protections otherwise granted to individuals by the rights regime, Ken urges governments to uphold human rights as a commitment to public health.

Some governments around the world are using the pandemic to claim that human rights are a luxury we cannot afford. With the crisis as a pretext, they are arresting critics, intensifying surveillance and seizing broad emergency powers. The underlying assumption is clear: Safeguarding human rights is a nicety that must be jettisoned when times get tough.

In fact, though, the pandemic has also turned out to be an opportunity to promote human rights — not only as a matter of principle but also for reasons of pragmatism. The crisis has shown that officials who ignore human rights jeopardize our health, while respecting human rights is the best public health strategy.

Good health policy, for example, requires timely access to accurate information so governments can quickly respond to any threat. The early stages of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, illustrate the danger of suppressing speech about public health.

Read more at the Washington Post.