Press Release

IACHR and OSRESCER Urge States to Guarantee Comprehensive Protection for Human Rights and Public Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 20, 2020

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Washington, DC - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Economic Rights (OSRESCER) acknowledged the complex circumstances that states and societies in the Americas are facing as a consequence of the exceptional measures being taken in response to the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, which is advancing exponentially and which, as of March 15, had already claimed 6,610 lives around the globe and 46 in the Americas. This situation is posing extraordinary challenges to healthcare systems, people’s daily lives, and the protection of human rights within democratic systems.

In this context, the IACHR notes that states in the region are making significant efforts to adopt measures to provide care and treatment for people who have contracted COVID-19 and to contain the spread of the virus, which the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. These measures include quarantine, social distancing or isolation, limitations on movement within countries and internationally, and preventive personal and community hygiene guidelines. The IACHR and the OSRESCER subscribe fully to the recommendations made by international health organizations regarding the importance of adopting and implementing these measures in accordance with standards for protecting human rights. These standards entail respect for fundamental guarantees and freedoms, providing the population with complete information on the measures and policies being implemented in their countries, and making resources available for these purposes. It also entails applying a crosscutting, culturally sensitive perspective based on the principles of gender equality and diversity.

Regarding healthcare-related measures, the IACHR and the OSRESCER reminded states that they must guarantee the right to health for all people within their jurisdictions, without any form of discrimination, in accordance with inter-American and international human rights standards and instruments. They also stressed that the following interconnected factors are essential to making the right to health a reality: availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality. By virtue of this right, states must provide timely, appropriate health care and treatment, and must ensure that all healthcare establishments, goods, and services are accessible without discrimination, and must adapt their responses in circumstances such as those posed of the current pandemic by adhering closely to the pro persona principle, to ensure that timely, appropriate care for the population prevails over any other pattern or interest of a public or private nature. Given the nature of the pandemic and the containment measures, special care should be given to the population’s mental health.

The IACHR and the OSRESCER also noted that states must prioritize the integrity and well-being of healthcare professionals during the pandemic and deemed it fundamental that states take specific measures to protect and acknowledge people who are carrying out formal or informal care work, while also acknowledging social circumstances that predate the pandemic and the fact that these worsen at times when additional demand is placed on health and social care systems. With regard to health-sector workers, the IACHR stressed the importance of adopting protocols for treating patients with COVID-19 and special measures for protecting and training health workers, including the provision of protective clothing and disinfecting equipment, as well as duly guaranteeing their labor and social security rights.

With regard to containment measures, the IACHR and the OSRESCER urged states to ensure that any actions they take to reduce the spread of the virus show the strictest respect for international human rights treaties and standards, guarantee the rule of law, and comply with the obligation to cooperate in good faith, particularly in a transnational context that poses high levels of risk to public health and people’s lives.

In this regard, the IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression acknowledged that states may impose temporary restrictions on human rights while a state of emergency has been declared. The purpose of any such measures must be strictly limited to safeguarding public health, they can only be put in place for a limited period, must have clearly defined objectives, and be strictly necessary and proportional to the ends they pursue. Furthermore, states may not suspend or prohibit rights and freedoms in a blanket fashion and must specifically refrain from limiting the freedom of the press or restricting social or political organizations or leaders from seeking and disseminating information via any means.

The IACHR calls on states and human rights institutions to ensure access to mechanisms for reporting possible unlawful limitations on or violations of human rights that derive from such measures. These mechanisms must guarantee transparency, access to information, personal data protection, informed consent, access to justice, and reparation.

Likewise, states must observe the positive obligation to provide full, ongoing, accurate information on the epidemiological evolution of the pandemic and the measures they are taking to combat it and to issue precise directives to healthcare providers to preserve the privacy of those whose state of health is affected by it. In particular, those in leadership positions at different levels of government are responsible for coordinating with health authorities to ensure that their messages are consistent with scientific findings and the measures that have been adopted.

Special measures and limitations on regressivity

The IACHR and the OSRESCER emphasized that the rights of all people who are affected by containment measures must be protected, especially those whose livelihoods are endangered by being subjected to a quarantine regime due to loss of income, their basic needs being jeopardized, the risk of being evicted, and the absence of institutional support networks. The IACHR and the OSRESCER are fully aware of the challenges that the pandemic is posing to states and the population as a whole. Given this, they stressed that any measure of a restrictive or regressive nature as regards economic, social, cultural, and economic rights should be adopted and applied transparently after carefully analyzing all existing alternatives. If such measures are adopted, they should be justified from the human rights approach after analyzing the impact on human rights while making the most efficient use of the maximum available resources.

In this sense, the OSRESCER observed that states must urgently assess effective responses for mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on human rights at the national and regional levels by adopting an appropriate combination of regulatory frameworks and short- and medium-term public policies such as credit relief programs and the rescheduling and flexibilization of repayment schemes for debts and other financial obligations that may impose financial or tax burdens that jeopardize human rights. They should also implement proportional compensation for people living in poverty and extreme poverty or whose sources of work are particularly at risk.

Likewise, the IACHR and the OSRESCER encouraged states and other interested parties to coordinate efforts to create regional cooperation initiatives that include strengthening public health systems, promoting solidarity-based economic support schemes, scientific cooperation, epidemiological surveillance, producing adequate and timely medical information or data, and collaborative planning to mitigate the impact on the right to work so as to contain the impact of the pandemic on the most excluded populations and on states with less capacity for responding to public health crises or with more fragile healthcare systems. The OSRESCER is at the disposal of the OAS and its member states to promote and facilitate national or regional dialogues to achieve these ends.

Business and human rights

States should require companies and employers to respect human rights and behave ethically and responsibly, particularly with regard to how the crisis impacts workers, consumers, and local communities. The IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that businesses are key players in the process of making human rights a reality and thus, in the context of the current pandemic, the policies and measures they implement should prioritize their responsibility to respect human rights, particularly labor rights, due to the foreseeable affects the pandemic will have on these. In some cases, ongoing employment may be facilitated by resorting to remote work or telecommuting, when possible, rather than compulsory time off, or by the understanding that the current situation, including social isolation, is due to a health emergency. This may help reduce negative impacts on labor rights.

Along these lines, the competent state authorities should cooperate and provide guidance for companies on implementing measures to mitigate the effects of this health emergency from a human rights perspective. Specifically, they should ensure that private healthcare and education institutions are not exempt from fulfilling their obligations to respect human rights and should call on these to cooperate with authorities and join forces to mitigate the impacts that the crisis may have on the rights to health and education.

Furthermore, the IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression called on media companies to contribute to the population’s well-being by providing rigorous, fact-checked information and observing codes of ethics and conduct at all times. They also congratulated those media outlets in the Americas that have established free, open access to content relating to the pandemic.

The duty to provide special assistance for groups in vulnerable situations

The IACHR and the OSRESCER observed that because the COVID-19 outbreak is a pandemic, there are both local and global aspects to ensuring that responses safeguard the human rights of those affected by it. At the global level, close cooperation and coordination between all states and competent international bodies are essential, including the evaluation of requests for emergency financial funds and scientific information and the provision of these to reduce infections and deaths. Likewise, the IACHR noted that at the international level, populations that are in the process of displacement or migration are especially effective because they lack health protection and social support systems, which makes them susceptible to stereotyping, restrictions on movement, and blame or hate speech. The IACHR urge states to ensure that measures to contain the pathogen do not result in a failure to meet their international obligations to protect populations fleeing persecution, conflict, or risks to their lives or integrity.

At the local level, pandemics have a disproportionate impact on populations with greater difficulties in accessing healthcare facilities and technologies within countries. These groups include indigenous peoples, campesinos and rural workers, migrants, people who are deprived of their freedom, people living on the outskirts of cities, and people who are neglected by social security networks such as informal sector workers, people living in poverty, and the homeless. Likewise, given how the COVID-19 virus is transmitted, certain groups are at greater risk of being impacted by it and of having their rights affected by it, such as people with disabilities, people with certain pathologies and diseases, and, above all, the elderly. Any measures adopted in relation to these groups must include actions to prevent contagion and guarantee medical care and treatment, medication, and supplies, and should avoid differentiated impacts due to shortages. They should also guarantee access to information in formats that are appropriate to the different groups and their different needs.

With regard to people who are deprived of their freedom, the IACHR urged states to take this population’s rights into account when designing response protocols to avoid outbreaks within detention facilities and ensure that inmates have access to appropriate care and treatment should these occur. States must also adopt alternative measures to total deprivation of freedom, whenever possible, avoiding prison overcrowding, which contributes to the spread of the virus.

The IACHR reminded states of their duty to provide special protection for indigenous peoples and the importance of providing them clear information about the pandemic in their traditional language, whenever possible. The IACHR also called especially on states to observe the utmost respect for noncontact with indigenous peoples or segments of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, given the grave effects that contracting COVID-19 could have on their survival.

With regard to children and adolescents, the IACHR and the OSRESCER stressed how important it was for states to put their best interests first in response to the pandemic, such as by adjusting education programs and school meal programs during these emergency circumstances and implementing measures to ensure that children’s rights to education and food are not disproportionately impacted by the crisis. In this regard, they stressed the importance of social isolation measures including, wherever possible, alternatives such as distance learning that allow them to continue activities that are conducive to their development.

States must place particular importance on observing their obligation of due diligence regarding women’s rights and must implement measures to prevent gender, intrafamily, and sexual violence during social isolation, ensuring that safe mechanisms are available for victims to report any such incidents and receive assistance.

Finally, the IACHR and the OSRESCER called on the entire region to remain calm, noting that this pandemic is being continuously monitored by governments and competent national authorities as well as by international organizations including the OAS, the Pan American Health Organization, and the IACHR itself, including the OSRESCER and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The nature and scope of this unprecedented health emergency in the Americas and throughout the world require us to strive to make the principles of solidarity and shared responsibility a reality, to base our actions on international cooperation, and for these principles to guide the actions of states and society as a whole.

The OSRESCER is an autonomous office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 060/20