Human rights in the time of coronavirus: from public morality to law

Dr Ana-Maria Pascal, Reader in Philosophy and Public Ethics, examines how countries are upholding human rights in this time of turmoil.

This article is part of our new series, Regent's Review: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the rapidly unfolding pandemic. 


  • There are some common features between oppressive regimes and the new mode of being today. 
  • But there are other, better, legal and political developments we should consider, too.
  • A country’s legislative initiatives reflect that nation's public morality, especially in countries where civil society is actively engaged in lobbying and campaigning.

Human rights in the time of coronavirus: from public morality to law

'When you lose your worldly power you gain power of another kind. Those who have only worldly power are truly the powerless ones’, says Father Pavel, in Roger Scruton’s novel Notes from Underground.

He was, of course, talking of mental and spiritual strength – a capacity to build up castles of freedom inside, which people who lived through the communist dictatorship know is important for survival.

One cannot help noticing that there are certain common features between that world – of oppressive regimes, in the second half of the twentieth century – and the new mode of being today, starting with the queues for basic necessities, continuing with the threat of Big Brother – not only watching, but also accessing our data, invading our private lives for the sake of some abstract national security, all the way to outright dictatorship. 

Is this not what is truly behind Hungary’s coronavirus bill that was passed this week, allowing Prime Minister Orban to rule by decree, bypassing the national assembly, indefinitely? 

Less bold but equally upsetting are the repeated failures from Central and Eastern European countries to clearly separate the justice system and the business sectors from politics, as we have seen with the long saga of the Czech Civil Service Act (ten years in the making), or that of the conflict between Romania’s anti-corruption unit and its politicians, which ended with the unit’s leader, Laura Kovesi, being placed under judicial control last year, in order to stop her from applying to become Europe’s public prosecutor – an unsuccessful attempt, as she was confirmed in the role soon after. 

But there are other, better legal developments in the world. Starting at home – a few days ago, the UK Government issued a statement on modern slavery, which set out its efforts to tackle slavery, exploitation and trafficking across its own, £50 billion a year, supply chains. Following this assessment, it identified the areas with the highest risks for ministerial departments: ICT hardware, electronics, construction and service staff. This follows the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, a major piece of legislation aimed at combating modern slavery in the UK and consolidating previous offences of trafficking. 

The case around the world: the EU

At European Union level, two initiatives are particularly worth mentioning. 

In January, the European Commission announced its intention to elaborate a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, with a view to 'acknowledge that internal and external aspects of migration are interconnected and will strive for more resilient, more humane and more effective migration and asylum system, which will also underpin confidence in the Schengen area of free movement' (2020 Commission Work Programme – A Union that strives for more, COM(2020) 37 – final).

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) have announced their support, and UN made recommendations on the New Pact. 

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights reminded that the new Pact should be firmly underpinned by human rights, effective solidarity and sharing responsibility. 

During the same week, at the same (council) level, the Committee of Ministers issued a call for the rights of the child to be strengthened, particularly those in a situation of vulnerability, stressing the need to address the root causes of child poverty and social exclusion, as well as the violence and discrimination this may lead to. And it emphasised the role of private-sector players and the need to be able to hold them accountable for violations of children’s rights. Only a fortnight earlier, the Council had published a report on its activities on migration and refugees, setting out new objectives in protecting the vulnerable, including children. 


In Australia, a consultation is underway on a new International Strategy on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery (the 2020 Strategy), which provides an opportunity for a wide range of stakeholders, from victims to civil society, businesses and academics to shape international legislation on one of the major issues in contemporary society. (The deadline for submitting written arguments is 1 May). 

And yesterday, the Australian Senate recommended passing the Combating Corporate Crime Bill, which is particularly focused on fighting foreign bribery and corruption. Admittedly, this is long overdue, as it was initially introduced to Parliament in 2017. Crucially, this will now include a liability for corporations failing to prevent foreign bribery by their associates, in a way that mirrors the UK Bribery Act of 2010.

North America

Earlier this year, Canada set an important precedent for holding transnational companies accountable for their human rights impacts abroad by allowing the Nevsun case to go to trial. (See Canada’s Supreme Court Judgement on 28 February 2020).

In the United States, the Business Roundtable (an association of CEOs of America’s leading companies) issued a mission statement last August on the new purpose of the corporation – which is to benefit all stakeholders, as opposed to shareholder interest alone – in sync with the focus on stakeholder capitalism in Davos, six months later. Now, the same group has written to the government with policy recommendations for how to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on both labour and the economy.

On the other hand, American human rights activists are campaigning for more protective gear and medical equipment for healthcare workers, following the US Chamber of Commerce obstructing government efforts to deliver these resources to local hospitals. 

So, what?

‘So, what?' you may ask. Why bother with such a list – which is partial at best, and irrelevant at worst. 

Hang on a minute. I put to you that a country’s legislative initiatives reflect that nation’s public morality. Especially in countries where civil society is actively engaged in lobbying and campaigning, such as the UK, Australia, Canada and the US. To try to legislate on something means to care enough – at national and international level – about the issue. Forced labour, large scale corruption, migration, refugees, vulnerable children – can you honestly say these are not your concerns, too? 

This isn’t to say how great things are – not even close. If you read, for instance, the latest Human Rights Watch report (of 19th March), or the most recent issue of The Economist (read the briefing, 'creating the coronopticon'), you may wonder if the state’s interest in our individual wellbeing does us more damage than good. 

But the fact that something – rather than nothing – is happening in moving the human rights debate forward, away from the abstract rhetoric that Amartya Sen was denouncing three decades ago, in his Development as Freedom, towards real legislation and hands-on enforcement practices, is progress. 

And that should empower more victims who feel that they have more than just their own spiritual strength to rely on. 

This think piece has also been published on the Corporate Responsibility Network.