Civil society’s call to states: we are in this together, don’t violate human rights while responding to COVID-19
As States are undertaking extraordinary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, we recognize the good faith efforts of many States to effectively protect the right to life, right to health, and other human rights and well-being of their populations, and curb the spread of COVID 19. However, we urge States to implement these measures in the context of the rule of law and legal protection of human rights: all responses to COVID-19 must be evidence-based, legal, necessary to protect public health, non-discriminatory, time-bound and proportionate.
All responses to COVID-19 must be deeply rooted in the cross-cutting principles of respect of human dignity, independence and autonomy of the person, non-discrimination and equality, respect of diversities and inclusion. Any response must comply with international standards on emergency legislation and be firmly grounded on the respect for the rule of law and human rights. Extraordinary measures are legitimate only under exceptional circumstances in so far as they aim at responding to an immediate threat to public health and only to the extent necessary and proportionate to counter such threat.
To date, there are more than 1,400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world. The next few weeks are crucial as measures put in place by States will determine the course of the pandemic. Resources will come under severe strain and there may be more shortages of personnel and protective equipment which will put States and entire populations under immense pressure. More cases may be reported by some countries which will lead to stricter measures being implemented. However, despite the challenges faced by governments across the globe, any responses to the pandemic that are merely a pretext to restrict civic space, or do so to an extent that is not necessary or proportionate to the specific threats to public health posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, are incompatible with international human rights law.
We are particularly concerned by States abusively resorting to emergency powers and undue restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and right to access information. Across the globe, journalists, defenders and other independent or critical voices are threatened and punished for speaking out about the extent of the situation in their countries or the measures adopted in response to the pandemic including in Tajikistan, Niger, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, Bangladesh and China. Governments are adopting legislative measures curtailing fundamental freedoms including in Hungary, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines. Some governments are abusing their powers to suppress peaceful assemblies including in Hong Kong.
Some governments including India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, have enforced Internet restrictions and shutdowns which prevent many people from accessing vital information about how to protect themselves against the virus. These restrictions also negatively impact the growing number of people who are working remotely so that they can practice physical separation.
Access to information is critical in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Governments must share key information about the pandemic, such as important decisions, the number of cases geographically disaggregated, availability of equipment and supplies, clear advice and other important information should be proactively made available as soon as it is available. The information should be widely available to all persons, and not just selected government officials or other intermediaries as is the case for instance in Uzbekistan. In this way ensuring that individuals, communities and health workers can behave in response to accurate information.
Among the most vulnerable communities are those with high levels of congestion, and without access to basic hygiene facilities, such as safe water and proper sanitation, as it is the case in prisons, refugee camps and other detention centres. People there may not have access to the internet which makes it difficult for them to get current information on how to protect themselves against the virus.
Migrants in detention centers including in Mexico and Greece are living in dire conditions without access to adequate hygiene facilities and the impossibility to practice physical distancing due to overcrowding. All asylum seekers who arrived in Greece since 1 March 2020 are systematically denied access to asylum. We commend States such as Portugal which have temporarily regularised asylum seekers with pending applications to ensure that they have access to healthcare, including preventive healthcare, and social security on equal grounds with the rest of the population.
Women and children who experience or are at risk of domestic violence may be forced to remain in dangerous situations with an abusive partner or relative. At the same time, access to support services and places of safety may be reduced as shelters are impacted by public health measures and criminal justice resources are diverted.
We are concerned by governments confining persons with disabilities within institutions in several countries including France, in a manner that violates the rights of persons with disabilities enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and further constitutes an increased threat for persons with disabilities to contract COVID-19.
We are concerned by the disruption of national protection mechanisms for human rights defenders including in Colombia and by attempts to weaken norms to protect uncontacted indigenous groups and evict them from their territories in Brazil.
We are concerned by governments that have imposed restrictions which have led to human rights violations against LGBT+ persons, including in Peru, Uganda, and Colombia. Governments need to ensure that their policies are inclusive and that all public officials are trained on LGBT+ rights.
Several countries have released prisoners as part of their response to curb the spread of the pandemic. These actions are commendable as detention facilities and prisons are high risk areas. We urge countries including Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Israel, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Turkey, India, and the UAE to include human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and prisoners of conscience among those being released -- they should not have been detained in the first place.
We are further concerned by the expanding state practice worldwide to monitor and closely control people’s movements, even at the cost of their privacy. Efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance. Israel and Taiwan are notable examples of how technological surveillance is being used in this context and how disproportionate the impact of such measures may be when they are not strictly defined and limited.
The unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 present an opportunity for States and civil society organisations to work together to defeat the virus.
We urge States to ensure transparency and accountability as there are risks that without strong oversight and transparency, the measures being taken will be less effective. In particular, we urge States to: