COVID-19 and Human Rights Leadership

by Alan Miller - Posted on 20 March 2020

Human rights leadership can help us get through the COVID-19 crisis together and also help all of us apply its lessons to build a better country in a better world. 

How a human rights-based approach can help us together get through the COVID-19 crisis

Any crisis can bring the out the best and worst.  A human rights-based approach helps bring out the best. 

Among the ways to help us get through this crisis together are providing all necessary information to the public so that we can take steps to protect ourselves and others.  Empowering and supporting people to take action in our own lives and communities is essential as the government cannot do everything itself.  Prioritising the most vulnerable, including front line workers, and respecting the human dignity and well-being of all individuals and families need to inform all actions.  

Additionally, all efforts should be made to avoid a disproportionate, if unintended, impact upon women who are, for example, very often the primary carers of both the young and elderly and who are also among the lowest paid and enjoy the least security in work.  Similarly, all efforts should be made to avoid any stigma against those who may be infected as well as any discrimination, intended or unintended, against anyone, including in access to health services.

The principal duty of government in this crisis is the protection of life.  This includes the maintenance of public health.  Any restrictive social measures or interference with individual rights need to be lawful, proportionate and necessary to maintain public health.  Striking this balance needs to inform all of our law, policy and decision-making.  These are not always easy judgements and this balancing approach helps make them.

Maximum available resources must be allocated to provide real security to individuals and families.  This needs to prioritise the low paid and those in the most precarious forms of employment.  Financial and other support should be targeted as directly and speedily as possible to them without undue reliance upon employers or bureaucratic processes.   

Governments acting in these ways will win public confidence and cooperation in facing and finding a way together through the crisis.

If there is one heartening thing about the COVID-19 crisis it is that the Scottish Government, notwithstanding considerable capacity constraints in common with the other devolved administrations, is making a serious effort to take this human rights-based approach in extremely challenging and unprecedented circumstances.

How a human rights-based approach can help us build a better future

Lives are being lost to this crisis.  Suffering is widespread. 

What has been exposed is that in the UK, relative to other developed countries in the European Union and elsewhere, there has been a lack of preparedness to manage such a crisis.  This is being evidenced, for example, in how our NHS had been deprived of necessary resources over time, particularly as a result of the period of the past decade of austerity, and the inadequacy of social protections such as statutory sick pay and Universal Credit. 

What matters today is to get through the crisis as soon as possible and so minimise the loss of life and suffering. 

What will matter tomorrow is that we learn the lessons and change our society for the better. 

This needs human rights leadership.

At the heart of this is to place internationally recognised human rights at the centre of all of our law, policy and decision-making. 

These need to include the progressive realisation over time, using the maximum of available resources, of such rights as the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing and food, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to social security and the right to a healthy environment.   This needs to be done and can be done.  It is a matter of choosing our priorities and of determining what kind of country we aspire to build.  It is fundamentally about human dignity.

Human rights leadership

There is an urgent need for human rights leadership more broadly in today’s world.  Even apart from the COVID-19 crisis this is evidenced by the climate crisis, economic and social inequalities, poverty, forced migration and conflicts.  

International co-operation, through such bodies as the World Health Organisation, and the rules-based order built primarily by the United Nations must be re-affirmed.   It is under pressure from those pursuing self-interest.  People around the world, generations to come and the planet itself deserve better.

It is of some encouragement to recognise that key steps are being taken in and by Scotland to provide this human rights leadership. 

A Scottish Government led National Task Force for Human Rights Leadership was established in 2019 and is currently preparing recommendations, informed by a public participatory process, for a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives.  It is anticipated that a Bill will be presented to the next session of the Scottish Parliament.

The National Task Force is progressing the recommendations made in the 2018 Report by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership.

These included bringing into our law, policy and decision-making the very rights, drawn from UN treaties, which have been demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis to be so necessary - such as the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing and food, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to social security and the right to a healthy environment.

This is a very welcome initiative just begun in Scotland.  The more that this human rights leadership becomes shared across all walks of life in Scotland and beyond, the more real progress will be made in building a better country in a better world.


Alan Miller

Professor of Practice in Human Rights, University of Strathclyde