How to protect the rights of vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic? Vision of Amnesty International Ukraine

Due to quarantine restrictions that have already caused a shift in advocacy activities of the human rights community, UHHRU is starting a series of interviews with the leaders of Ukrainian human rights organizations on the protection of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of the population amidst today’s crisis.


We present an interview with Amnesty International Ukraine Director Oksana Pokalchuk.



The UN, PACE and a number of EU states have expressed concern about the threat to human rights amidst the fight against COVID-19. What do you think this threat actually is?

The governments in a number of countries are already using the pandemic as an excuse to get tough or are introducing anti-virus measures that violate human rights even though this could have been prevented. So that threat involves restrictions which, while justified during a pandemic, could become a precedent which governments would be able to use in the future without proper justification or procedure. Moreover, the governments in some countries are introducing and stepping up surveillance and control systems that will likely remain in use after the pandemic is over.


What human rights restrictions do you see as unacceptable and disproportionate to the level of threat in Ukraine today?

The Ukrainian government can limit a wide range of human rights to combat the pandemic. However, these restrictions should be justified and proportionate to the level of threat. Consequently, any unjustified and disproportionate restrictions are unacceptable. At present, given the gravity and unprecedented nature of the situation, it’s difficult to assess the proportionality and legitimacy of the restrictions. However, the government should still as far as possible adhere to legislative procedure when implementing these restrictions, set clear time frames for them and provide mechanisms for lifting these restrictions, as well as effectively and proactively inform the public every step of the way.

Oksana Pokalchuk (Amnesty International Ukraine)


Has any social group been facing additional discrimination by the Ukrainian and other governments?

Some groups have been affected by discriminatory anti-pandemic measures. The Slovak government, for instance, used the military to conduct targeted testing of people in Roma settlements, and people there weren’t provided with protective equipment. In Poland, the government is trying to restrict access to safe abortions.

In Ukraine, it’s a distinct possibility that the groups already facing discrimination will be denied adequate access to COVID-19 prevention and treatment facilities, making their situation even worse that it already is.


Is it possible to change this attitude today? What can be done for this and by whom?

The situation can be changed by the government or the media, as well as by the general public. First of all, it’s important to understand that COVID-19 affects everyone regardless of nationality, skin color or gender identity. Thus, everyone is at risk and everyone is entitled to proper assistance and protection. We all share responsibility here. People should comply with quarantine measures as well as be willing to help those in need. There should be no misinformation or calls to attack or otherwise punish the sick and their families. The media should act responsibly when disclosing information, especially when it concerns those infected with COVID-19, while reporting any and all information about human rights and the work of the authorities. As for the government, it should take into account the specifics of various population groups in its strategies and pay special attention to discriminated groups, as well as communicate effectively with the public.



In your opinion, how is the pandemic affecting the efforts of activists and human rights defenders on legalizing medical cannabis and sex work, given how “hot” these issues have been lately?
It’s too early to talk about the impact of the pandemic on these processes. I can say, however, that pandemic-related restrictions are having a negative impact on activism as a whole. Thus, such regular instruments of civic activism as public actions, advocacy meetings, discussions and roundtables aren’t possible right now. We hope though that this is only temporary.

On the other hand, a lot of other opportunities have come into play, such as online activism. This could be the catalyst we need.

Also, the extra attention to the medical needs and rights of vulnerable groups that could result from the pandemic could have a positive effect on the perception of these issues by the public as well as the government.



Amnesty International has been consistently advocating for the rights of sex workers and decriminalization of their work. What are the prospects for this in Ukraine in 2020?

The efforts aimed at the decriminalization of sex work have been going on for several years. Step-by-step, activists have been getting closer to succeeding in convincing the government to pass appropriate decisions and legislation. It’s a long process that requires discussion in society as well as awareness-raising campaigns. It’s unlikely that 2020 will change anything dramatically in this regard, although we are confident that this process will continue.


Why are the decriminalization and demarginalization processes for vulnerable groups so important in Ukraine today?

They are always important to any society as it helps reduce discrimination, ensures equal access to resources and opportunities, allows everyone to achieve self-fulfillment and opens the way for all people to contribute to their country’s development. All this secures society’s well-being, moral as well as financial one.


Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union implements the project “Development of the legal network for protection of the people living with HIV/AIDS, representatives of key PLHIV communities and persons ill with TB” with the financial support of the Charitable organization “All-Ukrainian Network of the People Living with HIV/AIDS” in the framework of implementation of the project “Releasing the Burden of TB and HIV infection through creation of the open access to timely and quality diagnostics and treatment of the TB and its resistant forms, expanding evidence based prevention, diagnostic and treatment of HIV infection, and creation of stable and sustainable health protection systems”, which is implemented with the financial support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.


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