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Published On: Fri, Apr 10th, 2020

Coronavirus: UN warns against misuse of powers against vulnerable

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The UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has warned against the misuse and abuse of emergency powers by governments to target marginalised and vulnerable populations.
The global health agency said the COVID-19 epidemic is being used as an excuse to target marginalised and vulnerable populations, restrict civil society space and increase police powers.
The Executive Director, UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, in a statement Thursday, said her agency was “extremely” concerned by reports of new laws that restrict rights and freedoms and target groups in a manner that will harm the rights and health of people living with or vulnerable to HIV.
“In times of crisis, emergency powers and agility are crucial. However, they cannot come at the cost of the rights of the most vulnerable,” Ms Byanyima said.
“Checks and balances that are the cornerstone of the rule of law must be exercised in order to prevent misuse of such powers.
“If not, we may see a reversal of much of the progress made in human rights, the right to health and the AIDS response.”
The UNAIDS chief said in spite of past experience of epidemics showing that an effective response to health crises must be deeply rooted in trust, solidarity and unwavering respect for human rights, some countries are now using emergency powers or public health justifications to restrict rights to personal autonomy, gender identity, freedom of speech and sexual and reproductive health.
She expressed concerns about rising reports of criminal punishment related to HIV transmission and the use of police powers to target vulnerable groups.
“There have also been concerning reports of increases in criminal penalties in relation to HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure and the use of police powers to target, through arrests and brutality, vulnerable and criminalised groups, such as sex workers, people who use drugs, people living with HIV, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people,” she said.
She said some countries are resorting to the use of criminal law, such as the criminalisation of the transmission of COVID-19, and arresting and detaining people for breaching restrictions.
“In Hungary, a new bill has been introduced to remove the right of people to change their gender and name on official documents in order to ensure conformity with their gender identity, in clear breach of international human rights to legal recognition of gender identity.
“In Poland, a fast-tracked amendment to the criminal law that increases the penalties for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission to at least six months in prison and up to eight years in prison has been passed—a clear contravention of international human rights obligations to remove HIV-specific criminal laws,” she said.
Ms Byanyima warned that criminalisation of virus transmission could lead to significant human rights violations, undermine the response and is not based on science.
“The ability to prove actual transmission from one person to another, as well as necessary intent, is almost impossible and fails to meet rule of law requirements for criminalisation,” she said, adding that criminalisation is often implemented against vulnerable and stigmatized communities.
“In Uganda, 23 people connected with a shelter for providing services for the LGBTI community have been arrested—19 have been charged with a negligent act likely to spread infection or disease. Those 19 are being held in prison without access to a court, legal representation or medication.”
She said reports from some countries of police brutality in enforcing measures, using physical violence and harassment and targeting marginalised groups, including sex workers, drug addicts and homeless people, are becoming worrisome.
“The use of criminal law and violence to enforce movement restrictions is disproportionate and not evidence-informed.
“Such tactics have been known to be implemented in a discriminatory manner and have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable: people who for whatever reason cannot stay at home, do not have a home or need to work for reasons of survival,” she said.
In Kenya, civil society organizations, concerned about actions not being consistent with a human-rights based epidemic response, released an advisory opinion calling for a human rights-based approach to be adopted in the COVID-19 response.
They also wrote a letter calling for a focus on community engagement and what works for prevention and treatment rather than disproportionate and coercive approaches.
Aligning with their proposal, the UNAIDS said some rights may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public health and safety, but such restrictions must be for a legitimate aim—in this case, to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They must be proportionate to that aim, necessary, non-arbitrary, evidence-informed and lawful. Each order/law or action by law enforcement must also be reviewable by a court of law. Law enforcement powers must likewise be narrowly defined, proportionate and necessary,” the statement read.
UNAIDS urged countries to ensure that any emergency laws and powers are limited to a reasonable period of time and renewable only through appropriate parliamentary and participatory processes.
It also called for strict limits on the use of police powers, along with independent oversight of police action and remedies through an accountability mechanism.
“Restrictions on rights relating to non-discrimination on the basis of HIV status, sexual and reproductive health, freedom of speech and gender identity detailed above do not assist with the COVID-19 response and are therefore not for a legitimate purpose,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, UNAIDS also called on governments to repeal any laws that cannot be said to be for the legitimate aim of responding to or controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.(NAN)

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