Person filling syringe from vial.

Public Health Emergencies and Human Rights Principles: A Solidarity Approach

By Anne Kjersti Befring and Cecilia Marcela Bailliet

  1. Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a grave threat to humanity and revealed the need for a new approach to improve transnational cooperation within the global health system and new perspectives on solidarity addressing the cross-border spread of infection and distribution of vaccines.

The Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (“the Principles”), developed by the Global Health Law Consortium and the International Commission of Jurists, set forth a human rights-based solidarity approach that can provide a basis for implementing the obligations of States and responsibilities of Non-State actors to achieve the goal of limiting the harmful effects of serious health crises.

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Group of Diverse Kids Playing in a Field Together.

Securing a Place for Children’s Rights in Public Health Emergencies

By Sheila Varadan, Ton Liefaard, and Jaap Doek

The Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (Principles) make a significant contribution towards clarifying the scope of States’ legal obligations under international human rights law during public health emergencies. What is missing, however, is a specific and detailed discussion on the rights obligations and principles owed to children during public health emergencies. This leaves open the question of how States will guarantee respect for and protection of children’s rights in future public health emergencies, and what measures, if any, will be taken to ensure children are actively listened to and engaged with in the prevention of, preparedness for, and response to public health emergencies (PPRR).

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scales on blue background.

Judging in the Pandemic – A Malawian Perspective

By Zione Ntaba

Malawi is not a stranger to public health crises in the last number of years, having faced a severe HIV epidemic and several cholera outbreaks continuing into 2023. Nevertheless, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major panic in the country’s legal system and judiciary. COVID-19 brought to fruition a major ethical dilemma in ensuring the justice system’s continued functioning, while also protecting the lives of all those involved, and simultaneously ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights.

The constitutional mandate of ensuring access to justice in Malawi, a country which already struggles with effective and efficient justice delivery at the best of times, required urgent resolution, especially noting the potential of human rights violations arising from State responses to COVID-19 worldwide. Interestingly, in addition to the general need to safeguard the justice system as a whole, the pandemic itself brought before the courts issues relating to public health and human rights.

The prevailing principle in Malawi, as it is internationally, is for the judicial system to ensure that there exists an equal balance between the protection and promotion of human rights and the fair and just administration of justice. The courts in Malawi were called upon to rise above the political bureaucracy, to ensure judicial impartiality when dealing with pandemic-related issues. This was crucial in a context in which political responses to the pandemic sometimes remained unquestioned or unchallenged. However, unless these principles — of human rights and fair administration of justice — were properly upheld by the courts, sadly they may have remained in the world of the metaphysical.

It is with this context in mind that I turn to reflecting on the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (“Principles”).

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Bill of Health - Gavel on mask during pandemic, class action lawsuits during pandemic

Old Dogs and New Tricks: A Case for the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights & Public Health Emergencies

By Nerima Were and Allan Maleche

Taking into account our experiences as human rights lawyers working in Kenya during the COVID-19 pandemic, in this article we briefly analyze the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles) and make a case for their utility in guiding State measures to prepare for, prevent, and respond to future pandemics consistently with international human rights law and standards.

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Emergency department entrance.

Reflections on the United States Health Care System and the Right to Health

By Brianna da Silva Bhatia, Michele Heisler, and Christian De Vos

American health care too often fails to protect the right to health or promote health-related rights. Despite efforts to increase access to health care and to better incentivize high-quality, value-based care, the United States’ health care system remains fragmented, largely profit-based, and predominantly disease-focused rather than prevention-focused.

To design systems and policies that promote the right to health, a holistic and proactive approach is needed, one in which people, institutions, and corporations have a shared responsibility in promoting physical, mental, and social well-being. The Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles), allow us to imagine a new future and help outline a path for how to get there. In this piece, we discuss how the Principles might be applied in a rights-based approach to address some of the core problems in the U.S. health care system.

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gavel and old papers on grey background.

Human Rights Principles in Public Health Emergencies: From the Siracusa Principles to COVID-19 and Beyond

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.

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LOMBARDIA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 26, 2020: Empty hospital field tent for the first AID, a mobile medical unit of red cross for patient with Corona Virus. Camp room for people infected with an epidemic.

Non-State Actors and Public Health Emergencies

By Rossella De Falco

Strong, well-coordinated and resilient public health care services play a vital role in preventing and responding to public health crises. Under international human rights law, States have a positive, primary obligation to ensure that such health care services are of the highest possible quality and accessible to everyone, everywhere, and without discrimination.

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Making Explicit a Rights-Based Approach to Infodemic in a Public Health Emergency

By Calvin Wai-Loon Ho

With the mainstreaming of digital technology across many spheres of social life, infodemic management must be an integral part of public health emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

While the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles) do not make explicit reference to infodemics, the application of digital technologies in response to a public health emergency is a clear concern. This article provides further elaboration and critique of the Principles and their treatment of this emergent phenomenon.

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Bill of Health - Globe and vaccine, covid vaccine

COVID-19 Showcased Failed Global Cooperation

By Kayum Ahmed, Julia Bleckner, and Kyle Knight

In mid-May, the World Health Organization officially declared  the “emergency” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic over. However, the deep wounds of the pandemic remain, compelling  those concerned about this pandemic and  future health emergencies to account for catastrophic failures by those in power. These reflections suggest that the public health crisis could have been addressed differently, both reducing COVID-19’s unprecedented magnitude of illness and death, and preserving human dignity.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and the end of this pandemic’s emergency phase certainly doesn’t mean we accept the widely abysmal response as the model for the world’s reaction to the next one. Public health emergencies aren’t entirely preventable. We live in a complex world where health is increasingly affected by a changing climate, extraordinary levels of pollution, and inadequate preventive and responsive health services. Emergencies will happen. But when they do, responses that uphold human rights need to be the norm.

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Risograph clenched, raised fists with speech bubble and geometric shapes, trendy riso graph design.

Introduction to the Symposium: From Principles to Practice: Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies

By Roojin Habibi, Timothy Fish Hodgson, and Alicia Ely Yamin

Today, as the world transitions from living in the grips of a novel coronavirus to living with an entrenched, widespread infectious disease known as COVID-19, global appreciation for the human rights implications of public health crises are once again rapidly fading from view.

Against the backdrop of this burgeoning collective amnesia, a project to articulate the human rights norms relevant to public health emergencies led to the development of the 2023 Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles).

This symposium gathers reflections from leading scholars, activists, jurists, and others from around the world with respect to the recently issued Principles.

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