“It is an economic crisis. A social crisis and a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis”. These words of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sum up the need concerted action in addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and instituting measures to address it on the respect of human rights.
Like the rest of the world, countries in West Africa and the Sahel, have instituted multiple actions in response to the pandemic including through, the closure of their land, air and maritime borders, lockdowns and other sanitary cordons, imposition of states of emergency and curfews, the mandatory wearing of face masks in public places and other sanitary measures.
Some of these measures, even though permissible under international human rights law within the context of the global health emergency, are soliciting diverse debates on the extent to which their application aligns with human rights standards.
The lockdowns and other restrictions have limitations on the freedoms of movement and assembly and the ability of many people to work and earn a living which ultimately impact on the enjoyment of their economic and social rights. The long term economic impact of the pandemic due to the decline in revenue streams, increased fiscal deficits, rising inflation especially of basic commodities and rising unemployment, may severely impact on the realisation of rights including, health, education, food, safe and clean drinking water and the right to development.
Focus on human development
To mitigate the effects of these measures on the human rights and on the well-being of their populations. West Africa and Sahel countries have taken additional proactive measures such as economic and social protection programs. While reactions to these programs vary from one country to another, it is important to highlight that if they are rigorously implemented, they could constitute an effective social safety net in the immediate and medium terms while states of the sub-region continue to cope with the pandemic.
But just like the Ebola epidemic, this pandemic has exposed the chronic lack of investment in the healthcare systems and profound inadequacies in the governance systems which over time, have not allowed to create the enabling environment for the respect of human rights such as the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
Because of the low levels of investment, many healthcare systems in the sub region are not able to provide basic healthcare to the population. The situation may be compounded by the pandemic.
The pandemic has also revealed the gaps in policy making and the need for re-prioritization and focus on human development. The pandemic has shown that human security, which includes proper healthcare is inextricably tied to state security and therefore must be taken extremely seriously by policy makers.
Without doubt, countries in the sub-region will seize this opportunity to redouble their efforts to develop human rights oriented policies and programs to ensure the provision of healthcare in line with their obligations under international human rights law.
Impact on Human rights
The response to the pandemic is also raising questions.
Some of the restrictions have reduced the civic space and the possibility for debates to promote public accountability of the response and on wider governance issues. Some human rights actors have raised serious concerns regarding restrictions imposed on them to monitor the human rights issues relating to the response.
Meanwhile, reports of the use of excessive force by security forces while ensuring compliance with lockdown measures and other restrictions have increased scrutiny on their role in the overall response to the pandemic and its impact on human rights.
In some countries, security forces deployed to ensure compliance have been involved in human rights violations including the right to life, torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary arrest and detention thus questioning the necessity and proportionality of their actions.
The Nigerian Human Rights Commission has reported that between 31 March-4 May at least 29 persons were killed, a majority by security forces enforcing the lockdowns.
Human rights actors in Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Senegal and Togo have raised concerns over the use of excessive force by security forces.
In response, authorities in some cases promised to initiate investigations and address these concerns. In Togo for instance, the Commander of the special COVID-19 force was removed and investigations initiated.
In addition, as part of measures to curb the spread of the pandemic in penitentiary facilities, about six thousand prisoners have been released or are being released in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo. It is urgent for all countries in the sub region to seize this opportunity to decongest the prisons and undertake deep penitentiary reforms.
Given the increasing perception of the instrumentalization of the justice system in the region, human rights actors continue to closely watch the use of additional powers assigned to the Executive to deal with the pandemic in order to ensure that they are used exclusively as part of the response to the pandemic and not for personal or partisan political gains.
2020 is also a year of important elections. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger preparing for presidential elections, it is vital that everything is done in an inclusive and consensual manner to ensure that the elections are held in accordance with the law and the right of voters, the only guarantors of a peaceful election.
In addition to the technical and financial support to Governments in the sub-region provided by the UN country teams towards the development and implementation of national emergency plans, the UN continues to support the authorities to also mainstream human rights in their response.
The Secretary-General is advocating to put human rights at the centre of the response. On 23 April, he launched a report on COVID-19 and human rights which provides guidance on ensuring a human rights approach to the response.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet in addition to the support provided by her Office to national authorities including in the West Africa and Sahel region, has written to National Human Rights Institutions to recognize their key role and urge for more involvement in the design and implementation of response plans.
In West Africa and the Sahel region, the Special Representative of the Secretary general, Mohamed Ibn Chambas has been vocal on the need to ensure the respect of human rights while fighting the pandemic. Jointly with the President of the Economic Commission of West African States Commission, Jean Claude Brou, they have also underlined the centrality of human rights in the response to COVID-19.
Defeating COVID-19 is a collective responsibility. It will require a unity of purpose that transcends beyond concepts, political party lines, political and governance systems, traditional and cultural beliefs. It will also require a Human Rights Based Approach that would enhance the meaningful participation of communities, women, vulnerable and marginalized groups in finding the solutions while at the same time preventing and addressing instances of stigmatization and victimization which may weaken ongoing efforts.
In this uncharted crisis, it is imperative to reinforce constructive engagement between the state and its citizens in pursuit of solutions.
It is crucial for leaders to continue to demonstrate leadership at all levels in order to sustain local, national and regional responsibility and ownership, for a successful implementation of the measures already taken and those to come.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS).