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COVID-19 Security Measures No Excuse For Excessive Use Of Force, Say UN Special Rapporteurs

UN Human rights experts* have expressed grave concern at the multiplication of accounts of police killings and other acts of violence within the context of COVID-19 emergency measures.

“We are alarmed at the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations,” said the Special Rapporteurs.

“Persons in vulnerable situations such as people living in poverty and those living in slums, homeless persons, minorities, individuals in detention, women and children victims of domestic violence, migrants and refugees, trans women and all those who defend their rights, are already affected disproportionately by the virus. No-visitor policies in nursing homes and home care exacerbate the risk of violence, maltreatment, abuse and neglect of older persons and others living in institutions.”

“All these people who are often disproportionately affected by the virus, because of their precarious conditions of existence, should not be victimised further because of state of emergency measures.”

The experts reminded governments and law enforcement agencies that the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and other ill-treatment, is absolute and non-derogable at all times.

“Even during states of emergency, the use of force remains guided by the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution. They demand that the use of force and of firearms must be avoided, and that all possible non-violent means must be exhausted before resorting to violent ones.”

Law enforcement agencies, the experts recalled, should only use force when strictly necessary. Lethal force should only be used to protect against an imminent risk to life and even then, reasonable precautions must always be taken to prevent loss of life.

“Breaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force.”

The experts insist that further precautions to protect the right to life and dignity should be taken in view of the fact that so many people have no home in which to remain confined, or live in dense and promiscuous conditions, and do not have the means by which to sustain their families under isolation.

“You can’t stay home if you don’t have one. You can’t remain confined if you don’t have what you need to feed your family,” the human rights experts noted. “How do you ‘physically distance’ in an urban slum? How do you eat or drink when you are a daily-wage labourer and need to go out every day to earn the money to do so?”

“In addition, given the high number of reported COVID-19 infections among police officers, police interactions may represent an additional source of risk of infection for populations already in vulnerable situations that must not be disregarded in the deployment and use of police authority.”

The experts called on governments to devise specific measures to mitigate the disproportionate effects that emergency measures may have on groups in vulnerable situations, and to protect them.

“It is important that law enforcement agencies take into account the local context, the needs and vulnerabilities of particular groups of people, and exercise caution when resorting to the use of force to see to it that it is necessary and proportionate,” they said. “For millions of people, emergency measures can be a more direct threat to their life, livelihood, and dignity than even the virus itself. There are other ways to police than force first.”

“We recommend discussion, instruction, consultation and community engagement – as operating principles for the police, when implementing emergency measures. This is what international law demands because it is what protection of human rights in a time of contagion requires,” the experts concluded.

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