COVID-19 threatens justice, security and fundamental human rights: here’s what the United Nations has been doing about it under the umbrella of the Global Focal Point for the Rule of Law
By: Katy Thompson, Andrew Carpenter & Robert Pulver
COVID-19 is turning out to be much more than a health and economic crisis. Since the pandemic began in early 2020, it has also caused many countries to slide backwards and threatens progress made on governance and human rights.
Additionally, the pandemic has had practical repercussions on the adequate functioning of legal institutions in many countries, raising serious challenges for the way that governments enforce justice, security and human rights. Justice, corrections and police institutions around the world have had to adjust to new realities, risks, and protocols to continue to do business-as-usual while dealing safely with the disease. Courts have had to change the way they manage caseloads and prisons have had to act to ensure that already vulnerable inmates are not further endangered by COVID-19.
The Global Focal Point for Rule of Law (GFP), a field-focused inter-agency coordination mechanism co-chaired by UNDP and DPO, has been helping national authorities in complex settings to adjust to this new reality — getting essentials delivered to national justice, corrections and police institutions and supporting the implementation of preventive measures as rapidly as possible. Thanks to generous contributions from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, we have been offering assistance to more than 16 countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the crisis began, support has been focused around four main areas:
(1) E-justice solutions for judicial proceedings and virtual courts
In many countries, COVID-19 restrictions initially meant that court proceedings were halted or postponed. This risked causing a backlog of cases and further worsening access to justice for local populations. In many cases, the best solution has been to establish virtual court systems through video links or virtual meeting platforms. For example, in Somalia, UNSOM and the United Nations Country Team, working together under the GFP umbrella, have facilitated the installation of cameras and other technology, which are also helping make the courts become more accessible. This initiative was implemented alongside the introduction of an electronic case management system for judges, clerks and lawyers.
(2) Protecting prisoners
Corrections and detention facilities are high-risk places for the transmission and spread of COVID-19. As well as placing inmates at risk, high concentrations of infections in prisons can endanger surrounding populations. For this reason, we entered into a partnership with Health through Walls, a medical NGO with expertise in preventing contagious diseases in low-income countries. Online assistance and advice have been provided to United Nations missions and United Nations Country Teams in various countries, such as in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have also supported efforts to reduce the size of prison populations and prison overcrowding in Mali, increase hygiene and sanitation in prisons in Somalia, and provide PPE equipment for detainees and prison staff.
(3) Protecting the police
COVID-19 has made the job of policing more difficult for some forces around the world as officers now need to perform their duties, which often involve close physical contact with members of the public, whilst remaining vigilant against infection. At the same time, it is important that states of emergency are carried out without police and security forces contravening basic rights. Through a dedicated partnership between the GFP and UNDP’s Global Programme, we have provided PPE equipment to national police officers and United Nations mission police personnel, and given technical assistance to national authorities. With the expert support offered by the DPO Standing Police Capacity, the GFP has also been helping to raise awareness of human rights compliant policing during states of emergency in settings such as Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia.
(4) Understanding the situation through better knowledge-management
As the situation continues to evolve rapidly across multiple countries, it is vital to keep track of, and learn from successes, challenges and mistakes. A critical part of the joint COVID-19 response is the exchange of information and best practices amongst different United Nations entities. Ensuring the easy flow of updates is critical to combatting the pandemic. To facilitate these exchanges, we organized regular meetings and a dedicated webinar series that started in February and culminated at the end of June (recordings of the webinars are available upon request). In addition, a webpage on the rule of law response to COVID-19 has been created to keep all this information in one place. A knowledge tool on joint programming is also being developed and it will be published later this year.
Added value of the joint approach
By working together through the GFP, we capitalize on the accumulated expertise of the United Nations system as we respond to COVID-19 in numerous settings. As a result, we were able to scale up our response, to build stronger partnerships, and to encourage new joint projects and programmes where COVID has been posing the greatest risk, such as in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan and Sudan. For example, GFP supported the operationalization of the new Joint Programme in support to the Stabilization of Mali through the strengthening of the Rule of Law (PROSMED) implemented by UNDP Mali, MINUSMA and other partners on the ground by providing seed-funding for joint activities and initiatives. Furthermore, joint GFP support has given us an opening to engage on other related issues in some countries, such as, in South Sudan, where the first joint rule of law project in the country to address the issue of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) was established by UNDP, UNMISS and OHCHR. So far, the project has developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Actions Plans on CRSV for South Sudan National Police Service and South Sudan People’s Defense Forces to ensure that national security forces can rapidly and effectively prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.
We will continue to draw upon the lessons learned carrying out these activities during the pandemic and will develop enhanced ways of working together in the future.
Katy Thompson, Head of Rule of Law, Security and Human Rights, Crisis Bureau, UNDP
Andrew Carpenter, Chief of Strategic Policy and Development Section, PD, OROLSI, DPO
Robert Pulver, Chief of Justice and Corrections Service, JCS, OROLSI, DPO