Rule of law Sri Lanka

Covid-19, human rights, and emergency measures: What comes next for Sri Lanka

By Aingkaran Kugathasan – Human Rights Expert & Political Analyst with DRI Sri Lanka

Today, 10 December 2020, marks International Human Rights Day. Today is of particular note as the world celebrates our universal human rights in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. The theme for this year is "Recover Better: Stand Up for Human Rights", underlining the need for a stronger comeback for human rights during a year of unprecedented challenges. It has now been nine months to date since the World Health Organization officially declared the covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic. While the pandemic has already claimed over 1,540,777 lives globally, with the death of an infant on 8 December 2020, the total number of lives lost due to covid-19 in Sri Lanka has risen to 143.

Due to the imperative need for mitigating the spread of covid-19, governments throughout the world have introduced emergency measures that constrain individual freedoms, social and economic rights, and global solidarity. The government of Sri Lanka has also implemented a range of control measures to prevent the spread of the covid-19. These measures included travel restrictions, lockdowns, quarantining of sick individuals and close contacts in government facilities, limits on public gatherings, business and school closures, cremation of covid-19 and covid-19 suspected dead, tracking of community mobility, surveillance of social media and use of drones to monitor isolated areas. It is indisputable that the entire world is forced to adopt extraordinary measures to combat the unprecedented challenges caused by the global pandemic faced by us in 2020. Human rights law recognises that national emergencies such as serious threats to public health and public emergencies may require limits to be placed on the exercise of certain human rights.

However, while acknowledging the importance of comprehensive and systemic covid-19 transmission and protective measures, it is likewise important to integrate a human rights-based approach in response to the pandemic. Ensuring that these measures respect human rights norms and principles across the spectrum, including economic, social, cultural, and civil and political rights is fundamental to the success of the public health response and recovery from the pandemic. Governments should ensure that the measures taken to combat covid-19 must (1) be provided by law; (2) serve a legitimate aim, for instance, the protection of health and safety; and (3) be necessary in a democratic society. In addition, the measures must be proportionate to the evaluated risk, necessary, measured, rooted in science and law, applied in a non-discriminatory way, as unintrusive as possible, flexible, with review and endpoints, and remain open to challenge. This means having a specific focus and duration and taking the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.

The covid-19 pandemic has offered a convenient pretext to consolidate power, and suppress dissenting voices and avoid accountability for governments, particularly for autocratic regimes. Amidst fear, confusion and exhaustion, people are looking to their political leaders for solutions. There is a tendency to trade off their rights and freedoms if they believe it will help them with curbing the pandemic and in saving lives. But this trend raises important questions about what comes next: how far are we willing to go to stay safe? How do we prevent abuse once the immediate threat has receded?

There have already been examples of governments inappropriately flexing their enforcement muscles and circumventing laws and democratic institutions. Emergency powers are used to quash dissent, silence the work of human rights defenders or journalists, deny other human rights, or take any other steps that are not strictly necessary to address the pandemic. Most often these actions (and inactions) go unnoticed as the scope and details of these actions (and inactions) are not easily ascertainable or relatable to an average citizen, which allows the governments to get off scot-free for their actions (and inactions). This is also a sign of authoritarianism and authoritarian tendencies. Authoritarianism and authoritarian tendencies pose a great threat to democracy and freedom. It is important that people around the world care about the health of the individuals around them. But that does not change the fact that keeping democratic institutions healthy is equally vital. Remaining vigilant about the creeping powers of the state has become more important than ever. A two-pronged approach to the pandemic revolves around effective response while guaranteeing that civil rights and liberties remain intact.

Although extraordinary legal solutions are very easy to introduce, it is much harder to go back to usual times where human rights and fundamental freedoms were protected once these measures have been entrenched in the system. Covid-19 restrictions should serve as a wakeup call on the importance of freedom and not used as a justification to clamp down on civil liberties. The post-coronavirus world is going to be different from the world we used to know. The measures that have been touted as solutions to the covid-19 pandemic may become weapons if put in the wrong hands, or if authorities do not show self-restraint. It is the role of civil society to hold governments accountable in respecting human rights all the while lending their support to combat covid-19.

Photo credit: Sri Lanka Health Promotion Bureau