Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during the German Bundestag debate titled: “Effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the global humanitarian situation and its misuse by autocratic governments to restrict human rights”

15.05.2020 - Speech

The crisis we are dealing with today is different from all other global challenges we have recently faced. The effects it is having are in some ways also democratic: The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting each and every one of our daily lives. Certainly to varying extents, but all of us are living with restrictions, and no one can buy their way out. Even the risk of infection is the same for everyone. As long as there is no vaccine, it doesn’t matter if you’re the President of Brazil, a British prince, or a German football star – neither money nor power will protect you from the virus.

What will protect you is, for example, keeping your distance. These things may be quite simple for us. But how should people in crowded refugee camps or densely packed shanty towns keep their distance? How should people wash their hands if they don’t even have water, not to mention soap? What are the chances of recovery if a country like Mali has a mere total of four ventilators? How are you supposed to survive if food prices are skyrocketing while people are losing their livelihoods?

Coronavirus is therefore not simply a health crisis. It is increasingly becoming a humanitarian pandemic – in a world in which, even without the virus, twice as many people depend on humanitarian assistance as Germany’s total population: 168 million. With this disaster, there is a moral obligation to help. But there is another reason, as well. Helping is also in our own best interest. Because only when the virus’ spread has been contained around the world will we all be safe.

Ladies and gentlemen, a crisis of this magnitude makes coordinated action vital, in the truest sense of the word – both within a government and at international level. Last week, the United Nations revised its COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. The indicated financial need is now 6.7 billion US dollars. That figure is now triple what it was at the end of March. There is a severe need not only for medical care, but also for sanitary facilities, clean water, soap, and protective equipment. Refugee camps must be prepared for possible outbreaks of the disease. Millions of people need to be educated about precautionary measures. Ever more people are dependent on food aid. And the new social distancing rules are making it more expensive and difficult to get this aid to where it is needed.

The United Nations need to build a whole new logistics network, because the means of transportation that used to move aid workers and supplies to where they are needed are no longer available. This is, by the way, one reason why we have given our humanitarian partner organisations the greatest possible leeway when it comes to employing our funds. We’ve done this also at the urgent request of Mark Lowcock, Filippo Grandi, Henrietta Fore, Peter Maurer, and many others. And we have already made available an additional 300 million euros in humanitarian COVID-19 assistance.

However, ladies and gentlemen, these requirements, too, have meanwhile tripled. That is why we will have no choice but to increase our contributions yet again.

In the role we have meanwhile assumed as one of the largest humanitarian donors, we also lead by example. When we engage – and I’m absolutely certain about this, based on many talks I’ve had – other donors will join in, as happened on 4 May during the large vaccine development pledging conference. Germany agreed to provide more than half a billion euros. With pledges from more than 40 countries and organisations, this amount grew to 7.4 billion euros.

Funds are one thing – but getting people access is another. We are deeply concerned by how the crisis is strengthening authoritarian tendencies – which in many cases is having a dramatic impact on human rights. For example, we are witnessing increased repression against journalists: criminal investigations and death threats in Russia, arrests in Venezuela and in Iran, intimidation attempts in Turkey, arrests, expulsions or the disappearance of journalists in China, and even legislative amendments that impose punishment for supposed misinformation, thereby making independent reporting next to impossible.

Also in the heart of Europe we are witnessing how emergency measures are being used to restrict the rule of law. We debated this development here only yesterday. That is why I strongly welcome that the EU Commission has begun to monitor all respective emergency measures. One thing is clear: all states have a duty to impose protective measures in response to COVID-19 – and these measures may temporarily restrict human rights. But such action must be taken for legitimate reasons. It must be proportionate, and it must absolutely be temporary. We will campaign for such a balanced approach when we assume our EU Presidency in only a few weeks’ time, during our Presidency of the UN Security Council in July, and as a member of the Human Rights Council.

And we will monitor situations closely, in particular with regard to the rights of women and girls. During the crisis, they are not only more frequently becoming victims of domestic violence, but are also suffering the most under lockdown measures and the loss of economic activity.

At a time when meeting in person and travel have become practically impossible, we are working on new ways to support human rights defenders, by using digital networks and having our embassies be more proactive in reaching out to these groups in particular.

Ladies and gentlemen, people around the world are in need of our solidarity. Solidarity that does not distinguish between rich and poor, man and woman, or white and black – much like the virus itself. It’s therefore good that we are having today’s debate. It is important that, as we take action – not just here in Germany, but around the world where we are helping – one thing becomes clear: We are conscious of this responsibility, and we want to live up to it.

Thank you very much.


Top of page