CIVICUS: States should put human rights at the centre of all responses to COVID-19

Call for action by Civicus Alliance, 24 March 2020 – accessible here

  • During the global COVID-19 pandemic states should not impose emergency law as a pretext to restrict civic rights
  • Human rights defenders and political prisoners should be released to curb the spread
  • Governments should be transparent in responding to threats posed by COVID-19
  • CIVICUS urges states to lift emergency measures as soon as the threat of the virus diminishes

As the global community continues to take measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately eradicate it, states should ensure that the protection of human rights are at the centre of all responses.

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus reached the level of a global pandemic. WHO in turn requested that all governments take necessary action to stop the spread of the disease.

However, as observed with other emergencies, some governments have used crises to curtail civic freedoms and maintain restrictions – even after health threats that justified governments’ actions subsided. States responding to the spread of the COVID-19 virus must ensure that international human rights laws and standards are central to their responses.

While the focus and attention of the global community over the coming months will be directed towards the virus, states may increase attacks on civil society and impose restrictions. States should take pro-active measures to ensure that civil society organisations and vulnerable groups are adequately protected. In China, activists have been harassed and intimidated for sharing information on the virus while reporting has been censored. In other parts of Asia, repressive laws are being deployed to arrest those supposedly spreading untruths about the virus.

As an infectious disease, the risk of COVID-19 increases in closed spaces like jails, police cells and detention centres. Overcrowding, poor nutrition and lack of access to proper hygiene increase the risk of infection to prisoners. States have an obligation now to release human rights defenders and political prisoners from jail in an effort to curb the spread.

Some prisoners in Iranian jails have contracted the virus. While we commend the Iranian authorities for temporarily releasing 85,000 prisoners, human rights defenders – whose only crime was to defend the rights of women and juveniles – should also be released. Other states with a history of detaining human rights defenders and members of the political opposition, such as Egypt, Vietnam and Cameroon, should follow suit.

Declarations of states of emergency for health and security reasons must be done in conformity with the law: states should not impose emergency law as a pretext to restrict civic rights and target particular groups, minorities and individuals. Emergency laws should not be imposed to silence human rights defenders and they must be lifted as soon as threats posed by the virus diminish. Further, civil society groups should be consulted where possible.

It is compulsory for all those affected, especially marginalised groups and civil society groups working with them, to have access to meaningful information regarding the nature and extent of the threats posed by the virus. They should also have information on ways to curb risks in a timely manner. Internet restrictions and shutdowns in countries like Myanmar, India and Ethiopia are putting thousands at risk.

In this regard, CIVICUS calls on states to:

  • Collaborate with the media and civil society to be transparent in responding to threats posed by COVID-19. Address misinformation at all times without relying on censorship and criminal sanctions
  • Refrain from using responses to COVID-19 as a pretext to impose restrictions of civil society, target human rights defenders and curb online freedoms
  • Release all human rights defenders and political prisoners who were imprisoned for their human rights activities, or for expressing views contrary to those of the state
  • Lift emergency laws and relax measures imposed to curb the spread of the virus as soon as the threats diminish
  • Maintain reliable and unfettered access to the internet and end all deliberate interference with the right to access and share information