Europe at a Crossroads

Last year we had a talk by Ulrike Schmidt “Shrinking Spaces for Human Rights in Europe“. She gave us an excellent overview on human rights infringements in Europe, with some actions we could take. Our group has continued to follow developments in Europe, particularly human rights infringements that don’t make the headlines.

Amnesty International published a document Europe at crossroads in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Amnesty International does not take a position on the type of public health measures governments should take. But the document spells out that governments should ensure that all such measures are consistent with their human rights obligations. It lists eleven  “Dos” and “Don’ts”. We have copied them below with some key quotes from each:-

DO FULFIL THE RIGHT TO HEALTH FOR EVERYONE

“All European states have committed to fulfilling the right to health and have signed international and regional human rights treaties to that purpose. However, in recent years, many European governments have adopted austerity measures that resulted in cuts to the funding for public health systems, some of which have jeopardized the right to health. These cuts have often had a disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes, people accessing mental health care, survivors of gender-based violence, people with disabilities and with chronic health conditions.”

DO ENSURE THAT ALL EMERGENCY MEASURES ARE NECESSARY AND PROPORTIONATE

“Public health emergency and attendant emergency measures should never be used by governments as a pretext for repressive measures, including to target particular groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, refugees and migrants, political opponents, journalists, and human rights defenders.”

DON’T DISCRIMINATE

“In particular, they must ensure that the measures do not have a disproportionate impact on specific groups, including for example people living in informal settlements or people who are homeless. Governments should ensure that these groups can effectively protect themselves from contracting COVID-19.”

DON’T LEAVE ANYONE BEHIND

“Even in the context of the pandemic, the right to seek asylum and the obligation of states not to return people to places where they could be at risk of serious human rights violations (the principle of non-refoulement) must be upheld. Indeed, the principle of non-refoulement is a core component of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, which is a rule of customary international law that is absolute and non-derogable, including in the context of the current pandemic.”

DO GUARANTEE RIGHTS TO HOUSING, WATER AND SANITATION FOR ALL, INCLUDING IN INFORMAL SETTLEMENTS

“The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus, the importance of the rights to adequate housing, water and sanitation. These rights are critical for protecting oneself from COVID-19, stopping its spread and also recovering from it. For people who are homeless and those living in informal settlements, self- isolation, social distancing, and other protective measures are extremely difficult if not impossible….  According to the UN Economic Committee for Europe, around 12% of the population of Europe, or 110 million people, lack adequate access to clean water.”

DO GUARANTEE WORKERS’ RIGHTS AND ACCESS TO SOCIAL SECURITY AND PROTECTION

“As the impact of the pandemic deepens, leading to increasing business closures, supply chain disruption, factory closures and possible job losses, there is an urgent need for comprehensive action to uphold a range of human rights obligations that lie at the heart of peoples’ ability to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, including the right to an adequate standard of living; adequate food and housing; the right to just and favourable working conditions; and the right to social security…. People in precarious forms of labour are often disproportionately affected by the measures taken to tackle the pandemic.”

DO PROTECT HEALTH WORKERS AND WORKERS IN INDUSTRIES DEEMED “KEY” OR “ESSENTIAL”

“No national health system could have fully anticipated a pandemic of such magnitude and severity. But while the worries and anxiety induced by this unprecedented pandemic are hard to contain, states should take all measures to protect front-line workers from unnecessary risk and ensure that they are adequately equipped to protect their health and the health of those they are treating.”

DO PUT GENDER AT THE CENTRE OF THE COVID-19 RESPONSE

“Everyone has the right to live free from gender-based violence, including during a pandemic. One in five women in the EU has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence from a current or previous partner. For many women and girls, “staying at home” means being confined to an unsafe environment, with an abusive relative or partner.”

DO PROTECT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND ENSURE ACCESS TO INFORMATION

“Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression for reasons of public health are permissible, however they must be clearly provided by law, and be necessary and proportionate to protect public health, and non-discriminatory.”

DO RESPECT THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY

“The COVID-19 pandemic cannot serve as an excuse for indiscriminate mass surveillance of any kind. Any surveillance measures brought in must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic.”

DO SHOW SOLIDARITY AT REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL LEVELS

“Human rights cannot be fully realized without international and regional cooperation and assistance. The vast majority of the world’s states have recognized that human rights obligations include the obligation of international cooperation and assistance, including with respect to the right to health…. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to lead to the loss of livelihood for millions of people around the world and is expected to have a particularly severe impact in countries where people do not have access to adequate social safety nets.”

In CONCLUSION the report states

“In this unprecedented health emergency, Amnesty International calls on all governments and other actors involved to put human rights at the heart of their responses to the pandemic. Amnesty International urges authorities to ensure that their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak respect international human rights law and standards, take into account the specific needs of marginalized groups and people, and mitigate and address specific human rights risks associated with particular measures.
The crisis reveals how different forms of exclusion, inequality and human rights violations are interconnected. But this also gives governments in the region an opportunity to make the radical changes needed for us to be the society we want to be. A society with strong public health systems that receive adequate funding so that the right to health of everyone is fulfilled. A society with strong social protection mechanisms so that everyone can enjoy an adequate standard of living. A society where multiple forms of discrimination and oppression dissolve into thin air. All efforts to rebuild once the pandemic is over must be grounded in human rights.”

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