Abusive policing and excessive reliance on law enforcement to implement COVID-19 response measures have violated human rights and in some instances made the health crisis worse, Amnesty International said today.
In a new briefing, COVID-19 Crackdowns: Police Abuse and the Global Pandemic, the organization documented cases in 60 countries where law enforcement agencies committed human rights abuses in the name of tackling the virus. This includes cases where people were killed or severely injured for allegedly breaching restrictions, or for protesting against detention conditions.
In Iran for example, security forces reportedly used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress protests over COVID-19 safety fears in prisons, killing and injuring several people. In the first five days alone of a curfew in Kenya, at least seven people were killed and 16 hospitalized as a result of police operations.
While some limitations on human rights can be justified during a pandemic to protect public health or other pressing social need, many governments have gone far beyond reasonable and justified restrictions.
“Security forces all over the world are widely violating international law during the pandemic, using excessive and unnecessary force to implement lockdowns and curfews. The horrific abuses committed on the pretext of fighting COVID-19 include Angolan police shooting a teenage boy in the face for allegedly breaking curfew, and police in El Salvador shooting a man in the legs after he went out to buy food,” said Patrick Wilcken, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Programme.
“While the role of law enforcement at this moment is vital to protect people’s health and lives, the over reliance on coercive measures to enforce public health restrictions is making things worse. The profound impact of the pandemic on people’s lives compounds the need for policing to be carried out with full respect for human rights.”
Far from containing the virus, decisions to arrest, detain, use force, and forcibly disperse assemblies have risked increasing contagion – both for the law enforcement officials involved as well as those who are affected by police actions.
Beatings and killings
Amnesty International’s wide-ranging briefing examines laws, policies and acts committed by police forces or other agencies carrying out law enforcement functions. It provides numerous examples of state overreach and abuse of power that have been falsely justified in the name of protecting public health.
Pandemic-related police operations have led to deaths and injuries in many countries, including in the context of police enforcing curfews and lockdowns. Elsewhere there have been mass arrests, unlawful deportations, forced evictions, and aggressive crackdowns on peaceful protests, as governments use the pandemic as an excuse to attack human rights and crackdown on dissent.
In South Africa, police fired rubber bullets at people ‘loitering’ on the streets on the first day of lockdown. In Chechnya, video footage showed police kicking and assaulting a man for not wearing a mask. Meanwhile, an investigation by Amnesty International and Angolan rights organization OMUNGA found that Angolan police tasked with enforcing COVID-19 restrictions killed at least seven young men between May and July.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
The briefing also highlights mass and arbitrary arrests by law enforcement. Amnesty International has documented how police have arrested and detained people for violating quarantine measures; for violating restrictions on travel or holding meetings; for participating in peaceful protests; and for speaking out to criticize their government’s handling of the pandemic among other reasons that do not justify sending people to jail.
In the Dominican Republic for example, police detained approximately 85,000 people between 20 March and 30 June, allegedly for non-compliance with the curfew.
Between March and May, 510 people in Turkey were reported to have been detained for questioning on account of “sharing provocative coronavirus posts” on social media, in clear violation to their right to freedom of expression.
In several countries, police have demonstrated racial bias and discrimination in their enforcement of COVID-19 regulations. Refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, LGBTI and gender non-conforming people, sex workers, homeless people and people at risk of homelessness are among the marginalized groups who have been particularly affected.
For example, in Slovakia law enforcement and military personnel cordoned off Roma settlements under quarantine, adding to the stigma and prejudice these communities already faced. The aggressive application of COVID-19 restrictions has also led to people being forcibly evicted and left without a place where to protect themselves from COVID-19, often impacting groups who are already marginalized.
In France, volunteers from Human Rights Observers documented 175 cases of forced evictions of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees by law enforcement officials in Calais between March and May 2020.
Restrictions on peaceful assembly
Many states have also used the pandemic as a pretext to introduce laws and policies that violate international law and roll back human rights guarantees, including unduly restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
For example, at least 16 people were killed by security officers in Wolaita Zone in Ethiopia in August following protests against the arrests of local leaders and activists, allegedly for holding a meeting in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions.
Under international human rights law, certain restrictions can be lawfully placed on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in order to protect public health or other legitimate interests, but they must be provided by law and be necessary and proportionate to a specific aim. However, in many instances documented by Amnesty International, restrictions go much further – for example imposing blanket bans on protests, prohibiting or restricting protests where other public gatherings of similar sizes remained unaffected; or using force against peaceful protesters.
Human rights should be at the centre of policing
Authorities must treat the COVID-19 pandemic first and foremost as a public health crisis that needs to be addressed through appropriate public health measures.
Where law enforcement fulfils a legitimate and necessary role, Amnesty International is calling for governments across the globe to ensure that law enforcement agencies respect their ultimate mission to serve and protect the population.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not relieve law enforcement agencies of their obligation to carefully balance the interests at stake and to use their powers in a manner that complies with their human rights obligations.
In cases where violations of human rights related to policing and the use of force have taken place, states must conduct prompt, thorough, effective and independent investigations, and ensure that all those responsible are held accountable in fair trials.
“It is essential that authorities around the world prioritize public health best practices over coercive approaches that have been found to be counterproductive. Law enforcement agencies must give clear orders and instructions to their personnel to put human rights at the centre of all considerations,” said Anja Bienert, Head of Amnesty International Netherlands Police and Human Rights Programme.
“Law enforcement officials must be held accountable for excessive or unlawful exercise of their powers. Without accountability, the door will be opened to further abuses of power.”