UNHRC Covid-19 guidelines: Emergency declaration must be guided by human rights principles, transparency

Ashman Adam
·3-min read
Members of the public walk along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman amid the conditional movement control order in Kuala Lumpur October 23, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Members of the public walk along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman amid the conditional movement control order in Kuala Lumpur October 23, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 — As rumours of a potential declaration of a state of emergency by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to fight the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) “Emergency Measures and Covid-19: Guidance” shows what actually entails the need for a state of emergency.

According to the UNHRC, the situation presented by the Covid-19 pandemic requires many countries worldwide to take extraordinary measures to protect the health and well-being of the population.

“Even in a public emergency, these steps need to be based on the rule of law.

“Emergency powers should be used within the parameters provided by international human rights law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which acknowledges that States may need additional powers to address exceptional situations.

“Such powers should be time-bound and only exercised on a temporary basis with the aim to restore a state of normalcy as soon as possible,” said the UNHRC in their guide released on April 27.

In the guide, the UNHRC stated that although derogation or suspension of certain rights is permitted when such emergencies are declared, measures suspending rights should be avoided when the situation can be adequately dealt with by establishing proportionate restrictions or limitations on certain rights.

The guide mentions that if the need for a state of emergency arose and required implementation, it should be strictly temporary in scope.

The UNHRC added that for a state of emergency to be lawfully declared, it must be publicly and officially proclaimed.

“An official proclamation is essential for the maintenance of the principles of legality and rule of law. Proclamations must be in line with relevant constitutional and other provisions of national law that govern such proclamations and the exercise of emergency powers.

“States must inform the affected population of the exact substantive, territorial and temporal scope of the application of the state of emergency and its related measures.

“Sufficient information about emergency legislation and measures should be communicated swiftly and in all official languages of the State, as well as in as many other languages widely spoken in the country as possible, and in an accessible manner so the public at large is aware of the new legal rules and can conduct themselves accordingly,” UNHCR said.

According to the guide, other matters the state must look into when declaring a state of emergency include measures to prevent human rights violations and abuses, the fundamental requirements of fair trial, a basis it is not to be used to target particular individuals or groups, including minorities, and timely and effective measures to support the enjoyment of core economic and social rights of people affected by emergency restrictions.

“A state of emergency should be guided by human rights principles, including transparency. A state of emergency should not be used for any purpose other than the public necessity for which it is declared, in this case to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. It should not be used to stifle dissent,” they said in their guide.

On Friday, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and several other government leaders attended an audience with Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah at the latter’s Istana Abdulaziz in Kuantan to discuss the possibility of a state of emergency to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is unclear what the emergency powers being sought are at the moment as the breadth and scope under a state of emergency are far-ranging.

However, no announcement was made following the audience.

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