COVID-19 can't crush human rights, UN gathering declares

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In this photo provided by the United Nations, Satta Sheriff, Young Leader for the SDGs and Founder and Executive Director of Action for Justice and Human Rights, Liberia, participates in the high-level virtual panel entitled "Participation, Human Rights and the Governance Challenge Ahead," Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, at the U.N. General Assembly. (Manuel Elias/UN Photo via AP)

JOHANNESBURG – In a diminished spotlight because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading human rights defenders on Friday urged people in these fractured times to connect through politics — and vote, too.

“In many places around the world, participation is being denied and civic space is being crushed,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on the sidelines of the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders, this year held online.

People must take part in the decisions that affect their lives, he said, noting “new heights” of inequalities and and warning: “The window to address climate change is almost shut.”

In the cautious language of diplomacy, no names were named, no governments called out. But around the world, the crack of batons and the tang of pepper spray have been common as some authorities are accused of using the cover of COVID-19 restrictions to commit abuses and limit free speech.

In Venezuela, advocates said quarantine was used to erode civil liberties. In Kenya, watchdogs said police enforcing curfew beat or shot dead civilians including a 13-year-old boy. Beyond the pandemic, anxieties are high in the United States about the voting process in the November election.

People must push back even in this socially distanced world, speakers said.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned of a “crisis of governance” and a marginalization of voices that she said will only deepen grievances and harm all of society.

“We are witnessing an erosion of public trust in institutions and traditional politics,” said Eamon Gilmore, the European Union’s special representative for human rights.