Human rights must be at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery

Published 3 years ago
Let’s fight COVID-19 together: a mural painted by community artists, supported by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, to deliver information and messages on COVID-19 through artistic illustrations along some of the busiest streets around Maringo and Kibera, two informal settlements in Nairobi. Photo credit: Defenders Coalition.

On 10 December every year, we celebrate Human Rights Day, marking the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Universal Declaration guarantees a spectrum of human rights that belong to each of us equally, and unite us as a global community and upholds our humanity.

This year, 2020, has been one of unprecedented challenges and has underscored the need for renewed action to promote and protect human rights.  The COVID-19 pandemic has tested societies across the globe, and set back human rights gains and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. 

In Kenya, the multi-faceted impacts of the pandemic – on gender equality, health, education, livelihoods, rule of law and the economy – have tested efforts by the Government, United Nations, development partners and civil society to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, Vision 2030 and the Big 4 development agenda, and challenged us to ensure that we leave no one behind.


The crisis has hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest, and entrenched existing inequalities, discrimination and human rights challenges.  Gender-based violence has skyrocketed; loss of employment and livelihoods have put further strain on families; the right to education is at risk for many children, particularly girls; and inequalities in access to water, adequate housing and health services have heightened vulnerabilities.

In this context, the theme of Human Rights Day 2020 is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”, highlighting the need to build back better from the COVID-19 crisis by putting human rights at the heart of recovery efforts.  This is a call to action and for unity of purpose to tackle discrimination, address inequalities, encourage participation and solidarity, and promote sustainable development for the benefit of all.

As the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. António Guterres, once remarked, “the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world”. The crisis has exposed and exacerbated deep inequalities, entrenched discrimination and gaps in human rights protection.  Only measures to close these gaps and advance human rights can ensure we fully recover and build back a world that is more resilient, just and sustainable. 

COVID-19 has created an opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world – based on a “new social contract” that respects the rights and freedoms of all, and addresses the inequalities exposed by the pandemic.  This “new social contract” – uniting Governments, the people, civil society and private sector – is the only way that we will meet the Sustainable Development Goals.


In this Decade of Action to deliver upon the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, it is imperative to prioritise participation and inclusion, to ensure that we leave no one behind.  Successful COVID-19 recovery efforts require the robust participation of civil society and inclusion of communities, to ensure the voices and priorities of the most affected, vulnerable and marginalised inform the recovery efforts.  Public participation is a key tenet of the Constitution of Kenya, and has a key role to play in the COVID-19 recovery.

It is clear that this pandemic cannot be surmounted by a single actor.  It is against this backdrop that the United Nations Country Team and the Government of Kenya, in line with the motto Umoja ni Nguvu (Unity is Strength), have identified strategic areas of cooperation and engagement under the United Nations Development Assistance Framework, as well as the Socio-Economic Response Plan, that target COVID-19 recovery needs and continue the trajectory towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  This is underpinned by a human rights-based approach that prioritises equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, and accountability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we are all in this together – and solidarity is the only way forward.  Everyone has a role to play in building a better post-COVID world for present and future generations, and we must harness the active participation of communities, civil society, private sector, Government and the international community. 

On this Human Rights Day, let us all commit to Stand Up for Human Rights to build back a more equal and sustainable society that advances the rights and freedoms of all.  This unity of purpose will pave the way to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and delivering Kenya’s Vision 2030.


Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. He has served in various parts of the world with UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, UN Peacekeeping and the Red Cross Movement. He is an alumnus of Princeton University. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1