We are in this together, don’t violate human rights while responding to COVID-19
As governments are undertaking extraordinary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, we recognise and commend the efforts states are making to manage the well-being of their populations and protect human rights, such as the rights to life and health. However, we urge states to implement these measures in the context of the rule of law: 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 these cross-cutting principles: respect of human dignity, independence and autonomy of the person, non-discrimination and equality, and respect of diversities and inclusion. Any response must comply with international standards on emergency legislation and respect human rights and the rule of law. Extraordinary measures are legitimate only under exceptional circumstances, such as when there is an immediate threat to public health. These measures should be used in a necessary and proportionate manner and should be aligned to international human rights law.
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 countries under immense pressure. More cases may be reported which will lead to stricter measures being implemented by some states. Despite the challenges faced by governments across the globe, responses to the pandemic should not be used as a pretext to restrict civic space.
We are particularly concerned by states that are abusing emergency powers to place restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and the right to access information. Across the globe, journalists, human rights defenders and other independent voices are threatened and punished for speaking out about the extent of the pandemic in their countries, or the measures adopted in response to COVID-19. These countries include Tajikistan, Niger, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, Bangladesh and China. Other governments are adopting legislative measures to curtail fundamental freedoms, such as in Hungary, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines. Some states are abusing their powers to suppress peaceful assemblies, including in Hong Kong.
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 affect 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 proactively share key information about the pandemic as soon as it is available, such as important decisions, the number of cases, availability of equipment and supplies, and clear advice. Information should be widely available to everyone, not just selected government officials or other intermediaries, as is the case in Uzbekistan. This ensures that individuals, communities and health workers can react quickly and responsibly to new information.
Migrants in detention centers, for example in Mexico and Greece, are living in dire conditions without access to adequate hygiene facilities. It is also impossible for them to practice physical distancing due to overcrowding. All asylum seekers who arrived in Greece since 1 March 2020 have been denied access to asylum. We commend states such as Portugal which have temporarily lifted restrictions on asylum seekers with pending applications. This ensures they have access to healthcare and social security in line 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 places of safety and support services 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. This contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and it places persons with disabilities at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
We are concerned by governments that have imposed restrictions leading 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 congested 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.
We are further concerned by the growing practice of monitoring and closely controlling people’s movements, even at the cost of their privacy. Efforts to contain the virus must not be used to expand 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 be transparent and accountable: this will ensure that any measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be effective. Specifically, we urge states to:
- Ensure all measures adopted in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic fully comply with states’ international human rights obligations, and that any associated restrictions on human rights are necessary, proportionate, inclusive and time-limited. Also maintain regular contact with civil society to ensure that new measures are in line with international standards.
- Ensure that COVID-19 is not used as a pretext for imposing unjustified restrictions on civil society; it must not be used to target human rights defenders and journalists, and to facilitate authoritarian power grabs.
- Ensure the pandemic is not used as an excuse to impose forced returns or refoulement in violation of international human rights law; or as a pretext to suspend or derogate from the fundamental right to seek asylum.
- Ensure that the independent judiciary, and not other branches of government, decides on any measures limiting the access and operation of courts. Allow independent courts to evaluate any unlawful imposition or unjustified extension of emergency measures, or the unlawful curtailment of the rule of law.
- Ensure that judiciaries and other relevant state authorities give particular consideration to urgent cases, where delay is most likely to cause irreparable harm, or where protective measures are required. This refers to: migrants (including asylum-seekers and refugees as well as internal migrants), women and children, LGBT+ communities, older persons, persons with disabilities, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
- Release detainees; immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience. This will ease pressure on the prison system and reduce the chance of the prison population, and the population more broadly, of contracting COVID-19.
- Pay special attention to traditionally marginalised or vulnerable groups and ensure access to appropriate support, resources and protection mechanisms. Be aware of any issues relating to stigmatisation, exclusion, violence, hatred, labelling and the targeting of victims of COVID-19.
- Ensure that no one is left behind in the national policies and strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Make sure policies are inclusive and effectively protect against discrimination on any ground. Consider persons with a disability and make sure all information is delivered in accessible formats.
- Apply a gender perspective in all policies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Maintain reliable and unfettered access to the internet so that all have the right to access and share information. End all unjustified interference with internet connectivity.
- Protect the role of independent media outlets and public interest journalism. Ensure that measures to contain the virus, as well as the fight against disinformation, are not used as a pretext to muzzle the media or regulate media freedoms.
- Ensure any use of surveillance to track the spread of coronavirus is limited in purpose and time and abides by human rights safeguards. States should adhere to the rights of free expression, privacy, non-discrimination, confidentiality and protection of journalist sources.
CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.