By Cassandra Emmons
Sovereign governments have the prerogative to declare states of emergency when sudden, unanticipated events threaten the lives of the nation and its people. In so doing, government decrees sometimes must contradict other international human rights commitments, balancing the individual versus the collective. Established derogation procedures are supposed to ensure such restrictions are proportionate, non-discriminatory, and last only as long as necessary (for an overview, see Emmons 2020). COVID-19 has proven that public health emergencies are not equally recognized in either international law or national constitutions; some international treaties permit “limiting” rights in the name of public health rather than requiring derogation, and nationally some governments authorize emergency measures in practice without ever doing so in name. These parallel processes and conceptual gaps create space for governments to restrict individuals’ rights with little to no international accountability during pandemics.
In this piece, I recommend a new international instrument on pandemic response be explicit about reporting requirements when governments suspend rights during such emergencies. These suggestions incorporate advice from the American Association for the International Commission of Jurists’ Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1985), the International Law Association’s Queensland Guidelines for Bodies Monitoring Respect for Human Rights during States of Emergency (1990), case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and learned experience from the COVID-19 pandemic.