COVID-19 Emergency Powers Not To Be Weaponised to Suppress: UN Human Rights Chief


Hill Voice, 5 May 2020, New Delhi:  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet cautioned governments against violating basic human rights granted to people under the guise of adopting emergency powers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement at the last week of April, Bachelet said that emergency powers should not be weaponised by governments to “quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.

“They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less,” she said on April 27.

Referring to reports of use of excessive force to force citizens to abide with lockdown rules, she noted that most violations have often been committed against people belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of population.

“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.

She noted that thousands have been detained in some countries for curfew violations, which 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”.

In a new policy guidance document for states responding to COVID-19, the UN human rights office, based in Geneva, stressed that law enforcement officials should adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution, as in normal times.

While states are able to restrict some rights for public health reasons under human rights law, the restrictions need to non-discriminatory, proportionate, limited in duration with key safeguard put in place, the office said.

“Certain rights, including the right to life, the prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained continue to apply in all circumstances,” said the UN human rights office’s press communique.

The UN human rights chief said that there have been “deeply worrying cases” of governments using COVID-19 pandemic as a cover for restricting fundamental freedoms and civic space. Any exceptional measure or state of emergency should be subject to proper parliamentary, judicial and public oversight, 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,” said Bachelet.