International Human Rights Day –
Finding Humanity in Crises
by Abigail Dawson
International Human Rights Day is marked each year on 10 December. This year we commemorate the 72nd anniversary since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A landmark document which declares the inalienable and inherent rights of all humans regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
While commemorative days can be seen, merely, as another day in the calendar, they provide an opportunity to reflect on historical eras and recommit to creating a world that is more just and hospitable to all people.
COVID-19, like other crises, has revealed and exacerbated social and economic inequalities around the globe. Attention was reserved for an unprecedented health crisis as we all adapted and made sense of a socially-distanced world. The economic and social consequences of COVID-19 have disproportionately burdened already marginalised people in our communities.
As crises always challenge human rights, this day of remembrance provides an opportunity to find what is human in human rights, to remove these obligations from their legalistic holding, and recommit ourselves to the principles set out in these conventions and to hold signatory states accountable to their responsibilities.
In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened refugee protection around the world, creating additional barriers to seeking asylum and compounding pre-existing safety and livelihood challenges. In a recent report the UNCHR has estimated that by mid-2020 global forced displacement had surpassed 80 million persons. Necessary consideration was given to dealing with the global pandemic while existing and new violence, conflict, and persecution continued within South Africa and in our neighbouring countries. Forced displacement will continue until we see the connectedness of our humanity and the importance of creating sustainable communities.
In South Africa, Refugee Reception Offices have been closed during the national lockdown resulting in the expiration of asylum seeker’s documents. Despite the Department of Home Affairs having provided a blanket extension until 31 January 2021 for all documents which expired during the national lockdown, asylum seekers and refugees have continued to face exclusions. These have been most noticeable in accessing basic services and social assistance and banking services, and places asylum seekers and refugees at an increased risk of detention and harassment by authorities.
The exclusion of anyone has a consequential impact on the lives of others. Former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, in a report addressing migration, reflects that: “Human beings have moved from place to place across the millennia, by choice and under duress, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Only by upholding our duty to protect those fleeing persecution and violence, and by embracing the opportunities that refugees and migrants offer to their new societies, will we be able to achieve a more prosperous and fairer future for all.”
The impact of COVID-19 on the fabric of our society will be felt for years to come. As we prepare for the inevitable second wave, it is imperative that we recognise our own human dignity as being intertwined with the dignity of others. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder to unite in the struggle towards a more just and humane world – a world which responds to the needs of the most vulnerable first.