‘COVID-19 emergency powers create human rights challenges’
May 3, 2020
WHILE governments around the world moved swiftly to counter the coronavirus, the emergency powers that were handed over to the various security forces are being seen as a threat to human rights.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has published a report on the need to make human rights the centre of the response to COVID-19, warning that the pandemic risks becoming a human rights crisis.
“A human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis,” Guterres said in his description of the response.
While acknowledging the need for rapid reaction, he said widespread lockdowns had made the least protected in society – such as refugees and the disabled – more vulnerable.
He said that “heavy-handed security responses” risked “undermining the health response”.
The UN SG’s report warned of “aggressive cyber-policing and increased online surveillance” during the lockdowns.
Almost 60 countries have closed their borders, making no exceptions for people seeking asylum; there are also increased reports of domestic abuse across the globe.
Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, said: “António Guterres’ report is a timely reminder that human rights need to be at the centre of the response and recovery.
“This pandemic has wrenched away the distractions that have allowed us to pretend that violations against people who live far away or look different are not our concern.
“If one person is sick with COVID-19 we are all at risk, and the same is true for human rights.
“A world that protects the rights of a lucky few is unhealthy and unsustainable.”
Amnesty said it was monitoring human rights violations that “take place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the right to health, access to information, right to housing, water and sanitation, discrimination, and rights to and at work”.
Last week, Neil Bush, the head of the UK delegation to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation, delivered a joint statement at the virtual OSCE Permanent Council on protecting human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said there was a risk that some measures taken to halt the spread of the coronavirus had “the potential to affect all human rights: civil and political, and well as economic, social and cultural”.
Bush went on: “Restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, and freedom to seek and receive information need to be considered with great care, and with legal safeguards.
“Civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists must be able to perform their independent roles, now more than ever.
“It is vital that any restrictions on human rights are lawful, both as a matter of international human rights law and national law.
“Measures to address COVID-19 should be targeted, time-limited, and subject to regular review to ensure they remain necessary as a response to the pandemic,” Bush added.
“States must not use COVID-19 as a cover for repressive action, for example, the silencing of human rights defenders or journalists.”
Last month, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) cautioned Commonwealth governments not to misuse the emergency powers that they had enacted as part of their efforts to combat the deadly coronavirus.
The CLA said in a statement: “Giving the police emergency powers, for example to impose fines and to be able to order people away from open spaces, requires those powers to be applied with proportionality.
“Emergency legislation must address the emergency.
“Such emergency powers should not be seen as an opportunity to pass laws which simply shore up a government or political party.
“The Rule of Law provides for scrutiny by Parliament of the acts of the Executive; allows informed criticism and debate without fear or stifling; allows for independence of the Judiciary and the legal profession.
“The Executive must operate knowing it will be held to account,” the CLA added.
They cautioned: “The Executive in any parliamentary democracy must be scrutinised by Parliament.
“The emergency legislation passed must not carry on when the emergency has passed.
“These powers have a season and are unconstitutional in normal times.
“The politicians who find themselves as part of an Executive at this time have responsibilities and are accountable.”
The lawyers urged Commonwealth governments to “act proportionately; act in a way which targets the current emergency and not for other purposes; ensure that emergency powers are only valid for the time of the emergency; and take into account, in all decision making relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, the necessity of abiding by, upholding and respecting the Rule of Law”.