During the COVID-19 pandemic the OeAD started to organise online meetings for scholars to provide a platform to share their worries and experiences as well as to find encouragement and a sense of community in this time of crisis. For all of us the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unparalleled threat to our society. The lives and health of millions of people are at risk and states take drastic measures to respond to the challenge. But what does the pandemic have to do with human rights? What rights are being affected? What are states obliged to do? Are the state measures justified and when are human rights violated? In order to answer some of these questions on 13 May 2020, Moritz Birk, the Advocacy and Research Director of Amnesty International Austria, was invited to talk about the COVID19-pandemic from a human rights perspective. Around 50 OeAD students participated in the online meeting.
First Mr. Birk provided a brief introduction to the fundamental principles of human rights, such as its holistic, systemic perspective on society, its legal basis and declarations as well as the different dimensions. He explained further, that for states to interfere in basic human rights, as a result of measures against COVID-19, several principles need to be considered. First there needs to be a legal basis and a clear regulation, in order to know what is allowed and not (legal certainty). Restrictions have to follow a legitimate aim and need to be proportional. This means the measures taken need to be is suitable to reach the declared aim, necessary (with no other less intrusive alternatives available) and proportionate, meaning they need to balance different rights and goods. These rights are diverse (such as the right to life, freedom of movement, religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press etc.) with many being potentially threatened by the narrow focus on the right to health as the main declared aim of the COVID-19 measures. If these criteria for the states interventions are not met (e.g. the measures are not suitable or proportionate) it could result in human rights violations.
On the other hand states might also violate human rights if they do not do enough to protect and fulfil the rights of their inhabitants (positive obligations). This includes due diligence in the fight against the pandemic and the implementation of necessary measures which are appropriate. In the following discussion some students highlighted human rights violation they observed in their countries, such as the violation of the “right to eat” since many people have no income and access to food as a result of the lockdown, lacking state support and threatening their right to life. In other countries different political actors disagreed on the restrictions of mobility, or citizens criticized the restrictions to their rights to religious freedom (with restrictions to worship).
Overall the discussion highlighted the complexity of the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to carefully balance measures and human rights, a difficult task for all states. Therefore citizens need to be alert and demand from their states the observance of basic human rights.
Moritz Birk has joined Amnesty International as Advocacy and Research Director in January 2020. Before that he was Head of the Department Human Dignity and Public Security at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, the largest independent human rights research institute in Austria. Moreover he was assistant to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and worked with NGOs in Ghana, Mexico, Senegal and Sweden as well as the UNHCR. He works as human rights researcher, consultant, trainer and university lecturer.