Excessive Enforcement Of COVID-19 Lockdowns: The UN Warns Against Police Brutality

Police worldwide have been using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce coronavirus-related curfews and lockdowns. The UN Human Rights Office has observed a range of human rights violations including arbitrary detention, harassment, abuse, beatings, and deaths in over 20 countries.

In Nigeria, security forces have killed 18 people in relation to enforcement measures, according to reports received by the UN. In South Africa, further reports to the UN tell of police indiscriminately using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighbourhoods. In India, videos have surfaced of police beating people with batons for failing to maintain physical distancing. Meanwhile in the Philippines, police have apprehended over 120,000 people for curfew violations, in some cases abusing them as punishment. Widely spread pictures show people being held in dog cages for example.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has 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.

Concerns are growing that the poorest and most vulnerable groups are being impacted the most by the excessive enforcement. UN experts have warned that many people who have no home in which to remain confined, or live in dense conditions such as urban slums, are unable to effectively follow social distancing requirements. Meanwhile many do not have the means by which to sustain their families under isolation. Tens of millions worldwide live hand-to-mouth and risk starving if they do not defy lockdowns and seek work.

It is especially vital during crises such as this that the actions of law enforcement agents remain lawful and conform to human rights standards. Whereas international law does allow states to restrict some rights in order to protect public health, restrictions need to be necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, and temporary. Limits to freedom of movement can be justified but excessive enforcement is unwarranted and unlawful. Human dignity, the right to life, and prohibitions against torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detainment must be protected at all costs. Governments should avoid and condemn excessive force and hold those responsible accountable.

Instead of strict enforcement, police should adopt more contextual approaches with actions proportionate to circumstance. Local needs and the vulnerabilities of particular groups need to be taken into account. Rather than forced compliance, communities should be consulted and engaged with in order to develop co-created solutions between citizens and the state. Greater public education should be invested in with social-distancing techniques clearly and widely communicated. And financial support needs to be provided to ensure no one is forced outside to work to avoid poverty or hunger. In doing so, the ultimate goal of protecting populations from spreading the virus can be achieved without the extension of state and police powers.

Marco Stojanovik
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