Emergency measures imposed by governments during the coronavirus pandemic must be necessary, reasonable and proportionate with a clear lifetime that ends when the public health crisis is over, UN Commissioner for Human Rights said.
In a set of guidelines issued by the UN’s Human Rights’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESR), governments were urged to respect human rights across the spectrum, including economic and social rights, and civil and political rights as this would be fundamental to the success of the public health response.
The announcement shed light on the controversial decision by the Maltese government to close the country’s ports as migrant boats were stranded. The UN said it was aware that governments had to take difficult decisions in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but insisted measures should be proportionate.
Emergency powers must be used for legitimate public health goals, not used as a basis to quash dissent or silence the work of human rights defenders or journalists.
This was also highlighted by Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, who said these emergency measures also had to be lifted when these were no longer necessary for protecting public health.
People needed to be informed about the emergency measures, where these applied and for how long they were meant to be in effect.
“As the crisis passes, it will be important for governments to return life to normal and not use emergency powers to indefinitely regulate day-to-day life, recognizing that the response must match the needs of different phases of this crisis,” the CESC said.
Unfortunately, several governments around the world – and in the EU – have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to implement a series of measures that troll back human rights.
As people are being called upon to stay at home, governments must take urgent measures to help people without adequate housing. “COVID-19 measures for staying at home and practising social distancing should reflect that this is extremely hard for some – for example people living in overcrowded conditions, and those lacking access to water and sanitation,” the committee said.
The authorities should also take particular care to prevent more people from becoming homeless and implement good practices such as moratoriums on evictions, deferrals of mortgage or loan payments.
It was also important to keep in mind people who relied on community and home services to eat, dress and bathe – including people with a disability or the elderly.
The guidelines also refer to prisoners and those kept in detention, saying these were at a higher risk of infection in case of an outbreak. Social distancing was difficult to maintain in these places, which had a high risk of contamination. States should “urgently explore options for release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention,” it said.
The document also tackled the issue of migration, saying migrants and refugees also faced “particular risks” as these may be confined to camps and settlements, which might be overcrowded, overstretched and with poor sanitation.
“It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution from accessing safety and protection,” the committee said.
This recommendation is the exact opposite of the decision taken by the Maltese government last week to close its ports, making it very clear that it would not be taking any more migrants as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This announcement came 24 hours after Italy closed all its ports, saying its harbours could not be considered safe.
The decision was harshly criticised by more than 20 non-governmental organisations who called on the prime minister to ensure that all persons within Malta’s responsibility were rescued and their safety guaranteed.
“The nation cannot quietly celebrate Easter while men, women and children are drowning on our doorstep. Saving lives and ensuring their disembarkation at a safe place is a fundamental legal obligation and also a moral imperative that can in no way be negotiated or renounced,” the NGOs said.
The guidelines called on governments to take “specific actions” to include migrants and refugees in national prevention and response campaigns by ensuring equal access to information, testing, and health care for all, regardless of their status.
Earlier this month, the Maltese authorities put the Hal Far open centre under a two-week quarantine after eight migrants tested positive for coronavirus. The decision was slammed by local NGOs who said this would exacerbate the situation where the virus could potentially spread among the 1,000 residents.