COVID-19 measures should not be cover for human rights abuses: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

She added that emergency powers “should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”

“There have been numerous reports from different regions that police and other security forces have been using excessive, and at times lethal, force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews. Such violations have often been committed against people belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population,” the High Commissioner said.

“Shooting, detaining, or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response. So is making it difficult or dangerous for a woman to get to hospital to give birth. In some cases, people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them,” Bachelet said.

“In some countries, thousands have also been detained for curfew violations, a practice that is both unnecessary and unsafe. Jails and prisons are high risk environments, and states should focus on releasing whoever can be safely released, not detaining more people.”

“They should only use force when strictly necessary, and lethal force can only be used when there is an imminent risk to life,” Bachelet said.

She also explained that “it is important to counter misinformation, but shutting down the free exchange of ideas and information not only violates rights, it undermines trust. False information about COVID-19 poses a huge risk to people. But so do bad policy decisions,”

“Undermining rights such as freedom of expression may do incalculable damage to the effort to contain COVID-19 and its pernicious socio-economic side-effects,” Bachelet said.

“We have seen many States adopt justifiable, reasonable and time-limited measures. But there have also been deeply worrying cases where Governments appear to be using COVID-19 as a cover for human rights violations, further restricting fundamental freedoms and civic space, and undermining the rule of law,” Bachelet said.

“Different countries are at different stages of the pandemic. Some are starting to come out of emergency measures, while others are extending or reinforcing them. The abiding principle must be that these measures are enforced humanely. Penalties for violating them should be proportionate, and not imposed in an arbitrary or discriminate way,” she added. 

“Given the exceptional nature of the crisis, it is clear States need additional powers to cope. However, if the rule of law is not upheld, then the public health emergency risks becoming a human rights disaster, with negative effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself,” Bachelet said.