COVID-19 Brings Human Rights into Focus

With a reawakened sense of our shared humanity and vulnerability, and the benefits of collective action, this crisis may translate into a comeback for human rights as a popular idea.

Expert comment Updated 3 February 2021 Published 9 April 2020 3 minute READ

Sonya Sceats

CEO, Freedom from Torture

A previously homeless family in the backyard of their newly reclaimed home in Los Angeles, where officials are trying to find homes to protect the state's huge homeless population from COVID-19. Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images.

A previously homeless family in the backyard of their newly reclaimed home in Los Angeles, where officials are trying to find homes to protect the state’s huge homeless population from COVID-19. Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images.

During this extraordinary global public health emergency, governments must strike the right balance between assertive measures to slow the spread of the virus and protect lives on the one hand, and respect for human autonomy, dignity and equality on the other.

International law already recognises the grave impact of pandemics and other catastrophic events on social order and provides criteria to guide states in their emergency action. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits curbs on the right to ‘liberty of movement’ so long as restrictions are provided by law, deemed necessary to protect public health, and consistent with other rights in that treaty.

Freedom of expression and association, and the rights to privacy and family life are also qualified in these terms under international and regional human rights treaties. But, as emphasised in the Siracusa Principles, any limitations must not be applied in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, and must be of limited duration and subject to review.

International law also guarantees the right to the highest attainable standard of health, while states are specifically required to take steps to prevent, treat and control epidemics under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Even in health emergencies, access to health services must be ensured on a non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable or marginalised groups.

Abuse of coronavirus emergency measures

Many governments have taken pains to craft emergency laws that respect human rights, such as permitting reasonable exceptions to lockdowns for essential shopping and exercise, and making them subject to ongoing parliamentary review and sunset clauses. But even laws that appear to be human rights compliant can still easily be misapplied, as the recent debates about over-zealous policing of people walking and travelling in the UK illustrate.

And disturbing stories are emerging from states where police brutality is entrenched. In Kenya, a 13-year-old boy was reportedly shot on the balcony of his home by police enforcing a coronavirus curfew. Authorities in the Philippines’ are allegedly locking those caught defying the curfew in dog cages.

As the recent history of counterterrorism demonstrates, emergency laws tend to be sticky, remaining on the statute books far longer than desirable.

The virus is also proving a powerful accelerant for the current global authoritarian drift which is so detrimental to progress on human rights. Many authoritarian leaders have seized the opportunity to further reduce constraints on their power.

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has used the pandemic as a pretext for new laws enabling him to rule by decree, completing the country’s transition to an elected dictatorship. In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro has suspended deadlines for public bodies to reply to freedom of information requests. Iran is the latest of many repressive states in the Middle East to ban the printing and distribution of all newspapers. In China, the government brushed off criticism over ‘disappearances’ of whistleblowers and citizen journalists who questioned its response to the crisis.

Others have exploited the turmoil to undermine justice for human rights abuses - Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned one of the only soldiers held accountable for crimes during the country’s brutal civil war.

Coronavirus also places liberal values under further strain. Fear is a major driver in the appeal of populist authoritarians and the virus is stoking it. One poll showed 73% of British citizens agreed coronavirus is just the latest sign that the world we live in is increasingly dangerous. Extremists are exploiting these fears to spread hate by blaming the outbreak on ethnic or religious groups, and encouraging those infected to spread it to these groups.

The closure of borders helps reinforce xenophobic tendencies, and high public tolerance of emergency measures could easily spill into normalisation of intrusive digital surveillance and restrictions on liberty for other reasons well into the future.

Disadvantaged groups face a higher level of risk from the crisis. The health of aboriginal Australians is so poor that those aged 50 and above are being urged to stay home, advice otherwise given to those over 70 in the general population. The Moria refugee camp on Lesbos is reporting no soap and just one water tap for 1,300 refugees. In the UK, asylum seekers struggle to self-isolate in shared accommodation and have a daily allowance of just £5.40 for food, medicine and toiletries. Women’s rights groups are reporting a spike in domestic violence.

For countries racked by war and extreme poverty, the impact is catastrophic. The virus is set to run rampant in slums, refugee camps and informal settlements where public health systems - if they exist at all - will struggle to cope. And detainees are among the most at risk, with the UN calling for release of political prisoners and anyone detained without sufficient legal basis.

But the crisis has galvanised debate around the right to health and universal health coverage. Many governments have quickly bankrolled generous relief packages which will actually safeguard the socio-economic rights of many, even if they are not being justified in those terms. Portugal and Ireland have rolled back barriers to accessing healthcare for asylum seekers and other marginalised migrants.

The pandemic strikes as many powerful governments have become increasingly nationalistic, undermining or retreating from international rules and institutions on human rights. But as the crisis spreads, the role of well-established international human rights standards in shaping and implementing effective - but also legitimate - measures is becoming ever clearer.

The virus has reminded us of our interconnectedness as human beings and the need for global cooperation to protect our lives and health. This may help to revive popular support for human rights, creating momentum for the efforts to tackle inequality and repression - factors which have made the global impact of coronavirus so much worse than it might have been.