Press Release

IACHR Calls for Guarantees for Democracy and the Rule of Law during the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 10, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of the Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis (SACROI COVID-19), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has noted that respect and guarantees for human rights are essential conditions for democracy and the rule of law. In this regard, as part of the measures and initiatives it has adopted to help contain the pandemic, the IACHR called on states to strengthen democratic institutions through a human rights approach so as to comply with their international obligations and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Specifically, the IACHR recalled that by adopting the charter, OAS member states acknowledged that representative democracy is essential to enabling the full exercise of human rights. In view of this, the IACHR stressed that the rule of law within a democratic system implies a division of state functions and a system of oversight and checks for the exercise of these functions.

Guarantees for this system must be in place, especially during emergencies. This provides solid foundations for the democratic system and makes it possible to ensure that the exercise of human rights is not undermined or hindered, even if limitations permitted by international human rights law are placed on these rights during the emergency. Access to justice and means of reparation must also be guaranteed in response to any human rights violation.

The IACHR reaffirmed that the role of all state powers and the institutions that oversee and put checks on these is essential, as is the independence of these powers from one another. This is particularly true of the judicial and legislative powers, which must continue to function even under exceptional circumstances. In a democratic society, the rule of law and human rights are indivisible: the definitions, functions, and meanings of the relevant institutional components are complementary and mutually reinforce one another. Given this fundamental connection, the IACHR called on states to guarantee the role of democratic institutions even during states of emergency and exception, when certain rights may need to be temporarily suspended.

In view of this, the IACHR drew attention to the fact that Resolution No. 1/2020 on Pandemics and Human Rights in the Americas establishes that each state is responsible for ensuring that any restriction or limitation that is imposed on human rights for the purpose of protecting human health during the COVID-19 pandemic complies with the requirements set out in international standards. Specifically, these restrictions must comply with the principle of legality, be necessary within a democratic society, and be strictly proportional to achieving the legitimate aim of protecting human health.

The IACHR noted with concern that high-ranking government authorities in some countries in the Americas are currently implementing processes that are having a regressive impact on the separation of state powers while also reducing democratic spaces for social participation, interfering in the judiciary, or preventing it from operating entirely, and making decisions on institutional or governance-related matters in an authoritarian manner.

The IACHR has also documented situations in which the press has been stigmatized by various authorities in response to its work providing news coverage of the pandemic. The authorities in question have even established disproportionate restrictions on access to information and the online circulation of this. While misinformation is a problematic issue during situations like the one that states are currently facing, the criminalization of social media users is not an appropriate response to this. The IACHR noted that freedom of expression is closely and inextricably tied to the democratic system of government. State and public officials must refrain from undermining the role of the press in their statements and from harassing those who spread information or criticize the government. They must also strengthen mechanisms for accessing public information during the pandemic.

The IACHR has also expressed its particular concern that restrictions or limitations on rights during the health emergency and efforts to contain the pandemic will have a disproportionate effect on the human rights of certain vulnerable groups, particularly if measures are not adopted to mitigate the indirect effects of these policies and other impacts on human rights. It is therefore necessary for positive measures to be implemented within democratic societies that are appropriate to the varied circumstances in which different sectors of the population find themselves, so as to create a framework of additional protection for groups that have been marginalized, historically excluded, or are living in poverty.

With regard to spaces for social participation, even in exceptional situations, states should include a range of strategies to allow people to participate in the process of creating and implementing the measures to be adopted in this context, thus legitimizing institutional action within the framework of representative democracy. The IACHR stressed that the work of social organizations that promote and enforce human rights must be respected and recognized by the highest ranking state authorities.

The IACHR also deems that access to justice is a fundamental pillar of democracy, the exercise and functioning of which cannot be suspended or limited. This implies that the current emergency cannot be used as a reason to suspend judicial proceedings that guarantee the exercise of rights and freedoms, particularly those that seek to oversee or check the actions of authorities during this time. It is therefore essential that states ensure there are suitable, flexible means available for filing appeals that seek to oversee and keep check on provisions and rulings that are issued during emergency situations. In this regard, all public institutions must be able to oversee and keep check on each of the temporary measures adopted that suspend or restrict rights. States must also adopt measures to protect judicial personnel and ensure judicial services continue to operate.

In addition, the IACHR recently drew states’ attention to how seriously corruption impacts human rights, deeming it essential that they strengthen institutional anticorruption initiatives. Given the exceptional circumstances prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, states must guarantee transparency around public decision-making processes and ensure public participation in these, while also preventing and avoiding practices that may involve corruption and impact human rights. States must ensure that all democratic institutions can carry out their functions transparently, governed by the principle of accountability.

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. 130/20