Upholding Human Rights During the Pandemic

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U.N. official accuses various countries of alleged human rights abuses under the guise of coronavirus health restrictions.

We are seeing a growing threat to human rights norms around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly, governments are exploiting the emergency measures imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus as a means to control their citizens, such as imposing curfews through arbitrary detention and excessive military force.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has named the Philippines, China, South Africa, Sri Lanka and El Salvador as having alleged human rights violations in the guise of coronavirus restrictions. “Shooting, detaining, or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response,” Bachelet said.

Hunger is driving many people to defy health safety measures to find food. The United Nations estimates that 265 million people could face starvation by the end of the year. Workers such as food vendors and day laborers lose their means of support under lockdown. In many countries, government aid is not available. 

In the Philippines, in response to protests over the lack of food and government aid, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered military officials to shoot “troublemakers.” In El Salvador, those accused of violating the stay-at-home order are arbitrarily detained in quarantine centers that are reportedly unsanitary and crowded.

Under international human rights law, governments can restrict some rights to protect public health in an emergency, but the U.N. explains that restrictions need to be “necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory.”

“We have seen many states adopt justifiable, reasonable and time-limited measures,” said Bachelet “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.”

The United States has come under the spotlight as well due to the growing social movement against systemic racism that has focused on police brutality. At the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in June, a coalition of African nations raised the alarm about police brutality against people of African descent in the United States. Shortly after, a coalition of experts at the Council released a statement that countries should “take this opportunity to address structural forms of racial and ethnic injustice in their own nations, and within the international system itself.”

Although the dynamics that give rise to instances of police brutality vary across countries, people are making connections. Boniface Mwangi, an activist in Kenya, told ABC news that “struggles against police brutality are [essentially] the same everywhere.” In Kenya, as of early June, police violence had killed 15 people during curfew enforcement.

“The voices calling for an end to the killings of unarmed African Americans need to be heard,” said Bachelet. “The voices calling for an end to police violence need to be heard.”

Faith in action:
• Ask Congress to support the bipartisan Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act: https://bit.ly/HRpandemicAA
• Read a roundup of U.N. work on COVID-19 and its Human Rights dimensions https://bit.ly/COVIDOHCHR
• Ask Congress to provide life-saving foreign assistance for COVID-19: https://bit.ly/CongressFACovid

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit www.maryknollogc.org or email ogc@maryknollogc.org.

To read more columns by MOGC, go to “World Watch.”

Featured Image: Gang members are secured by police at Izalco prison in El Salvador, where the nation’s president authorized “lethal force” to stop violence during COVID-19. The United Nations says some governments are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to violate human rights of their citizens (CNS photo/El Salvador)



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Kathleen Kollman Birch

Kathleen Kollman Birch is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.