Blogpost about the Coronavirus and human rights by Morten Kjaerum, Director of Raoul Wallenberg Institute
The current Covid-19 crisis is first and foremost a health issue and increasingly it is also becoming an economic challenge. Nonetheless, it is also all about our basic human rights.
In this text I will make a brief outline of some of the key issue pertaining to human rights and the corona-crisis. Many of the issues will be deepened by my colleagues at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in the weeks to come from their particular research perspective or from their work in our offices around the world. If you want to contribute please do not hesitate to sending us a text that we can consider for this blog at the RWI-website.
Interconnectedness of All Human Rights
The first thing that has struck me these past weeks is how well the crisis illustrate the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all human rights – political, economic, social, civil and cultural rights. This was underscored in 1993 at the UN World Conference on Human Rights as well as it is the outset for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. But not only that, the crisis is also a living illustration of the ultimate aim of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – the so-called SDG’s – namely: Leave no-one behind. In SDG 3 it is said that states shall “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. One of the targets is to “strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.” This target most people will recognize today is highly relevant.
Coronavirus & States
The ultimate aim for all states in stemming the corona-tide is to ensure the right to health and the right to life for everybody. The strategy currently pursued by most states is to contain and control the spread of the disease in order for the health sector to be able to cope with those people who need intensive care. The alternative could be a breakdown of the health sector and thereby seriously threaten the right to health and life for in particular the vulnerable in our society – the elderly, persons with underlying health issues, persons with disabilities and others.
In pursuing the containment strategy to protect the right to health and the rights to life other human rights are impacted, most directly the freedom of assembly and freedom of movement. Most countries have introduced a cap on how many people can meet at any given spot, meaning that manifestations, concerts and all other events are forbidden. In some countries the freedom of movement has been further limited in that people can only leave their house only for essential purposes such as buying groceries, medicine etc.
How do these profound limitations correspond with the human rights that are affected? In human rights law there are very few absolute rights that cannot be derogated from, these are i.e. the prohibition against torture and slavery. All other rights can be derogated from when it is “imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” (The wording is from UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights article 21).
The essential is that the measures are based in law, necessary and proportional. The necessity and proportionality tests are certainly difficult when you are making decisions in the eye of the storm and in the end, it will be up to the courts to assess to what extent the legal criteria in constitutions and human rights law were met. However, there are elements that should be considered: when it is found to be necessary to restrict the right to assembly and movement is it proportional to go as far as forbidding people to leave their home, which is a very intrusive measure to take? Could the aim to ensure social distancing be accommodated with less interfering means?
Further, in some countries, authorities have been permitted to hack mobile phones to follow the where-about of people and whom they interact with in order for the health authorities to identify individuals that may be infected by the Covid-19 virus. This is a far-reaching interference in the right to private life and it can be seriously questioned whether it is strictly necessary and proportional in the current situation. Thus, highly efficient but very intruding measures may be substituted with less efficient and less intruding methods still sufficient to achieving the goal.
The measures taken in different countries vary, and there are many reasons for these differences pertaining to political culture, religion, institutional strength and not least trust. Each element deserves further studies, but let me just address the latter, trust. One assumption could be that the higher level of trust the lower level of intrusive measures are needed since people are more inclined to follow the instructions given by the authorities. People feel that politicians and authorities react based on expert’s knowledge that is made available for the public or they are based on well-argued perceptions of what will have a positive impact on the current challenges.
Access to the Right Information
The basis for trust is openness, meaning a high level of respect for the freedom of speech and access to information. In this the freedom of speech for doctors and health personnel is of essence for the populations to fully understand the dimensions of the situation.
The media play an equally important role in having a critical eye on the decisions pertaining to limiting basic rights. From this perspective it is worrying from both a public health and human rights perspective that doctors are fired for speaking out and the work conditions for journalist are made unreasonable difficult in some countries. The trust was also kicked back in some countries when borders were closed since there was no evidence that this would help the situation and was mainly seen as a populistic step. The same is true when introducing over excessive prison sentences for minor crimes like steeling a bottle of hand spray. With such steps political leaders move from being seen to seriously address a burning platform to pleasing one particular segment of the population.
Lack of Trust
Another dimension of trust relates to particular vulnerable groups at the fringes of society. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency has well documented how the Roma population in European countries feel discriminated against in the health system, why they may not use it as they should. This lack of trust has obvious health implications for the Roma population which again runs counter to the containment strategy in many European countries. A similar issue relates to the un-documented migrants who often shy away from turning to the health services fearing to be apprehended by the police. Thus, to be successful the trust element is key and it has many facets.
The decisions taken limiting specific rights such as freedom of movement and assembly have further human rights implications. Across the world we see reports about increase in domestic violence and in particular violence against women and children. It is not a surprise that violent behavior emerge or perpetuates when people are confined to a limited number of rooms and square meters, where “social distancing” has little meaning. In order to address this burning issue more shelters for battered women and children could be established.
When kids are sent home from school, it will again be the more vulnerable kids that are challenged on their right to education. Are they sufficiently savvy in using the electronic learning platforms? Are the electronic means available for children with disabilities? Will they get sufficient support from their parent(s)? can the teacher detect those that are left behind in the group? The longer the crisis will last the more new approaches to children with special needs will have to be developed if these children should have their right to education fulfilled.
A New Situation
In conclusion, the Spanish Prime Minister said that “whoever claims to know what needs to be done in this emergency will learn nothing from it.” It is truly a new situation the world is in – or at least it is 100 years ago that the world witnessed something similar. This means that mistakes will be made, steps taken may be too wide reaching or the opposite. However, whenever severe restrictions on human rights are introduced in legislation or practice the measures should be questioned and monitored to ensure a continuous assessment of the necessity and proportionality.
As the medical experts learn more about the performance of the virus the measures should be adjusted and when possible downscaled in their impact or removed. When we are back in the post-corona-era none of these restrictions should remain since any crisis carries with it the potential to leave permanent footprints of less free societies. However, it can also turn the other way round that everybody realizes how important human rights – civil, economic, social, political and cultural – are for a resilient community that can cope with a profound crisis taking care of its most vulnerable citizens.
Morten Kjaerum, Director of Raoul Wallenberg Institute
This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts