Statement: Human rights in times of crisis

Today the UK government published its draft coronavirus emergency legislation. The purpose of the Coronavirus Bill is to enable both the UK and devolved governments to respond to and manage the effects of a COVID-19 pandemic.  Further emergency legislative measures will be also be introduced in Scotland in coming weeks.

Our governments and public authorities are being pressed to make very difficult choices in extreme circumstances to respond to the threats of the coronavirus. In these challenging times, human rights can and should inform and strengthen the ways in which decisions are made, and how measures are put into practice.

Fundamentally, human rights are about recognising and respecting the dignity and equal value of each and every human being. Human rights laws are designed to guide and govern state actions and choices, ensuring that these principles of dignity and equality underpin all that they do. Across the world, we are all now looking to our governments to take the right steps to protect one of our most fundamental rights - the right to life - as well as our right to health.

The steps being taken and those proposed through emergency legislation, are intensifying rapidly in their seriousness and severity, and will undoubtedly impact on all of our rights – whether our rights to work, to education, to private and family life, to freedom of association, freedom from detention, or to an adequate standard of living. These restrictions on our rights are generally understood to be necessary for the protection of health and life. However, when difficult decisions are being made at speed by the state and public authorities, it will be important to ensure that restrictions on people’s rights are each assessed as necessary and proportionate, and remain so on an ongoing basis.

Some people are in more vulnerable situations than others – older people and people with underlying health conditions, and also others such as people living in poverty, people at risk of harm and abuse, people in situations of detention, and people who are low paid and economically vulnerable. All measures and decisions, including about resources, must be particularly cognisant of the rights of the most vulnerable. In this public health crisis, it is incumbent on all of us to focus on those at risk, not only from the coronavirus itself, but from the measures being rolled out and their wider impacts.

Few amongst us will have the full relevant scientific expertise and knowledge, or detailed understanding of choices to be balanced, to reliably assess the proportionality of emergency measures in every instance, and at speed. Nevertheless, scrutiny and review of emergency legislation will be necessary in the days and weeks ahead. Questions must be asked about the proportionality of all measures, in particular whether they are appropriately time bound.

We know through experience that if rights are ignored, vulnerable people not protected and supported, and decisions taken which inappropriately benefit some over others, then our societies will be weakened in the longer term. This global health crisis will cast a long shadow over our society.  Human rights can help us both to navigate the challenges of now, and to re-build in the future. 

Scottish Human Rights Commission
19 March 2020