Maytree blog

Exploring human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published on 25/08/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is only one crisis of many that we’re experiencing. But it compounds many other crises such as anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, climate change, and extreme inequality. What can be done to address these crises and is there a way out? That is the starting point for Sukanya Pillay’s just launched podcast, JUST PLANET: Laws, Life and Global Crises.

Sukanya is an international and Canadian constitutional lawyer with twenty years of experience in advocacy and litigation including here in Canada. She recently completed a Fellowship in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto as the inaugural Maytree Scholar.

We spoke to Sukanya at the end of July about her new podcast.

Why did you launch your podcast at this particular time?

The catalyst was the pandemic. COVID-19 isn’t a crisis we are experiencing in any kind of vacuum. It’s its own serious crisis, but it has roots in past mistakes that we need to learn more about. Right now the pandemic is a crisis that continues to make worse so many of the other crises we already face.

The goals of the podcast are threefold. First, to investigate how a particular issue like housing has been affected by COVID-19. Second, to let listeners hear directly from experts working deeply on these issues and their interconnections. And, third, to provide listeners with the most immediate up-to-date information so they can form their own opinions about what needs to happen next.

In summary, the podcast is a vehicle which lets us capture important insights from experts and share them with new or wider audiences.

I hope the podcast can reach a very wide audience, not only lawyers, or law professors and law students, although they are a target. I also hope to reach people in the arts, sciences, and media, of course, who are interested in repairing or healing the many inequities we face.

In the description about the podcast, you’re talking about the fact that we’re beset by global crises. What do you mean by that?

When I say we are beset by crises, I think we as a human species and the planet are facing existential crises like the proliferation of nuclear arms, climate change, pollution and contamination, and even authoritarianism. These crises share several key factors in common: they are human-made, they arise from neo-liberal values, and they prioritize profit above any other human and public good such as the right to clean water, or air, or housing, or even fair trial or voting.

These key factors have also been within the nuclear membrane of other crises affecting the planet, including anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism and violence. In my opinion, we have to shed ourselves of exploitative values which lead in turn to exploitative decision-making and consequences. This is the only way I can see us move towards global justice and living with respect for each other and the environs in which we live.

In other words, the crises we face today are the results of choice after choice taken by governments, international organizations, and influential private sector interests. So, if we accept and understand that, what choices are we going to take today and going forward?

How can the podcast contribute to building a strong narrative on human rights and justice?

The podcast allows us to look at the array of issues we face through a human rights lens. The global crises we face have harmed the individual lives of people in a way that is completely inconsistent with many of the post-World War II human rights legal commitments assumed by the international community. By pushing global and national economic agendas that override human rights, we have set up the conditions for planetary injustice.

Through the podcast, I hope to show that the legal commitments to human rights in international treaties or protected in constitutions must be upheld primarily as a matter of global justice. In the long run, such an approach will lead to prosperity writ large. Not only economic prosperity but also prosperity in the form of realizing the fuller potentials of human beings and sustainability of the planet.

Through conversation with guests, I also hope we shed light on how so many of these issues are connected to each other – for example what global economic inequalities have to do with the issues of economic migrants or the extreme challenges faced by Indigenous peoples or people experiencing lower socio-economic conditions worsened by the coronavirus.

Finally, I want to move away from what has been predominantly a western post-colonial or imperial interpretation of human rights that played out in the global south so harmfully, to a just and egalitarian interpretation and application of human rights. In international law, including areas of trade as well as human rights and even humanitarian intervention, decision-making, corrections, and sanctions have been meted out by a dominant-North over the South. Such dominance has been the result of economic,  environmental, and human rights injustices carried out under the auspices of international law.

Moving forward we need a true and equal treatment of issues and real accountability for all actors, no matter where they are seated in the world, and recognizing the roots and legacies of past injustices. And most importantly now by listening to and being guided by those in the Global South and North with lived experience of compounded rights violations.

What are some of the topics you’ve discussed so far?

So far we’ve released episodes on how specific human rights issues are playing out in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Episode 1 was on the international human right to adequate housing and the call to stay at home and socially isolate.

Episode 2 went into a deep dive on the conflict in Syria, what led up to it, and what the impact of COVID-19 will be now upon the millions of displaced Syrians throughout the country and in neighbouring jurisdictions in refugee camps.

Episode 3 examined the issue of healthcare and emergency preparedness in Toronto and Canada, taking into account different factors that arise due to race and healthcare, and failure to implement lessons learned from SARS.

Episode 4 contained a tribute to the late John Lewis, the American civil rights icon who died on July 17, 2020. This was followed by a comprehensive look at how the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been responding to enhanced COVID-19-related government powers, including constraints on mobility rights, risks to prisoners, ongoing immigration detention, obstruction to reproductive rights, enhanced surveillance and privacy rights, and, if you can believe it, new iterations of voter suppression.

Episode 5 focused on the spyware software of the Israeli private security company NSO Group, technologies that are reportedly being used by some governments to monitor and track and even attack dissidents, activists, and journalists – and how this dangerous software is being peddled as a tool to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

What has surprised you most when talking to your guests?

I haven’t been surprised by the dedication and knowledge of the guests because that is why I chose them. And their agreement to take the time to come on the show is testament to their dedication to these issues and their generosity in sharing their expertise with the show and our listeners.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is that, even though there continues to be so much suffering by the people most affected, every one of my guests so far has been very hopeful that we can turn around these crises and has identified concrete steps we can implement now. So this is what I hoped for, but the surprise is how seamlessly the guests can take the audience through the issues to identifying concrete solutions.

It’s up to us, the people, to demand our elected representatives take these steps and to exercise our democratic rights, and to be clear and strategic in supporting the lead of our fellow world citizens in repressive regimes who are fighting for change.

What discussions have you planned for future episodes?

Well, I’m very excited to be interviewing Elizabeth McIsaac (Maytree’s president) so we can look deeply into the work that Maytree has been doing in Toronto and Canada to end poverty and build up and build in economic and social rights – such as your work, for example, in finding ways to strengthen Canada’s social safety net and protecting the rights of homeless peoples.

Going forward, I have episodes planned on the risks of the coronavirus to migrant workers in Canada and elsewhere. We also have episodes that will look at the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples and on anti-Black racism after the police-related deaths of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada and in the United States.

I hope to have a Season 2 and 3 that will focus on human rights issues and themes apart from COVID-19.

Markus Stadelmann-Elder is Director of Communications at Maytree.


Interview with Sukanya Pillay, an international and Canadian constitutional lawyer, about her new podcast, JUST PLANET: Laws, Life and Global Crises.