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Essex Dialogues One: human rights theorists respond to COVID-19

We begin our deep dive into the new publication from the School of Law and Human Rights Centre.

  • Date

    Fri 31 Jul 20

A new publication from the School of Law and Human Rights Centre provides an extensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic, charting its impact and mapping the way ahead. Over the coming weeks, we will be exploring its eight sections in greater depth.

Across thirty-two chapters and eight themed discussions, COVID-19, Law and Human Rights: Essex Dialogues, explores the impact of the pandemic and a range of responses to it. 

The publication opens with a discussion of how human rights theory can best respond to the current pandemic. Dr Koldo Casla and Dr Ozan Kamiloğlu, who both contribute chapters to the section, were joined by colleagues Dr Eliana CusatoDr Andrew Fagan and Dr Emily Jones

Agreeing that the crisis had highlighted the limitations of 'negative liberty' – just ‘leaving people be’ - they observed that the pandemic has brought a range of inequalities into sharp focus: “Different groups are being disproportionately affected, not only by the pandemic but by the unequal societies in which they live. Our political and economic systems have contributed significantly to these societal failings.”

The Reach of Rights in the Crisis

An evolving, global pandemic presents a number of challenges to the practical enjoyment of human rights. In healthcare, for example, the risk of a service being "overwhelmed" might lead to decisions that enable some to enjoy a right, but others not.

In The Reach of Rights in the CrisisProfessor Sheldon Leader identifies key tensions between objectives for policymakers as they manage competing basic rights.

This happens, for example, when orders to return to work, backed by the threat of dismissal, are given by employers despite evidence that this return could jeopardise workers' health. While the enterprise cannot usually claim to be making a human rights-based demand in such an order to return to work, there is nevertheless a recognisable tension between the level of protection legitimately accorded to the right to health and the aim of stimulating the economy.

Professor Leader also considers tensions between government and private sector providers – pricing decisions, in relation to essential medical supplies, for example, illustrate the need to balance impact on consumers - and their human rights - and the company’s interests in terms of commercial returns.

Rights and Responsibilities: Protecting and Fulfilling Economic and Social Rights in Times of Public Health Emergency

Dr Koldo Casla begins his chapter by observing how the pandemic has reminded us of our interdependence, and how that might guide us in years ahead: “We are all interconnected, for better and for worse. If the nodes were not so densely linked in multiple ways, the virus would not have gone global so quickly. At the same time, if the connections between us are not sufficiently strong, we will not be well equipped to deal with it successfully.”

Dr Casla explores “human rights and civic responsibilities as mutually reinforcing ideas in times of public health emergency”: “I am not using the word “responsibility” as a legal duty, but as a civic duty to do what we can so others in the political community we are part of can enjoy their rights.”

The preconditions for the enjoyment of human rights, he argues, are active citizenship and a significant role for the State: “One of the civic duties must be to sustain and defend resourceful and universal public services that prioritise the attention of most vulnerable individuals in a more equal and caring society.”

Socio-economic rights are key, Dr Casla argues, before arguing for a range of measures to protect those at greater risk of harm, disadvantage or discrimination.

Rethinking Minimum Guarantees after the Pandemic: The Invisible Violence of Neoliberal Rationality

In the final chapter in this section, Dr Ozan Kamiloğlu identifies an opportunity: “This essay suggests that the pandemic brings unprecedented economic and social challenges while simultaneously opening the door for the renegotiation of minimum guarantees that human rights discourses conceptualise.”

In Rethinking Minimum Guarantees after the Pandemic: The Invisible Violence of Neoliberal Rationality, he notes the exceptional measures put in place in response to COVID-19, including the emergency powers taken by governments.

The imposition of emergency powers has an inevitable "momentum", he observes, but at the same time “the current crisis makes what used to be invisible, visible,” allowing human rights practitioners to see inequalities and respond to them.

Reflecting on neoliberalism, and its development over the last half century, he considers the relationship between the dominant philosophy and human rights. Has the focus of human rights discourse - addressing humanitarian crises abroad - negatively impacted on the struggle for social and economic rights?

COVID-19, Law and Human Rights: Essex Dialogues features contributions from experts in our School of LawHuman Rights Centre and School of Health and Social Care, and external collaborators from Amnesty InternationalFair Trials and Geneva Academy. You can access the full publication for free on this website.