GENEVA – The world will be less free and more unequal after the coronavirus pandemic is over if appropriate action is not taken by governments, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday.
At the first ever virtual UN Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet said she was concerned by some governments removing or reducing fundamental human rights and the lack of protection being afforded to the world’s poorest people.
“I am profoundly concerned by certain countries’ adoption of emergency powers that are unlimited and not subject to review,” Bachelet said in a statement. “In a few cases, the epidemic is being used to justify repressive changes to regular legislation, which will remain in force long after the emergency is over.”
The former Chilean president did not call out any specific countries, but governments in Hungary and the Philippines, among others, have been criticized in recent weeks for undermining people’s basic freedoms, such as rights to privacy, as part of the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease.
While she acknowledged that “difficult” decisions would need to be made and that emergency measures would be required to effectively respond to the global public health crisis, “an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations.”
“Emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate to meet that need. (...) The enforcement of emergency measures needs to be applied fairly and humanely,” Bachelet said.
She also shared her “concerns” over measures which “impose restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression,” many of which have been justified to combat fake news and misinformation, which she warned “could be applied to any criticism.”
“In some countries we have already seen reports of journalists being penalized for reporting a lack of masks; health-workers reprimanded for saying they lack protection; and ordinary people arrested for social media postings about the pandemic.”
“Criticism is not a crime,” Bachelet insisted.
The UN Human Rights chief pointed out that the pandemic was “exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society,” both rich and poor.
In the developed world, unequal access to health care, as well as threats to labor, social and housing rights “are suddenly very visible,” while in developing countries, where large swathes of the population often rely on daily wages to get by, “the impact could be far greater.
“The millions of people who have little access to health-care, and who, by necessity, live in cramped conditions with poor sanitation, and no safety net, no clean water, will suffer most,” she said.
“Unchecked, the pandemic is likely to create even wider inequalities, amid extensive suffering,” Bachelet warned.