The United Nations human rights chief has warned that countries flouting the rule of law in the name of fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic risk sparking a “human rights disaster”.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on countries to refrain from violating fundamental rights “under the guise of exceptional or emergency measures”.
“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” she warned in a statement on Monday.
“They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”
A top official from her office said about 80 countries have declared emergencies due to the new coronavirus, including 15 where the allegations were deemed most troubling.
They were: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Honduras, Jordan, Morocco, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Hungary.
However, Georgette Gagnon, director of field operations, added at a virtual briefing in Geneva “there are probably several dozen more we could have highlighted”.
“A main concern on exceptional emergency measures is what has been described as a toxic lockdown culture in some countries,” Gagnon said. “As the high commissioner highlighted, police and other security forces are using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce lockdowns and curfews.”
Some of those countries have arrested and detained tens of thousands of people for the violation of confinement measures linked to the pandemic, with the Philippines topping the list with 120,000 apprehended for curfew violations in the past 30 days.
In the case of Kenya, Gagnon said, authorities were investigating 20 cases related to deaths linked to police conduct in implementing curfew measures.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has apologised for police violence.
In South Africa, the UN has received reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips, to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Thirty-nine complaints about charges including murder, rape, use of firearms and corruption are being investigated, Gagnon said.
Police have described the use of whips as unacceptable.
In Nigeria, the UN has received reports that security forces killed 18 people in relation to COVID-19 enforcement measures. Nigerian authorities have attributed some deaths to prison violence.
She also raised concerns about police extortion in Africa.
“Those who cannot pay bribes, poor people, are taken to mandatory quarantine centres although there is no indication that they have come into contact with someone testing positive to COVID.”