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

Due to quarantine restrictions that have already caused a shift in advocacy activities of the human rights community, UHHRU is continuing 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.


Now we are presenting an interview with Freedom House Ukraine director Matthew Schaaf.

Matthew Schaaf (Freedom House Ukraine)

With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and the response of governments around the world, the human rights community has faced a new challenge in the field of human rights protection. How has Freedom House reacted to this challenge?

Freedom House is continuing its efforts to advance human rights and freedom in Ukraine while updating our efforts to address the challenges presented by the coronavirus. Fortunately, Ukraine generally has not seen the sort of opportunistic and authoritarian responses to the crisis that some governments have taken. Yet, like many countries, Ukraine is struggling with balancing the need to take strong measures to protect the public from the pandemic while also ensuring that human rights are guaranteed and enjoyed. In response, Freedom House seeks to highlight best practices for dealing with such crises in ways that protect everyone’s rights, are non-discriminatory, and are effective.


Have any changes been made to the priorities or programs of the Freedom House Representative Office in Ukraine in this context?

Our priorities have remained the same: support our partners and everyone in Ukraine to live safe and free, and to encourage the development of institutions and policies that protect and guarantee everyone’s human rights. Of course, we’re doing a lot more online meetings than we were before.


Is Freedom House currently coordinating with other human rights organizations?

In Ukraine we are coordinating closely with our 10+ partner organizations and others to identify and address threats to human rights in the current context. Across the world, we are working closely with local and international organizations to do the same.


Can you name what human rights or freedoms are violated most often in the context of the struggle against the coronavirus in Ukraine or in the world?

Across the world, some countries have taken measures to limit the freedom of expression, labor rights, the freedoms of association and assembly, and other human rights. While limitations of rights during times of crisis can be legitimate during times of crisis, many of the implemented limitations are not. In Ukraine, Freedom House and our partners observe violations of the freedom of expression, for example violence against journalists gathering news about the crisis and unjustifiable refusals by government officials to share information under Ukraine’s law on access to public information. In Ukraine and many other countries the crisis is having a disproportionate affect on the poor and vulnerable, revealing how our societies do not do enough to protect the rights of everyone, especially the vulnerable, and that our crisis response policies disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in unnecessary ways.


On March 11, 2020 more than 100 LGBT + US organizations issued an open letter to the media and medical officials explaining why COVID-19 posed an increased risk to the community and suggested strict steps to minimize any differences in the provision of medical services, information and accounting. Is the LGBT + community in Ukraine more discriminated against during a pandemic?

The LGBT+ community in Ukraine already experienced high levels of discrimination and inadequate access to healthcare. I do not have specific data on how LGBT+ people are experiencing the crisis differently than others, but I would assume that, the concerns of LGBT+ people and others about discrimination in healthcare settings, which generally contributes to people not seeking healthcare when they need it, would be especially problematic in a crisis like the one we are in now when it is essential that people receive healthcare and treatment based on need and without discrimination. The letter from US groups noted how LGBT+ people are uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic due to common health issues such as smoking, HIV/AIDS, and others. If the rates of such conditions are also higher among the LGBT+ community in Ukraine, then those same concerns would apply.


What is the situation with other vulnerable groups of the population, for example, HIV-positive, Roma, sex workers, people with disabilities? What actions to protect human rights and freedoms do representatives of vulnerable groups need to take during a pandemic?

Minority and vulnerable groups should take the same actions they were taking before: monitor and report on developments, demand nondiscriminatory treatment and protection by the authorities and others, and work with allies and others to implement policies and approaches to better protect theirs and other’s rights.


How to protect human rights under quarantine? What is a necessary and affordable method by now in your opinion?

Protecting human rights during a time of quarantine are a job that everyone must participate in. The authorities should be transparent and straightforward about the policies they are implementing to respond to the pandemic, and should articulate why the policies are necessary, especially those that would limit human rights. Proper protections must be established to protect against abuse of expanded powers by officials and to ensure the proportionality of any introduced limitations to the crisis at hand. Human rights activists and defenders must continue their work to monitor, document, and report on threats to human rights, and to advocate for change in our societies to better protect everyone’s rights. Everyone else should recognize the crisis we are in, take responsibility for doing what they can to help society respond to the crisis, and get the care and other support they need.

Iterview prepared by Maksym Petrov (UHHRU)

Prepared with the support of Freedom House Ukraine

Photo Ukrainian crisis media-centre

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