“States responses to Covid 19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association”

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to human rights around the world. “I salute the efforts of governments, international organizations and civil society working together to protect the public from this health hazard. Where human rights are the compass, we will be better placed to overcome this pandemic and build resilience for the future” said Clément Voule, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in a statement today.

“No country or government can solve the crisis alone; civil society organizations should be seen as strategic partners in the fight against the pandemic. I am thus concerned due to the information I have received from online consultations with civil society around the world, suggesting several worrying trends and limitations, including on civil society’s ability to support an effective response.”

Laws limiting public gatherings, as well as freedom of movement, have been passed in many States. Restrictions based on public health concerns are justified, where they are necessary and proportionate in light of the circumstances. Regrettably, civil society organizations have rarely been consulted in the process of designing or reviewing appropriate measures of response, and in several cases the processes through which such laws and regulations have been passed have been questionable. In addition, those laws and regulations have often been broad and vague, and little has been done to ensure the timely and widespread dissemination of clear information concerning these new laws, nor to ensure that the penalties imposed are proportionate, or that their implications have been fully considered. In many cases, it appears these measures are being enforced in a discriminatory manner, with opposition figures and groups, together with vulnerable communities, constituting prime targets.

Particularly worrying are cases in which governments have seized on the crisis to suspend constitutional guarantees, to pass sweeping emergency laws and to rule by decree, developments which various UN human rights experts, including the Special Rapporteur, have already cautioned against. In many cases, it appears the measures adopted are geared more at cementing control and cracking down on oppositional figures than at ensuring public health. A trend towards the militarization of crisis management is similarly worrying. Several States have also delayed planned elections, without exerting full efforts to exploring safe alternatives to in-person voting.

Civil society organizations are also facing numerous restrictions and limitations on their work. In some States, new associations are not being registered, where they are unable to demonstrate internal rules geared to the current crisis situation. While civil society workers have a key role to play in responding to the crisis and providing support to vulnerable populations, their ability to play that role has been limited by restrictive laws as well as by funding shortages, themselves brought on in part by limitations on access to cross-border funding. Members of civil society together with other workers, moreover, have been constrained by lack of access to necessary personal protective equipment. In this context, accounts of cases where labor representatives have faced retaliation for speaking out concerning dangerous situations at the workplace are particularly troubling.

The crisis has also been used to limit access to information broadly. Several States have adopted new measures penalizing the spreading of ‘false news,’ or have increased reliance on similar provisions of law already in place, while individuals reporting on the crisis have been cautioned, detained or expelled. Internet access is particularly crucial in times of crisis; existing and new limitations on access to the internet, or censorship of particular websites and forms of information, are hence particularly troubling in this period.

In the face of the current public health emergency, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association would like to remind States of the necessity of responding in a manner compliant with their human rights obligations…

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