By Eric A. Friedman and Lawrence O. Gostin
In 1984, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted the Siracusa Principles, which state that restrictions on human rights must meet standards of legality, necessity, and proportionality. States must use the least restrictive means available when putting in place rights-restricting measures.
One of us (LG) was involved in the drafting of the Siracusa Principles, which have become the chief international instrument governing permissible human rights limitations during national emergencies. Yet when COVID-19 – the greatest health emergency in a century – devastated the world, the Siracusa Principles seemed unequal to the task – too narrow, including with their remit limited to civil and political rights, not sufficiently specific, and above all, without sufficient accountability.
During the pandemic phase of COVID-19, human rights violations were widespread and spanned the full gamut of rights: from arbitrary detentions and suppression of free expression, to violations of the right to health, failure to ensure sufficient food and other necessities during lockdowns, quarantines, and isolations, and woefully inadequate international cooperation and assistance, including discriminatory travel and trade restrictions.
Extensive abuses of human rights during the pandemic led international experts to draft the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (HR Principles). Firmly embedding these principles in international law and creating accountability will be critical for realizing the HR Principles’ potential.