Laurence Blattmer*

For decades and even centuries, epidemic and pandemic have sparked ethical questions on how to adequately control transmission of a disease. Ethical considerations relevant to public health measures include to address the fine balance between reducing virus spread through restrictive measures (e.g. confinement and travel bans) and acting within a human rights framework. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), restrictions on the rights for reasons of public emergency do not concern all rights, as some of them remain absolute under any circumstances[1] and the restrictive measures must be lawful, necessary and proportionate.[2] States’ responses to address epidemic and pandemic have also serious implications on economic, social and cultural rights. Limitations to the enjoyment of those rights are “determined by law only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.”[3]

And yet, human rights are too often set aside and unjustifiably violated by governments in this type of context. Typical human rights violations are for example the adoption of discriminatory laws, the harassment and disproportionate use of force by agents of States, the unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on press freedom, the denied access to health services, to social security, to water and sanitation, to crucial information, etc. The spread of disease and the measures taken to curb it particularly impact the most vulnerable populations.  

The current coronavirus pandemic is no exception to it. People in precarious forms of labour, migrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, people deprived of liberty, LGBTI, older people, people with disabilities, health care workers and women and girls[4] are among those disproportionately affected by the current crisis. This crisis is clearly deepening existing social inequalities and is destabilising health and social programmes already weakened by years of underinvestment. 

Here are just a few examples of worrying situations. While States urgently need to take steps to slow down contamination, we observe negligence on the part of many governments to protect groups that are particularly at risk, such as detainees.  Various countries like Mexico, Benin, Eritrea and Egypt are failing to take quick actions to improve basic sanitary conditions in detention centres and to reduce overcrowding to avoid massive contamination. In many parts of the world, governments’ responses are discriminatory, disproportionate, unnecessary and even illegal. In the Philippines for example, soldiers have been ordered to shoot the individuals who resisted the lockdown. In India, several state governments’ responses are discriminatory, such as making names of people affected by the virus public as well as stamping homes of people in quarantine.[5] In Hungary, a new legislation is now giving, for an indefinite period, the power to the government to bypass parliament when ruling and is criminalizing people spreading so-called misinformation on Covid-19.[6] The social and economic impacts of this crisis on the most vulnerable are also neglected by many countries. In Dominican Republic, several efforts have been undertaken to protect the financial sector whereas entire sections of the population have not received any state support to ensure housing stability and food security. In Colombia, a country where more than half of the population works in the informal sector, the current measures to support people’s livelihoods clearly do not benefit everyone. It is essential that all States make use of maximum available resources to ensure the delivery of basic services to its population.

In this context, independent UN human rights experts have urged States to deal with the crisis in strict accordance with human rights standards and to approach it in a holistic manner.[7] On March 16, they stated that “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.”[8]  

It is absolutely fundamental to be alert in this period. Civil society actors do have a critical role in monitoring and documenting the implementation by States of their international human rights obligations. This role is essential in preventing future abuses and violations of human rights committed during the crisis and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

Alongside national and regional human rights institutions and mechanisms, the UN human rights system can offer interesting additional opportunities for the civil society to report human rights violations, especially that the national human rights bodies’ work is for the most part temporarily suspended or very restricted. Here are a few examples of actions the civil society can take with the UN mechanisms:

  1. Human rights defenders or victims can submit information about allegations of human rights violations to the UN Special Procedures, and request them to communicate with the concerned government in order to end the violation and provide redress for the victims. This type of communication can also concern a specific draft bill or a government policy that threatens the enjoyment of human rights.
  2. NGOs can turn to the UN Treaty Bodies, that are committees of independent experts monitoring the implementation of the human rights treaties by Member States. The next review of a Member State can be an excellent occasion for the civil society to share its findings and opinions on the impacts of the State’s sanitary measures on the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the respective treaty.
  3. The Treaty Bodies can also receive and consider, under certain conditions, complaints by individuals alleging violations of the rights enshrined in the treaty corresponding to its mandate.
  4. The civil society can bring a critical voice on the human rights record in a country by participating in the next UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which monitors the implementation of the human rights obligations of each UN Member State every 5 years (see the Calendar of reviews for the 3rd cycle).

As democratic safeguards are restricted in many countries at the moment, it is paramount that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) continue developing online methods that will enable civil society to monitor and report in a secure manner on human rights issues and violations in their country.

This crisis is highlighting the weaknesses of our social and economic systems based on differentiated treatment according to social status, gender, religion, income, origin, age, race, etc. Beyond the sanitary crisis, it is indeed an existential crisis that is at stake, that of a humanity that continues to defend a way of life that is leading to its ruin. While climate change and the destruction of our environment and wildlife clearly evidence the inappropriateness of our current system based on infinite economic growth and exploitation of natural resources, States’ passiveness continues to be predominant.

As the pressure on States is only increasing with this sanitary crisis, it would be about time that they increase significantly investments in public health and social services, ensure inclusive social protection programmes, implement climate justice, improve access to decent work, adequate housing, sanitation and water and ensure that people live in a healthy environment. The current extraordinary mobilisation of resources to deal with this crisis could be the catalyst of positive long-lasting changes.

But will the Covid-19 crisis really be a wake up call? Are we likely to return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as the spread of the virus is under control? And won’t the States prioritise external debt’s repayment instead of investing massively in health, education and social programmes once the sanitary crisis is over?  

The global recession that is unfolding can be disastrous for human rights, but it can also provide an opportunity to develop innovative solutions. This crisis should be an impetus to open a real and fundamental debate on values in our societies, on our mutual obligations and on what we collectively consider to be more important than economic growth and corporate profit. This period provides us with a golden opportunity to remind our governments about the interconnectedness of our societies and of each individual and that no one can be left behind. And history shows us that when governments fail us, citizens mobilize, build organizations and networks, confront the dominant culture and bring transformations that form a strong legacy for rights and liberties for future generations.


*Laurence Blattmer is a Canadian-Swiss jurist specialized in human rights. She has extensive work experience in the defense of human rights at the UN level and in Civil Society actions and advocacy in the promotion of human rights in the world. Prior to her position as Program Coordinator at Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Laurence worked with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and contributed to the work of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She holds a Master of International Law from the Graduate Institute in Geneva and a Bachelor of International Relations and International Law from the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), Canada.


[1] Right to life (Art. 6), prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Art. 7), prohibition of slavery and servitude (Art. 8), freedom from imprisonment for inability to fulfil a contractual obligation (Art. 11), prohibition against the retrospective operation of criminal laws (Art. 15), right to recognition before the law (Art. 16) and freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 18). 

[2] UN Human Rights Committee, CCPR General Comment No. 29: States of emergency (Article 4), 31 August 2001, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11.

[3] Article 4 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[4] Global rapid gender analysis for covid-19, accesible at: https://www.carefrance.org/ressources/themas/1/93a8e81-8640-Global-RGA_COVID_RDM_3.31.2.pdf

[5] Human Rights Watch, India: COVID-19 Lockdown Puts Poor at Risk, 27 March 2020, accesible at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/27/india-covid-19-lockdown-puts-poor-risk

[6] International Press Institute: Hungary: Press freedom threatened as Orbán handed new powers, 30 March 2020, accesible at: https://ipi.media/hungary-press-freedom-threatened-as-orban-handed-new-powers/

[7] OHCHR, COVID-19 and its human rights dimensions, accesible at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/COVID-19.aspx

[8] OHCHR, COVID-19: States should not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights – UN experts, accesible at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25722