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Not ‘in this together’: Business human rights defenders at increased risk during pandemic says Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Businesses and governments are putting the welfare of workers and communities at risk as evidence gathered during the pandemic reveals attacks against those standing up against abuse have continued unabated. And far from being ‘in this together’, attacks against human rights defenders have in fact increased compared with this period in previous years. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has recorded attacks in industries including mining, construction, renewable energy, apparel and agri-business, and in 44 countries across the world, with cases recorded in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.  

The institution said: “We reaffirm our concern for indigenous human rights defenders, who are persecuted, criminalized and murdered for defending their territories and indigenous rights. We need concrete and joint actions - by states and businesses - to protect and respect human rights defenders. In this sense, we request the recognition and strengthening of individual and collective protection mechanisms.” 

Indigenous peoples’ representatives at the 5th regional forum on Business & Human Rights (Sep 2020) 

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre research report, Just recovery in peril: Human Rights Defenders face increasing risk during COVID-19 has been launched to coincide with the 2020 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights session Time for action: the role of Human Rights Defenders in defending rights during crisis and when ‘building back better’. 

The report found that from March to September 2020: 

·       On average, a defender was attacked every day during this period for standing up for human rights or environmental protection.  

·       At highest risk of attack were community members and indigenous people, representing more than a third of all cases. Almost one quarter of attacks were against women defenders. 

·       The most common type of attack was arbitrary detention, with 108 cases. Other types of attacks also occurred, including intimidation and threats (51), killings (46) and beatings (15). 

·       At least 105 cases were linked to retaliation for advocacy focused on specific companies. None of these companies have policies that mention the protection of defenders. 

·       Local and state authorities were involved in more than one third of cases, often in relation to cases brought against defenders in local courts or authorizing heavy-handed police interventions in protests. 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre Business, Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders Project Manager Ana Zbona said, “Since the onset of COVID-19 (March 2020) until the end of September 2020, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked 286 cases of attacks against human rights defenders focused on business-related activities – part of an ongoing pattern of abuse. There were almost 20 more attacks during this period than on average for the last 5 years during the same period. This represents a 7.5% increase, suggesting opportunistic repression from business, governments and other actors. 

“Low paid workers are on the frontline are toiling to keep the global economy going, regardless of the risk to their health and well-being. Many workers considered ‘essential’ have been put at higher levels of risk through their often precarious work in industries such as agriculture and meatpacking. Others, including care workers, have been overlooked and not included in the COVID-19 response programmes of governments. Demands from these workers, communities and civil society supporting them have been met with intimidation, violence, obstruction and wilful disregard.”  

Case studies 

The experiences of palm oil workers and the local community in Peru and journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, plus the worrying rise in the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against defenders, show how business-related human rights defence in the context of COVID-19 aggravates risks for defenders – and how the pandemic is used as a pretext to silence them and their constituencies.  

Zbona added: “In Zimbabwe, the government has used COVID-19 as an excuse to disperse mass protests against corrupt practices related to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE). Hopewell Chin’ono was one of the defenders that exposed corruption in the government procurement of coronavirus supplies. He reported that the son of President Emmerson Mnangagwa was the head of the fictitious company, which was denied by Mnangagwa. Chin’ono was arrested and held for several weeks. He was recently rearrested. 

“In Peru in June 2020 Ocho Sur P continued operating its palm oil plantation in Ucayali, despite a rapid COVID-19 test process allegedly identifying positive results in 90% of workers tested. In response, the company said it had increased pay and other forms of support to offset price collapse during the crisis. There have been two previous orders from Peruvian authorities demanding the company cease operations due to deforestation of the Amazon. Despite these multiple alleged abuses, Ocho Sur P reportedly supplies fruit to several companies that are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which certifies best practices in this sector and has a policy on human rights defenders. 

“And there are other ways defenders and their communities are being targeted. Between March and August 2020 there were at least seven SLAPPs filed against defenders: one recent victory was the dismissal of a case against journalist, brought by Thammakaset Limited Company in Thailand, which alone has filed 38 criminal or civil complaints against 22 individuals in the past four years.” 

Hope for change 

There is hope, with an increasing recognition of the important role of defenders in law. The Escazú agreement in Latin America would be the first international treaty to explicitly protect the rights of environmental defenders. Another opportunity will be the European Union’s mandatory human rights due diligence legislation next year, putting an onus on businesses to clean up their practice or face the consequences and could institute a duty for businesses to consult with stakeholders, including defenders, and to make sure such consultation is safe and meaningful. 

Zbona added: “The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in markets. It highlights the need for a just recovery to a more equitable world, we need business to respect human rights and the crucial role human rights defenders play in exposing abuse. Governments, companies and investors must act to ensure defenders are not only protected from attacks but are also leading participants in a just recovery.” 

 Find out more 

·       Read the research Just recovery in peril: Human Rights Defenders face increasing risk during COVID-19. 

·       Please join the UN Business & Human Rights Forum session: 14:00-15:30 CET, Tuesday 17 November: Time for action: the role of Human Rights Defenders in defending rights during crisis and when ‘building back better’. The 9th annual UN Business & Human Rights Forum is being held in Geneva, 16-18 November 2020.

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Coronavirus variants: Commission calls for limiting essential travel from India

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The Commission calls on EU member states to take co-ordinated action to further restrict travel from India on a temporary basis, with a view to limiting the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India. This follows a proposal of the World Health Organization on 10 May 2021 to change the classification of that variant from “variant of interest” to “variant of concern”. It is important to limit to the strict minimum the categories of travellers that can travel from India for essential reasons and to subject those who may still travel from India to strict testing and quarantine arrangements.

To ensure a fully co-ordinated and efficient response to this variant and taking into account the deteriorating health situation in India, the Commission proposes that member states apply an ‘emergency brake' on non-essential travel from India. On 3 May, the Commission had proposed to add an ‘emergency brake mechanism' to the Council recommendation on restrictions to non-essential travel.

Limited exemptions for those travelling for compelling reasons, subject to strict safeguards

The restrictions should not affect those travelling for compelling reasons such as for imperative family reasons or persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons. EU citizens and long-term residents, as well as their family members, should still be able to travel to Europe.

For those travellers, the Commission calls on member states to apply additional health-related measures such as strict testing and quarantine arrangements. These measures should apply regardless of whether the travellers have been vaccinated.

Next steps

Any restrictions on essential travel from India should be temporary and regularly reviewed. member states should assess their effectiveness in containing the new variant. When triggering the ‘emergency brake' mechanism to further restrict travel from a non-EU country, the member states meeting within the Council structures should review the situation together in a coordinated manner and in close co-operation with the Commission.

Background

A temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU is currently in place from many non-EU countries, including from India, based on a recommendation agreed by the Council.

Following a proposal by the Commission, the Council agreed on 2 February 2021 additional safeguards and restrictions for international travellers into the EU, aimed at ensuring that essential travel to the EU continues safely in the context of the emergence of new coronavirus variants and the volatile health situation worldwide.

On 3 May, the Commission proposed that member states ease the current restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU to take into account the progress of vaccination campaigns and developments in the epidemiological situation worldwide while putting in place a new ‘emergency brake mechanism', to address coronavirus variants. The ‘emergency brake mechanism' is a coordination mechanism intended to limit the risk of variants of interest and variants of concern entering the EU. It allows member states to act quickly and in a coordinated manner to temporarily limit to a strict minimum all travel from a non-EU country where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly and in particular where a variant of concern or interest is detected.

Variants of interest and variants of concern are assessed as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and for the EU by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) based on key properties of the virus such as transmission, severity and ability to escape immune response.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has assessed the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India as a variant of interest and keeps this assessment under constant review. Variants of interest are variants that show increased transmissibility and severity. On 10 May 2021, the World Health Organization proposed to change the classification of the B.1.617.2 variant from “variant of interest” to “variant of concern”.

Under the current Council Recommendation on the temporary restriction on non-essential travel into the EU, member states can temporarily limit the categories of essential travellers that can travel to the EU where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly and where a high incidence of variants of concern of the virus is detected. 

The Council recommendation covers all member states (except Ireland), as well as the four non-EU states that have joined the Schengen area: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. For the purpose of the travel restriction, these countries are covered in a similar way as the member states.

The latest information on the rules applying to entry from non-EU countries as communicated by member states are available on the Re-open EU website.

More information

Press release: Coronavirus: Commission proposes to ease restrictions on non-essential travel to the EU while addressing variants through new ‘emergency brake' mechanism, 3 May 2021

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control threat assessment brief: Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617 variants in India and situation in the EU/EEA, 11 May 2021

Travel during the coronavirus pandemic

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'I'm finally here': Greece formally opens to tourists

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Tourists eat at the Monastiraki district, as the country's tourism season officially opens, in Athens, Greece May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
Tourists visit the ancient temple of Hephaestus, as the country's tourism season officially opens, in Athens, Greece May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece formally opened to visitors on Saturday (15 May), kicking off a summer season it hopes will resurrect its vital tourism industry battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

After months of lockdown restrictions, Greece also opened its museums this week, including the Acropolis museum, home to renowned sculptures from Greek antiquity.

"I feel really alive and good because it has been such a hard and long year because of COVID," said Victoria Sanchez, a 22-year-old student on holiday from the Czech Republic.

"I feel again alive," she said, as she strolled near the Roman Agora in downtown Athens.

As of Saturday, foreign tourists will be allowed in Greece if they have been vaccinated or can show negative COVID-19 test results. Travel between regions, including to the islands, will also be allowed for those with negative tests or vaccinations.

"Greece is offering what people need," Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis tweeted. "Calm and care-free moments on the road towards normality."

Tourists in Athens were elated.

"I'm finally here," said Rebecca, a tourist in Athens from Florida, who declined to give her last name. "I've been waiting two years - two years with the COVID."

Greece has been rolling out vaccines to its islands and hopes to vaccinate most of them by the end of June. The government says vaccines and rapid testing, as well as warmer weather allowing outdoor activities, mean visitors can travel safely.

As the pandemic brought international travel to a halt in 2020, Greece suffered its worst year for tourism on record, with 7 million visitors compared with a record 33 million in 2019. Tourist revenues tumbled to 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) from 18 billion euros.

This year, it is aiming for 40% of 2019 levels.

On the island of Mykonos, one flight was given a water salute upon landing. Four islands in the south Aegean, including Mykonos, received 32 international flights on Saturday from countries including Sweden, Germany and Qatar.

Corfu, in the Ionian sea, welcomed visitors from Germany and France.

"We are so happy. I'm happy to be here," said Pierre-Olivier Garcia, soon after arriving on the island.

Greeks also welcomed the lifting of lockdown measures, with scores of people leaving for the islands or holiday homes on the mainland on Saturday.

"The first weekend of freedom," Alpha TV proclaimed during a broadcast from the busy port of Piraeus.

Greece fared better than much of Europe during the first wave of the pandemic, but rising infections later in 2020 forced it to impose several lockdowns to protect its struggling health system.

A country of 11 million, it has recorded 373,881 infections and 11,322 deaths.

($1 = 0.8237 euros)

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Italian study shows COVID-19 infections, deaths plummeting after jabs

Reuters

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COVID-19 infections in adults of all ages fell by 80% five weeks after a first dose of Pfizer (PFE.N), Moderna (MRNA.O) or AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccine, according to Italian research published on Saturday (15 May).

The first such study by a European Union country on the real-world impact of its immunisation campaign was carried out by Italy's National Institute of Health (ISS) and the Ministry of Health on 13.7 million people vaccinated nationwide.

Scientists started studying data from the day Italy's vaccination campaign began, on Dec. 27 2020, until May 3 2021.

The analysis showed that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, hospitalisation, and death decreased progressively after the first two weeks following the initial vaccination.

"As of 35 days after the first dose, there is an 80% reduction in infections, 90% reduction in hospitalisations, and 95% reduction in deaths," the ISS said, adding that the same pattern was seen in both men and women regardless of age.

"This data confirms the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign and the need to achieve high coverage across the population quickly to end the emergency," ISS president Silvio Brusaferro said in the statement.

Among the nearly 14 million people included in the Italian study, 95% of those who had taken Pfizer and Moderna had completed the vaccine cycle, while none of those given AstraZeneca had received a second dose.

Up until now, Italy has been following the makers' recommendations, giving a second dose of Pfizer three weeks after the first, a second dose of Moderna after a four week gap and a second dose of AstraZeneca after a 12 week gap.

As of Saturday morning, some 8.3 million Italians, or 14% of the population, were completely vaccinated, while around 10 million people had received a first jab.

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