COVID-19: UN Warns Against Human Rights Abuses During Emergency

UN human rights experts* have urged States to avoid overreach of security measures in their response to the coronavirus outbreak and reminded them that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent.

“While we recognise the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” the experts said.

Their appeal echoes the recent call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to put #HumanRights at the centre of #CoronavirusOutbreak response.

Declarations of states of emergency, whether for health or security reasons, have clear guidance from international law, the UN experts said.

“The use of emergency powers must be publicly declared and should be notified to the relevant treaty bodies when fundamental rights including movement, family life and assembly are being significantly limited.”

“Moreover, emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.

“Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

Some States and security institutions may find the use of emergency powers attractive because it offers shortcuts, the experts said.

“To prevent such excessive powers to become hardwired into legal and political systems, restrictions should be narrowly tailored and should be the least intrusive means to protect public health.”

Finally, in countries where the virus is waning, authorities must seek to return life to normal and must avoid excessive use of emergency powers to indefinitely regulate day-to-day life, they said.

“We encourage States to remain steadfast in maintaining a human rights-based approach to regulating this pandemic, in order to facilitate the emergence of healthy societies with rule of law and human rights protections,” the UN experts said.

* The UN experts: The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ms Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsMs Agnes Callamard; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionMr David Kaye; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defendersMr Michel Forst; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of associationMr Clément Nyaletsossi Voule;Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Mr. Dainius Pūras, the Special Rapporteur on the right to educationMs Koumbou Boly Barry; the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacyMr Joe Cannataci; the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or beliefMr. Ahmed Shaheed; the Special Rapporteur on the right to developmentMr Saad Alfarargi; the Special Rapporteur on adequate housingMs Leilani Farha; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitationMr Léo Heller; the Independent expert on human rights and international solidarityMr Obiora C. Okafor; the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international orderMr Livingstone Sewanyana the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Mr Diego García-Sayán; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Mr. José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez (Chair), Ms. Leigh Toomey (Vice-Chair on Communications), Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair on Follow-up), Mr. Seong-Phil Hong and Mr. Sètondji Adjovi; andthe Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary DisappearancesMr Luciano Hazan (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr Tae-Ung Baik (Vice-Chair), Ms Houria Es-Slami,  Mr Bernard Duhaime and Mr Henrikas Mickevicius.

The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.


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