Jan 08, 2021

Compromised Space: COVID-19 and exclusion of unrepresented people

A report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organizaton has shed further light on the extent to which unrepresented nations and people are excluded from equal participation at the United Nations. Building on earlier work highlighting the extent to which certain governments go to exclude, harras, intimidate and take out reprisals against people seeking to highlight to the international community the plight of unrepresented nations and people, this latest report identifies systemic weaknesses within the UN system that have caused further exclusions to occur during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building on the 2019 report Compromised Space: Bullying and Blocking at the UN Human Rights Mechanisms, this report documents the challenges that “unrepresented diplomats” have faced in the period from the beginning of the impact of COVID-19 on the workings of the UN in mid-March 2020 until the end of the 45th regular session of the Human Rights Council in early October 2020. The report, published with Oxford University academics Fiona McConnell, draws on 17 interviews with unrepresented diplomats who had sought to engage with UN Human Rights Mechanisms in 2020, as well as a systematic collation of UN announcements, NGO reports, and the personal experience of UNPO Secretariat staff seeking to access UN forums and meetings.

The report finds that, compounded by a debilitating liquidity crisis, the UN’s response to COVID-19 has led to a number of changes in the functioning of UN Human Rights Mechanisms, including the postponement of key events, restrictions accessing UN spaces in Geneva and New York, and a shift towards online participation in UN meetings and forums. This has exacerbated a worrying trend towards the effective silencing of the voices of unrepresented diplomats in UN spaces identified in the research we have conducted on participation at the UN since 2015.

“Unrepresented diplomats” are human rights defenders from “unrepresented nations and peoples”: minority, indigenous or otherwise politically marginalised groups who are effectively disenfranchised in their national contexts and who as a result cannot have their issues properly represented by the governments seated at the United Nations. Unrepresented nations and peoples are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. Their disenfranchisement in national contexts has put them at the back of the queue for resources and assistance to combat the pandemic. In some societies, endemic racism and societal discrimination has been exacerbated by the virus. Unrepresented nations and peoples have also faced widespread crack downs on freedom of expression and exercising their rights to self-determination that have been introduced by a number of states using the COVID-19 crisis as cover for the use of repressive measures.

In this context, the restrictions on access to the UN that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly concerning for unrepresented diplomats. These diplomats were already struggling to have their voices heard at the UN and often have no other safe space, whether domestically or internationally, in which to have their issues properly heard and debated. The crisis has further restricted the already-limited opportunities they have for seeking a hearing and protection on their issues. It has also limited the ability of the international system to learn from their experiences with COVID-19 and more generally. Unfortunately, potential opportunities that could arise from a shift to more hybrid and online participation at UN meetings to make the UN more inclusive have thus far not been realised.

The report notes that organisations with a presence in Geneva have been able to continue operating relatively normally with the UN institutions based in Geneva. For instance, while the UNPO does not have ECOSOC status and struggles with the limitations that all organisations without such status have, the UNPO Secretariat does have a presence in Geneva and has been able to see, first hand, the benefit that such a presence has compared to others. UN officials have, at all times throughout the pandemic, been helpful to and open with the UNPO Secretariat and have tried to ameliorate the challenges caused by COVID-19 on participation even while they themselves are dealing with the personal upheavals that the pandemic has caused. Most organisations, however, cannot benefit from a physical presence in Geneva or New York. In addition, UN officials have limited capacities and there are many thousands of civil society organisations seeking participation at the UN. As a result, UN officials urgently need to be provided with greater support — in terms of human resources, financing, and structural reforms — for the UN to achieve the participatory and inclusive international society envisaged in UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.