An unprecedented number of countries, states and cities have now declared a state of emergency in order to deal with the outbreak or prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Under a state of emergency governments are able to bring in temporary measures such as mass surveillance, new laws, and increased police and state powers, as long as these measures are proportional to the crisis they are confronting. States may also limit or even suspend human rights as many States are doing now in removing the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The UN has warned through a recent statement by a group of UN human rights experts that States must not overreach security measures by using the outbreak as a cover for repressive action or a basis on which to target particular groups or minorities. This remains a concern as more and more States impose a state of emergency, with six European states even electing to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The international NGO, The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reports emergency measures have led not only to people being unable to move freely but also to an increase in military and police presence in the areas where Indigenous peoples live. In addition, a lack of access to communication, the inability of organisations and networks to mobilise, and concerns that any human rights violations could go unreported have left Indigenous people in fear for their lives. These fears are well-founded as reports from Colombia suggest the lockdown and emergency situation was used as a cover to kill land rights activists with three social leaders killed in March 2020.
The protection of minorities and Indigenous peoples is further impacted as the mechanisms available to them close down. The 2020 meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been postponed and meetings that assess human rights violations have been cancelled. The postponed visit to Argentina, where cases of torture against the Mapuche community have been recorded, by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture is one such example.
The continued failure of States to ensure and protect the rights of minorities and Indigenous peoples exposes them to this pandemic from an unequal position in terms of both health and security. The UN Secretary-General António Guterrez has called for the response to the virus to be one of global solidarity for the benefit of the whole of humanity, not one where the most vulnerable pay the highest price. It must be a response that ensures minorities and Indigenous peoples do not face more human rights violations as well as the virus.
Pippa Cooper is a part-time student on the MA in Human Rights. She works as the Human Rights Defender Hub Co-ordinator at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York