UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Outcomes of webinar on 10 June

29 June 2020

To conclude its series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on 10 June on human and civic rights during COVID-19. Presentations were given by representatives of UN Habitat; the City of Ioannina in Greece; the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI); the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ) in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and the UNESCO learning city of Melitopol in Ukraine. Mr David Atchoarena, Director of UIL, opened the session by recapping the rich and vibrant webinar series on learning cities’ responses to COVID-19 organized by the UNESCO GNLC.

For its final webinar, UIL chose a topic currently at the core of public debate. As governments took action to stop the spread of the coronavirus, many argued that such measures had the potential to impact fundamental rights. It is now three months since COVID-19 was designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), who urged governments to take drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus. In response, many countries established a state of emergency, which implied that a number of human rights could be derogated from for at least a period of time.

Human rights laws stipulate that certain rights can be suspended in extraordinary circumstances, when justified, and we have seen governments around the world limit the freedom of movement and impose sweeping quarantine measures. In a number of countries, in order to monitor the spread of the virus, governments have also tracked individuals, raising additional concerns.

No one can argue that this exceptional situation has called for exceptional measures, but the crisis has had different impacts on different groups in society. Lockdowns have not been imposed in the same way for all groups – for example, it has been more difficult to impose distance measures in refugee camps. We have also seen a rise in the discrimination against and the stigmatization of certain groups, as well as an increase in domestic violence, particularly against women and children. Furthermore, freedom of expression has been to a large extent compromised.

UNESCO is dedicated to the promotion and protection of basic human rights, and networks of learning cities contribute to this mission by promoting the right to education. Cities have had to enforce measures taken at the national level, but have also developed their own initiatives to protect vulnerable groups.

UN Habitat

Mr Eduardo López Moreno, Head of Knowledge and Innovation at UN Habitat, started by theorizing about the world post- COVID-19. The future, he said, is unpredictable and we will be in a world of uncertainty. In many contexts, there is now a new narrative of what ‘human rights’ means – the status quo is being rapidly transformed. In most places, we do not know the speed and depth of these changes; however, the same forms of exclusion and marginalization remain. We are living in a world that is now always under construction, and there have been different responses in different cities: some are opting for discrimination and are therefore building walls, while others are opting for compassion and building bridges. In many places, Mr Moreno reminded the audience, people do not believe in the data governments are providing, the responses they are implementing, or even the existence of the virus itself. So far, COVID-19 is primarily an urban pandemic – it is a crisis for cities. If and when the pandemic reaches more rural areas, cities can play a supportive role.

Ioannina, Greece

Ms Dionysia Ampatzidi, Advisor on Social and Migration Policy to the Mayor of Ioannina, set out how the city has implemented a number of measures to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable groups – and their human rights – during the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly, the city has offered shelter and psychosocial support to homeless people who are precluded from staying in officially designated homeless accommodation because of alcohol addiction, drug use and mental illness. Personal protective equipment and food assistance have been provided to the local prison, and support has been offered through the door-to-door distribution of food and basic materials. Targeted support has been extended to the Roma community, as well as migrants and refugees, with local radio providing information in multiple languages, and the distribution of hygiene items and protective equipment by NGOs.

Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI)

Ms Laura Martínez, from the OEI Office in Bogotá, Colombia, introduced the organization as one that supports the efforts of national governments in strengthening education, science and culture. It works to promote projects that build peace and defend human rights, as well as supporting changes to create fairer societies in Ibero-America. During COVID-19, the OEI has worked to prevent domestic violence and gender-based violence within households by strengthening lines of care. It has also developed a programme on democracy and citizenship for the guarantee of human rights, including a curriculum guide and the organization of an educational week for human rights and information and communication technology (ICT). OEI has noted a number of challenges, such as the difficulty of promoting an education that emphasizes respect for human rights and empowerment when many decisions designed to curb the virus also restrict the right to liberty, freedom of movement and even privacy.

Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ), Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mr Francisco Rodríguez, lawyer for the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Division of the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, stated that, in Buenos Aires, the city was soon to reach 100 days of strict measures. Argentina, in general, and Buenos Aires, in particular, has managed to contain the virus well, but this means that the authorities have gained concentrated amounts of power. For example, the they have suspended all court proceedings bar the most urgent. As a consequence, the ACIJ is focusing on initiatives to protect human rights during COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic varies between communities, with its effects particularly pronounced in areas where it is more difficult to impose a lockdown. Measures do not take into account different levels of prosperity, and the pandemic is very clearly showing inequalities in society and worsening the conditions of vulnerable groups. The ACIJ has worked to present new agendas or further develop existing agendas to guarantee human rights.

UNESCO learning city of Melitopol, Ukraine 

The Melitopol City Council adopted a number of measures to counter to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a ban on all mass events, restriction of economic activities, suspension of educational activities in schools, and the prohibition of transportation. The city authorities have faced a protest by entrepreneurs due to loss of income but maintain that, though city authorities may need to restrict rights, they must also protect the interests of local citizens. Cooperation with the government in ensuring human rights are upheld has become a priority of Melitopol during the pandemic. Supportive measures include extending psychological support to those who need it and protecting vulnerable groups such as the older population.


Ms Macauley (UIL) opened the debate by asking how to ensure citizens receive accurate information about the pandemic. Ms Ampatzidi said that, in Ioannina, advice is provided in multiple languages, and that the authorities seek feedback from citizens to make sure their needs are being met. The issue of access to information is a big issue in Buenos Aires, according to the ACIJ, while, in Colombia, the OEI is working to strengthen the rights of indigenous people, which is reflected in the bottom-up formulation of public policies. Ms Macauley followed up by asking, in terms of youth, how participation in decision-making can be facilitated during the pandemic. UN Habitat have noted that the majority of people living in slums are youth populations and it is important to ensure their political participation, empowering them to be recognized as political actors.

Mr Atchoarena closed the debate, and with it the webinar as well as the series as a whole, by talking about digital skills, digital literacy and media literacy. This crisis has emphasised the importance of providing access to those skills for the preservation of human rights. He said that the right to education remains at risk, and that civil society organizations have a key role to play in monitoring human rights and entering into a dialogue with municipal governments.

UNESCO GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO GNLC to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attracted hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions gave presentations, and participants engaged in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the 14 previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Culture and education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outcomes of webinar on 3 June.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Strategies for educational, social and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Outcomes of webinar on 27 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: New partnerships in education governance during COVID-19. Outcomes of webinar on 20 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Prisons and prison education. Outcomes of webinar on 13 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Open distance learning. Outcomes of webinar on 6 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Mental health, health and well-being. Outcomes of webinar on 29 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: The cases of Évry-Courcouronnes (France), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Mayo-Baléo (Cameroon), and the Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF). Outcomes of webinar on 23 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw