The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has been considered a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This virus broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan late 2019 and has now gotten to virtually all nooks and crannies of the world. It is typical of the coronavirus to attack and weaken the respiratory system of its carrier. Apart from being highly a contagious virus communicable by mere being in proximity or contact with an existing carrier or an infected surface, the virus is quite dangerous for persons with an existing respiratory condition and the aged populace. The outbreak of this virus has negatively albeit rapidly impacted the globe just as measures are being put in place to respond to the aftermath of the pandemic. These measures are put in place with a view to cushioning the attendant effects of the outbreak.
In the wake of this global pandemic, there is a growing concern on its impact on the promotion and protection of human rights amongst government, supranational bodies, and all stakeholders in the International Human Rights. The International law has placed an obligation to promote universal respect and observance for human rights on member states. This obligation comes with a default responsibility. The former United Nations (UN) secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, expressing worries on the erosion of international human rights and humanitarian law submitted that;
“Some governments are sharply restricting people’s ability to exercise their rights, attacking fundamental freedoms and dismantling judicial institutions that limit executive power. Others are detaining and imprisoning human rights defenders and clamping down on civil society and non-governmental organizations, preventing them from performing their vital work.”[i]
The International human rights to which all people are entitled should be protected and promoted even during situations of emergency and dispute. State parties are obliged to respect these freedoms, to safeguard them and to uphold them.[ii] There are certainly varying aspects of the international human rights law that are in issue from diplomatic rights to dignity of persons to liberty and freedom of movement amongst several others.
The crux of the matter is that the global responses to the pandemic have posed unique and dynamic challenges to the promotion and protection of human rights and even the wellbeing of citizens around the world. This essay seeks to examine the challenges of protecting and promoting international human right in COVID-19 era. It is envisaged that in the end the right peg would have been placed in the right hole.
THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE LIGHT OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC
As the primary, the body of international law intended to promote and protect human rights at the international and domestic levels, as the primary the body of international law intended to promote and protect human rights at the international and domestic levels.[iii] While international treaties and customary law constitute the cornerstone of international human rights law, other frameworks such as the universally accepted declarations, resolutions, standards and principles also aids its application, understanding, and development.[iv]
According to Jubilut and Cerna,[v] ‘The COVID-19 pandemic is a global epidemic, a biological and health tragedy which has affected the whole world. Its multidimensionality is also present in the responses to it (health, security, economic, and political aspects), and a relevant element that should be present when designing and implementing measures to deal with the new coronavirus involves human rights.’[vi] In the COVID-19 pandemic era, the promotion and protection of international human rights become a challenging issue. These issues and challenges are multi-dimensional and must be examined from the different perspectives under the international human rights laws.
Conflict of States’ International Obligation and National Responsibility
As earlier noted, states have a tripartite nature obligation under the international human rights law; the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil. In the bid to respect, it is required that states discourage and refrain from measure that tends to scuttle the enjoyment of these human rights or the ability to satisfy them through self-effort. In the wake of the pandemic, this obligation has become quite otiose and obsolete given the novel situation of the pandemic.
On the obligation to protect, it is expected that state put in place measure prevent the violation of this right by external factors or third parties. It follows therefore that eliminates or rule out the possibility of violation and in case of violation, it put in places measure to restore and remedy the situation while forestalling further violations or deprivations. Again, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have made this obligation almost impossible given the fact that in the enforcement of lockdown, the use of force or abuse of human right is a plausibility.
The third obligation which is to fulfil portends that state breeds or creates an enabling atmosphere for the optimum enjoyment of the rights. The ban on public gathering, freedom of movement and liberty in the bid to curtail this virus becomes a sharp departure from this obligation.
Technical Suspension, Limitation and Threat to Socioeconomic Human Rights
Under the international law, human rights of course could be limited or suspended in the interest of public. Better put, for greater good and ultimate protection of these rights, they can be limited or suspended. However, there are certain factors, requirements, and guidelines in the international law to activate this measure. The UDHR in its article 49 provides to the effect that there can be a proportionate limitation of rights in times of emergency on the grounds of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society. In the same vein, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also give a concession to the effect that states are allowed unilaterally to ‘derogate temporarily from a part of its obligations, but only subject to several safeguards.’ In more concrete terms, the measures to be taken must be limited to the extent strictly required by the circumstances, the situation must amount to a ‘public emergency which threatens the life of the nation’ and a state of emergency must be declared.[vii] The same ICCPR also allows for the restriction of freedom of movement for the protection of public health.[viii] Hence, the law and order as it is on a normal day cannot address the unique situation like the COVID 19 pandemic. It then cannot be business as usual when it comes to COVID-19 and the protection and promotion of the International Human rights in the interest of public health and policy.
The United Nations Experts[ix] in their submissions are justified when they posited thus:
“…emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.” “Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent” “We encourage States to remain steadfast in maintaining a human rights-based approach to regulating this pandemic, in order to facilitate the emergence of healthy societies with rule of law and human rights protections.”
The lockdown measure put in place by governments have restricted people’s economic rights. individuals who live below the poverty or those who live from hand to mouth have been finding their daily livelihood extremely difficult due to the pandemic. Religious rights have been curtailed as citizens are unable to enjoy these rights since places of worship have been designated as one of the risky places to spread the virus.
The impacts of COVID-19 on the protection and promotion of the International human rights are quite multidimensional. While there are different stokes for different folks, it is trite that these human rights remain sacred. Promoting and protecting the international human rights in the wake of this pandemic is imperative. It is recommended that government and all stakeholders make concerted efforts and speak in stentorian voice in the bid to win the war without losing sight of their respective obligations to respect, protect and fulfil. Rights steps should be taken towards the right direction as regards these obligations.
From the foregoing discourse, it is gleaned the major socio-political and legal challenge countries of the world are fraught with today is the ability to respond to this crisis effectively, whilst ensuring that the response measures and mechanisms do not undermine the safeguard, protection, promotion, preservation and enforcement of the international human rights that they are obligated to so promote, protect and preserve by their being signatories to various international human rights instruments and member-states to supranational bodies.
In the event of a public emergency and extraordinary situations, international human rights norms do give room for the imposition of limitations under strict conditions. The begging questions are, doesn’t this novel global pandemic situation present an avenue for abuse and suppression of human rights and wielding of undue power on the part of the government? To what extent have the international human rights been promoted so far so good in the wake of the pandemic? While there are different strokes for different folks, concerted efforts are highly required to ensure that these rights are preserved, protected, enforced and promoted. Just like of Marija Pejčinović Burić, The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe have submitted, the virus is destroying many lives and much else of what is very dear to us. We should not let it destroy our core values and free societies and human rights.[x]
[i] As cited in Jayne Caudwell & Darragh McGee (2018) From promotion to protection: human rights and events, leisure and sport, Leisure Studies, 37:1, 1-10, DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2017.1420814
[ii] Diakonia S.E (2020) “International Human Rights Law” available online at https://www.diakonia.se/en/IHL/The-Law/International-Law1/International-Human-Rights-Law/ accessed 9th August 2020
[iii] Ibid Diakonia
[v] L. L Jubilut and C.M Cerna (2020) “Opinion – Impacts and Restrictions to Human Rights During COVID-19” available online at https://www.e-ir.info/2020/06/30/opinion-impacts-and-restrictions-to-human-rights-during-covid-19/
[vi] Jubilut and Cerna
[vii] European Parliament At A Glance (2020) “COVID-19’s impact on human rights outside the EU” available online at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2020/649365/EPRS_ATA(2020)649365_EN.pdf
[viii] See Article 12 of the ICCPR
[ix] “COVID-19: States should not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights – UN experts” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25722
[x] Council of Europe (2020) “Coronavirus: guidance to governments on respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law” available online at https://www.coe.int/en/web/human-rights-rule-of-law/-/coronavirus-guidance-to-governments-on-respecting-human-rights-democracy-and-the-rule-of-law
Author: ABDULAZEEZ Muhammad Bashir