Human Rights and the Coronavirus Pandemic
European governments are fighting against the spread of the pandemic with strong measures. This is necessary to respond to the unprecedented challenge we are facing. At the same time, it is clear that the enjoyment of human rights is affected by the pandemic and the measures adopted to encounter it. The right to health, the broader range of economic and social rights, and civil and political freedoms, are all very relevant in the present context,
Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe, statement published 29 March 2020
Personal Reflections by Chairperson of the Board, Elisabet Fura
This is an article I hesitate to write, for several reasons. One is that we are in the middle of the crisis and thus without a perspective. Another is that it might seem lacking in empathy and even relevance to bring this topic up when people around us are fighting for their lives. A third reason is that it might be perceived as focusing on the esoteric while our house is on fire. Or that I am criticizing the leaders who take responsibility and act from my safe position as an self-appointed expert. But still…
The right to life is the basic human right. Human dignity derives from this right, a right we will never be prepared to compromise, or?
Another human right we have come to cherish is the right not to be discriminated against, or to put it differently, we adhere to the principle that all human beings are equal, with equal rights and duties.
So why bother with human rights now, in the midst of a pandemic that has already taken so many lives?
I do not claim to have all the answers but in this short article I will try to share with you some of my thoughts and concerns in the hope that it might help you to broaden your thinking and to deepen the dialogue between us and through that dialogue provide us all with a better basis to learn and draw the right conclusions for the future.
What we are seeing around the world right now are governments taking decisive action, imposing harsh (or like in the case of my own country Sweden – more relaxed) measures aiming at stopping the virus from spreading and protecting the most vulnerable individuals.
Measures such as quarantine and mass surveillance are decided for a good reason and thus expected to be accepted and respected. Only time will tell how effective these measures were or if they even were counterproductive in some cases.
But what if they are not accepted because perceived as arbitrary or even discriminatory?
Sanctions are in place and in some countries you risk a fine or even imprisonment if you violate the new rules. (How to prevent the virus from spreading in prison if several people are imprisoned as a result is another issue that will not be discussed here.)
Arbitrary detention, crackdown on freedom of speech and lack of access to information, discrimination and xenophobia, disproportionate border controls are some examples of emerging problematic implementations of the new order around the world.
Of course, I am not alleging that all quarantine measures are equal to arbitrary detention but there is a clear risk. A quarantine becomes arbitrary detention when there is no legal reason to force a person to remain in one particular place and not allow that person to apply for judicial review. Have we reached that point anywhere in the world yet? Time will tell.
Even when there is a legal measure in place, how will the courts be able to cope?
Judges are also human beings (I know that some of you will question this premise but allow me to continue my reasoning for now) and as humans subjected to the virus. In some places courts are already facing problems coping with the normal case load because judges are off sick, in quarantine or dutifully respecting the advice of the health authorities to socially distance themselves since belonging to a risk group. Already now some courts have had to make difficult choices giving priority to the most urgent cases leaving other cases on the shelves with unknown suffering (economic or other) as a result.
What will be the effect if a tsunami of cases relating to the extraordinary measures taken to cope with the pandemic hits the court systems around the globe?
The European Court of Human Rights issued a press release on 27 March 2020 announcing that it is now focusing on maintaining its core activity, dealing with urgent cases where the applicants are requesting interim measures and pending cases where the handling does not require the judges and staff to be physically present in the court building in Strasbourg. It was also announced that the six-month time-limit for lodging an application, under Article 35 of the European Convention of Human Rights, has exceptionally been suspended for a one-month period running from Monday 16 March 2020.
All time-limits allotted in proceedings that are currently pending have been suspended for one month, with the effect from Monday 16 March 2020. The principle of subsidiarity means that the influx of corona-related cases will not hit the European Court for some time yet, but I fear that there will be a severe impact at some stage.
Parliamentary democracy as we have come to know it is also under severe pressure when governments feel forced to act and impose harsh measures without the normal preparations and scrutiny by parliaments. It is extremely important that we all are vigilant and make sure that normal procedures for law making are reinstalled once the crisis is over.
The Economic Impact
To discuss the economic impact of the pandemic, short term and long term, is considered bad taste by some opinion makers but I respectfully disagree. We must have the courage to keep more than one thought in our heads at a time because the economic blow might cause even more suffering for individuals and communities than the pandemic itself if we do not take measures now.
The good news is that there are measures we can take to influence the economy and thus the possibility for people to keep their jobs and continue to support themselves and their families. Some leaders are doing just that but in all fairness it must be said that some countries have a much better chance than others mainly because their economies are more robust. Since our economy is globalized in an unprecedented way, we all have an interest in promoting solidarity. It is not one nation for itself that will get us out of this and back to some kind of new normal once the pandemic is over but rather unity and solidarity.
Not only the globalized economy binds us together but the climate as well. Professor Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has expressed the view that the pandemic and the climate crisis have the same origins namely the human abuse of natural resources or the mismanagement of “global commons” as he puts it. He claims (see article published in Svenska Dagbladet 29 march 2020) that deforestation is at the root of many pandemics (such as Ebola, Sars, Zika and Corona) as well as contributing to the climate change. Be that as it may, we can no longer continue to ignore the warning signs nature is sending us.
This is my conclusion, we must not allow ourselves to be overtaken by emotions like fear and panic because fear has always been a bad advisor and it still is. We must keep our heads cool and stay calm and look ahead, even when it is hard. And here dialogue and solidarity is key. We must respect human rights and stand united in our fight against the pandemic. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.
This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts