Fighting Covid-19 while ignoring human rights is recipe for chaos

UN Secretary General António Guterres has expressed alarm that Covid-19 is “a human crisis fast becoming a human rights crisis”.

Given the impacts of the pandemic, the secretary general called for human rights to guide response and recovery, and for people and their rights to be placed “front and centre” of all efforts. 

We have seen levels of violence rising as the pandemic has taken hold globally, and Kenya is no exception. The government has acknowledged the recent surge of gender-based violence, yet this has been an issue in Kenya for a long time, disproportionately impacting women more than men.

A recent opinion piece by representatives of UN Women, Unicef and UNFPA already highlighted the worrying increase in gender-based violence and violence against children since the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Kenya on March 12.

Despite the government’s efforts, pre-existing gaps in prevention of, and response to, sexual and gender-based violence have now been heightened. Additionally, the level of heavy-handedness now characterising the enforcement of the night curfew and other measures has resulted in too many Kenyans losing their lives or sustaining serious injuries.

There have also been reports of sexual violence as a consequence. As at April 23, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) had received 200 complaints from the public, and was investigating 23 cases related to loss of life and 97 cases of physical assault resulting in serious injury.

Despite calls for restraint by President Uhuru Kenyatta, violent and coercive enforcement of emergency measures and misuse of mandatory quarantine remains pervasive. Arrests have risen sharply, particularly in informal settlements, for non-compliance with the curfew or failure to wear face masks – meaning people who are already in economic distress must pay a cash bail or face six months in prison. 

While it is unavoidable that emergency measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are resulting in socioeconomic challenges, every effort should be made to minimise the suffering of people who are already enduring significant hardship as a result of corona.

It is an indisputable fact that the measures put in place are intended to serve public health interests and protect the population from the further spread of the virus. However, doing so must be undertaken in full respect of human rights, the rule of law and in due consideration of the difficulties of certain vulnerable communities in fully complying with these measures, such as purchasing masks. 

The UN continues to work in partnership with the government, the international community and civil society to support such efforts. As the secretary general has emphasised, “the best response is one that responds proportionately to threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law”.  

It is time to revisit lessons from our response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic on the importance of a human rights-based approach to ensuring effective and proportionate responses to challenges of this magnitude.  

Essential services

We welcome the recent decision of the High Court to add IPOA and legal advocates to the list of essential service providers. Let us consider expanding this list to include professionals providing responses to sexual and gender-based violence, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, and the National Gender and Equality Commission to enhance protection and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable. Ensuring the continued operation of the judicial system is essential for access to justice.

Given the significant spike in sexual offences since the virus arrived in Kenya, it is important that such cases be prioritised.  

To promote a whole-of-society response that is grounded in human rights and the rule of law, it is also important to preserve civic space, leverage existing multi-stakeholder platforms – such as Uwiano Platform for Peace – and foster the inclusive participation of civil society, not just as implementers of initiatives but as bearers of crucial grassroots voices who are often not heard, if we are to ensure that the response is adapted to realities on the ground. We applaud local businesses that have risen to the challenge posed by Covid-19 and who have contributed medical supplies, lifesaving masks and offered food and financial support to impacted communities.  

The crisis has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing challenges in relation to human rights and the rule of law. In this context, it is essential to bolster existing efforts to reinforce governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law. 

The Flash Appeal launched by the UN on April 9 includes a request for additional resources to support human rights monitoring and documentation in response to the Covid-19 crisis, engagement with security institutions, and support to the continued operation of the justice system. The National Police Service has welcomed a chance to develop online training for police officers, including refresher training on human rights approaches to crowd control and public order. The pandemic is an exceptional crisis. Building trust between the government, affected communities, law enforcement authorities and public health officials is vital. Ignoring this will result in a response that is neither rapid nor effective.

- Walid Badawi is UNDP Resident Representative, Li Fung is Senior Human Rights Adviser to UN Resident Coordinator, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, while Amado Philip de Andrés is Regional Representative, Regional Office, UN Office on Drugs and Crime