Difference between revisions of "Impact of pandemic on human rights and rule of law"

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Latest revision as of 20:55, 2 August 2020

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that an outbreak of the viral disease COVID-19 – first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China – had reached the level of a global pandemic. Citing concerns with “the alarming levels of spread and severity,” the WHO called for governments to take urgent and aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus. International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. Human rights law also recognizes that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective. The scale and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic clearly rises to the level of a public health threat that could justify restrictions on certain rights, such as those that result from the imposition of quarantine or isolation limiting freedom of movement. At the same time, careful attention to human rights such as non-discrimination and human rights principles such as transparency and respect for human dignity can foster an effective response amidst the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results in times of crisis and limit the harms that can come from the imposition of overly broad measures that do not meet the above criteria. This document provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak, drawing on examples of government responses to date, and recommends ways governments and other actors can respect human rights in their response.

Applicable International Standards:

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which most countries have adopted, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Governments are obligated to take effective steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors state compliance with the covenant, has stated that: The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights, as contained in the International Bill of Rights, including the rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, the prohibition against torture, privacy, access to information, and the freedoms of association, assembly and movement. These and other rights and freedoms address integral components of the right to health. The right to health provides that health facilities, goods, and services should be: available in sufficient quantity, accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, even marginalized groups; acceptable, meaning respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate; and scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality. The Siracusa Principles, adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, and UN Human Rights Committee general comments on states of emergency and freedom of movement provide authoritative guidance on government responses that restrict human rights for reasons of public health or national emergency. Any measures taken to protect the population that limit people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. States of emergency need to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups. On March 16, 2020, a group of UN human rights experts said that “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... and should not be used simply to quash dissent.” The Siracusa Principles specifically state that restrictions should, at a minimum, be: provided for and carried out in accordance with the law; directed toward a legitimate objective of general interest; strictly necessary in a democratic society to achieve the objective; the least intrusive and restrictive available to reach the objective; based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application; and of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.

Human Rights Concerns: Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health, noted above, may not put in jeopardy the right itself. Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for the protection and promotion of rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.

In a number of countries, governments have failed to uphold the right to freedom of expression, taking actions against journalists and healthcare workers. This ultimately limited effective communication about the onset of the disease and undermined trust in government actions: China’s government initially withheld basic information about the coronavirus from the public, underreported cases of infection, downplayed the severity of the infection, and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans. Authorities detained people for reporting on the epidemic on social media and internet users for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, and curbed media reporting. In early January, Li Wenliang, a doctor at a hospital in Wuhan where infected patients were being treated, was summoned by police for “spreading rumors” after he warned of the new virus in an online chatroom. He died in early February from the virus. In Iran, the outbreak emerged after authorities had severely damaged public trust by brutally repressing widespread anti-government protests and lying about shooting down a civilian airliner. As a result, Iranian authorities have struggled to assure the public that government decision-making around the COVID-19 outbreak has been in the public’s best interests. The unusually high rate of reported cases of government officials contracting the virus, as well as the inconsistency in figures announced by officials and domestic media sources, have heightened concerns that the data is either being deliberately underreported or poorly collected and analyzed.

In Thailand, whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they criticized government responses to the outbreak, raised concerns about a possible cover-up, and reported alleged corruption related to the hoarding and profiteering of surgical masks and other supplies. Some medical personnel were also threatened with disciplinary action – including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses – for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across the country.

A few countries prioritized open communication and transparent reporting on the number of cases:

Taiwan took swift steps to combat the virus, including promptly making credible information widely available to the public. Daily press briefings by health officials and public service announcements aim to counter misinformation and have helped to calm panic, restore public confidence, and encourage people’s assistance in the crisis. Singapore’s government published and regularly updated detailed statistics on the number and rate of infections and recoveries. South Korea’s government also published health data and health officials gave two daily briefings to establish public confidence and promote citizen vigilance.

In Italy, inconsistent messages from public officials, including for domestic political reasons, may initially have diluted the impact of public service announcements about proper hygiene and social distancing. The government has held daily news conferences to share data and implemented an aggressive public campaign about better practices to protect oneself and others from spreading the virus.