Disturbing details have emerged from dozens of countries that a “toxic lockdown culture” against the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted drastically on society’s most vulnerable members, the UN human rights Office (OHCHR) said on Monday. The development follows UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call last week for States not to use the COVID crisis as a pretext for repressive measures, in which he urged Governments to recognize that the threat was the “virus, not people”.
In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that emergency powers “should not be a weapon Governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power”.
Hunting for food
In a statement, she added: “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.”
Respect for people’s rights covered their inherent freedoms “across the spectrum, including economic, social, and cultural rights, and civil and political rights”, the High Commissioner explained, adding that protecting these was “fundamental to the success of the public health response and recovery from the pandemic”. Ms. Bachelet’s Office, (OHCHR), highlighted allegations of abuse that appeared to transgress key basic freedoms in some countries.
Speaking to journalists during an online press conference, Georgette Gagnon, Director of Field Operations, described how various countries had adopted a “heavy-handed” or “highly militarised” security response to the virus.
“The U.N. Human Rights Office has observed a range of human rights violations in the context of the COVID-19 exceptional measures and states of emergency imposed by several states, and across several regions,” Gagnon said, citing specific examples from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. “A main concern on exceptional and emergency natural measures is what's been described as a toxic lockdown culture in some countries.”
“We've seen that police and other security forces are using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce lockdowns and curfews,” Gagnon said. These violations have often been against people from the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population.
We've also observed unreasonable or arbitrary detention for curfew violations where thousands of people have been arrested or detained for curfew violations, which is an unnecessary and unsafe practice. Jails and prisons, as we all know, are a high-risk environment for the spread of the virus.”
During the press conference, and in response to questions from journalists the OHCHR official touched on issues of concern related to states of emergency or exceptional measures in some 20 countries, noting “there are probably several dozen more that we could have highlighted.”
She went on to describe how the Philippines’ “highly militarised response” to the pandemic had led to the arrest of 120,000 people for violating the curfew and how more than 26,800 people had also been detained in Sri Lanka.
Asked specifically about alleged rights violations in China, Ms. Gagnon replied that the UN human rights office had received reports of censorship “off and online”, along with the intimidation, arrest and apparent detention of dissenting voices, such as doctors and journalists. “China has informed us at this point that at least some of them are under investigation or have been charged,” she added.
On the issue of States including the U.S. allegedly refusing to provide shelter to migrants on the grounds of preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, the UN rights office highlighted similar concerns within the European Union.
Involuntary returns must stop
“We have called very clearly for States to avoid involuntary forced returns during this period; we believe that is central to address the public health consequences of the types of returns that could be happening,” said Peggy Hicks, Director of Thematic Engagement at OHCHR.
To date, more than 80 countries have announced a state of emergency linked to the virus, according to the UN human rights office, while others have issued exceptional measures. In new guidance on these precautions issued on Monday to help States in their response to COVID-19, the UN human rights Office made it clear that international law does allow States to restrict some rights in order to protect public health, with additional powers available if a state of emergency is declared.
Nonetheless, the restrictions need to be necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory, and they need to be temporary, with key safeguards against excesses, said Peggy Hicks, Director of Thematic Engagement at OHCHR.
Certain non-derogable rights – the most important of all - 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, she explained.