COVID-19 Op-ed

States Obligations to Impose Emergency Measures during the COVID-19 Crisis

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Dr. Pardis Moslemzadeh
Faculty of Law, University of

The outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus obliges all
governments and relevant actors to ensure that international human rights
laws and standards are at the centre of their responses in the effort to best
protect public health and support those most at risk of adverse impacts.
(Amnesty International, 2020) At the time of this writing, there were 375,498
confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 16,362 deaths in more than 196 countries.
(World Health Organization, 2020) This document provides an overview of state
obligations under international human rights laws posed by the coronavirus
outbreak. State obligations include but are not limited to imposing
restrictions while ensuring the protection of relevant human rights,
provision of health facilities, freedom of expression and information,
assistance to victims, and victims’ rights to be helped (humanitarian
assistance).As the number of infected persons continues to soar, Michelle
Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared on 6th March
the importance of introducing measures to check the spread of the COVID-19 as
one of the obligations of states. The outbreak which started in January 2020
placed several countries in an emergency situation leading them to declare a
lockdown situation. Many countries, including those in South East Asia, have
enforced restrictions, although some still refuse to do so in violation of
basic human rights principles. Currently, countries with major outbreaks such
as the United States, China, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Germany have
imposed lockdown emergency situations while Iran, despite having a high
number of infected cases, is unwilling to impose any controls in a serious
breach of human rights. (UNOCHR, 2020)Given that the COVID 19 outbreak has
been declared a global pandemic, governments have been urged by various
international organizations such as the WHO and UN to take urgent and
aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus. By virtue of the universal
concept of human rights, states are obliged to comply with such requests at
all times especially during situations of emergency and conflict. They are
also required to refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of
human rights and to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses.
(Diankonia, 2020)Denial of humanitarian assistance also constitutes a crime
against humanity. Iran, which is among the countries having the worst
coronavirus outbreaks in the world, has refused to accept international aid
such as offered by the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
a leading international medical humanitarian organization. (Foxnews, 2020)
Crimes against humanity is defined as acts committed against any civilian
population in a widespread or systematic manner that are based on any
policies by states, organizations, or groups. (ICTY, Art. 5, 2009) An
inadequate response to disasters, either by a deliberate act or omission,
such as a denial of humanitarian aid to victims which create inhumane
conditions leading to their death constitutes a crime against humanity. In
fact, refraining from taking action or refusing to accept humanitarian aid
thereby exposing victims to hazardous risks is as likely to increase the
number of deaths and compromise the living conditions of those struggling for
basic necessities. Denial of aid can be just as serious as physical violence.
Careful attention to human rights standards, besides the obligations of
governments to impose such measures, can provide an effective response amidst
the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results in a state of emergency,
as is being faced with Covid-19, and limit any dire consequences. (Venturini,
2012)According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR), which has been adopted by most countries, everyone has the
right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” The
ICESCR obliges states to take necessary measures for the “prevention,
treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.”
The ICESCR committee which monitors state compliance with the covenant has
stated that “The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the
realization of other human rights, as contained in the International Bill of
Rights”. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
also requires state restrictions on this right to be lawful, necessary, and
proportionate. Under international human rights laws, governments have an
obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right
to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of
frontiers. The governments of some countries such as China, Iran and Thailand
have failed to uphold the right to freedom of expression regarding the onset
of the virus which has undermined public trust in their actions. Others, such
as Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Italy prioritized communication and
transparent reporting on the number of infected cases. China and South Korea
are the only states with large outbreaks that have managed to flatten the
curve of new infections by imposing draconian restrictions on speech and
movement. (Fisher & HunHow, 2020)According to the new guidance from
UNAIDS, responding to an epidemic is not a question of balancing public
health and human rights but rather require states to adhere to human right
principles. Respect for human right and community leadership are the key
responses to global epidemic which led to success. The biggest inroads in
reducing the impact of HIV have done by countries adopting approaches that
empower communities to screen, test and seek treatment if necessary and to
protect themselves and others from acquiring the virus. (UNAIDS 2020)BibliographyAmnesty
International. (2020, March 16).  Responses
to covid-19 and states’ human rights obligations: Preliminary
. Cited March 25, 2020.Fisher. M & HunHow, C.S.
(23 March 2020). South
Korea Flattened the Curve
. Cited 27 March 2020.McKay, H. (2020,
March 25). Iran
rejects international humanitarian aid despite coronavirus death
. Cited March 27, 2020.The Global International Humanitarian
Law Centre of Diakonia,  International
Humanitarian Law
. Cited March 27, 2020.UNAIDS 2020. (20 March
2020).  Rights
in the time of COVID-19: Lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led
. Cited 27 March2020.United Nations Human Rights: Office of
High Commissioner (UNOHCHR). (2020, March 25).  Urgent
action needed to prevent COVID-19 “Rampaging through places of detention” – Bachelet 
Cited March 27, 2020.Updated Statute of The International Criminal Tribunal
for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Art. 5, of the ICTR, Art. 3, and of the
ICC, Art. 7.1 and 7.2(a). See also the 1996 ILC Draft Code of Crimes, op. cit.
(note 19), Art. 18, and the jurisprudence of the ICTY and the ICTR.Venturini,
G. (2012). International Disaster Response Law. Guttry, A et al (Ed). TMC
Asser press.World Health Organization. (2029, March 25).  Coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) Pandemic
. Cited 25 March 25, 2020.

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