GENEVA — The U.N. human rights chief warned on Monday of reports that some governments are abusing emergency powers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by resorting to police brutality and other heavy-handed tactics.
Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president who heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, cited troubling reports that some of the necessary coronavirus lockdowns are being misused as “a cover for human rights violations,” in dozens of nations around the world, including acts based on blatant racism and xenophobia.
“There have been numerous reports from different regions that police and other security forces have been using excessive, and at times lethal, force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews,” Bachelet said in a statement. “In some cases, people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them.”
Some of the nations cited included China, El Salvador, Hungary, Jordan, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Uganda. About 120,000 people have been arrested for curfew violations in the Philippines, where the country has put in place a highly militarized environment. More than 26,800 people have been detained in Sri Lanka, OHCHR said, and emergency laws have been used to target LGBTQ people in Uganda.
More than 17,000 people have been arrested due to COVID-19 restrictions in South Africa, where there has been disproportionate use of force by security officers, particularly in poor areas, the U.N. human rights office said. Rubber bullets, tear gas, water guns and whips all have been used to enforce social distancing, said Georgette Gagnon, OHCHR’s director of field operations.
The “toxic lockdown culture” includes acts of police brutality ranging from murder to corruption to assault with firearms that an independent police body has been investigating, Gagnon told reporters.
Such abuses generally target the poorest, most vulnerable people. “Shooting, detaining, or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response,” said Bachelet. “So is making it difficult or dangerous for a woman to get to hospital to give birth.”
“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent or control the population” – @mbachelet calls on Governments to ensure #HumanRights are not violated under the guise of exceptional or emergency measures for #COVID19.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) April 27, 2020
‘Nothing more, nothing less’
The U.N. human rights office said some nations unnecessarily detained thousands of citizens for curfew violations, putting them into unsafe prisons where the virus can spread. It said law enforcement officials should only impose force when strictly necessary.
Separately, Felipe González Morales, the U.N. special rapporteur, or investigator, for migrants’ rights called on the United States to protect migrants held in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities against the virus. He said U.N. officials received reports of deficient care for 1,500 detainees in Tacoma, Washington, in a federal facility contracted to be run by a private company, GEO Group.
“It is very difficult to keep the necessary physical distance in overcrowded detention facilities. Significantly reducing the number of detained migrants by releasing them into alternative settings can easily solve this,” Felipe González Morales said in a statement. “None of those migrants are detained for criminal offenses, but are simply awaiting decisions on their immigration claims.”
Also Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the Tacoma facility, launched a dedicated “Operation Stolen Promise” web page to warn the public against COVID-19-related fraud schemes.
GEO Group said in a March statement that its “facilities and services are highly rated and provide high-quality, culturally responsive services to individuals in the care of federal immigration authorities.”
Bachelet’s office released emergency guidelines for nations to ensure that they comply with the rule of law and use the least intrusive means to enforce legitimate public health goals.
International law permits some temporary restrictions and added emergency powers to protect public health. But the restrictions must be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory — and cannot be imposed to lower restraints against killing, torture or arbitrary detention.
“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” Bachelet warned. “They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”
Bachelet speaks from experience. She got involved in politics after becoming a Chilean human rights activist in the early 1970s. Her family had been political prisoners. Her father, an air force general, died after months of torture in prison. He was charged with treason for opposing August Pinochet’s overthrow of President Salvador Allende.
Bachelet and her mother also were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet’s dictatorship. They managed to flee into exile in Australia and later in East Germany. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979.
She earned her medical degree there and became a pediatrician and public health advocate. Her career in politics began with Chile’s health ministry, where she quickly rose from adviser to ministry head in 2000, then became head of the defense ministry in 2002.
She rose to become Chile’s first female president, serving two terms in that office from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018, when the U.N. General Assembly approved her as head of OHCHR.
Her office found some nations have enacted measures and laws with vaguely defined offenses that are being used to silence opponents, critics and the news media. It emphasized that countering misinformation about COVID-19 cannot justify denying people their freedom of expression.
“There have also been deeply worrying cases where governments appear to be using COVID-19 as a cover for human rights violations, further restricting fundamental freedoms and civic space, and undermining the rule of law,” Bachelet said. “If the rule of law is not upheld, then the public health emergency risks becoming a human rights disaster, with negative effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself.”