Emergency Powers, COVID-19 and the New Challenge for Human Rights

Emergency Powers, COVID-19 and the New Challenge for Human Rights

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“A human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis”. UN Secretary General António Guterres was among the first to raise the alarm about possible human rights implications of government measures to fight COVID-19.[1] Since its outbreak, 87 states – both authoritarian and established democracies – have declared a state of emergency to curb the spread of the virus,[2] which implies certain derogations from international human rights conventions.

Protecting the right to life and physical integrity are fundamental duties facing government authorities, commitments enshrined in law – specifically Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Derogations from human rights conventions are permissible under certain circumstances, but any limitation must be motivated by absolute necessity, must not be disproportionate and must be limited in time.[3]

There are clear dangers in the potential abuse of emergency powers. These can be detrimental to human rights and may have long-term consequences for individual freedoms. Freedom of expression,[4] the right of assembly and privacy are of particular concern.

Policies that limit freedom of expression have been justified in a number of contexts as necessary to fight disinformation and fake news surrounding the pandemic. However, a number of governments have used this as a pretext to limit free speech. According to the International Press Institute, more than 400 media freedom violations have been recorded since 5 February 2020.[5]

It all started in China, where doctor Li Wenliang was silenced in December 2019 after trying to warn the public about the virus. As the virus spread around the world, other countries followed suit with similar measures depending on the context.

In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has been ruling by decree since the declaration of the state of emergency. Shortly thereafter, the government announced an amendment to the Criminal Code, making anything the government deems “fake news” punishable by up to five years in prison.[6]

Russia has enacted a similar law intended to fight COVID-related disinformation. Those who deliberately spread “false information” about the coronavirus could be punished with exorbitant fines and prison sentences.

In the context of a global crisis, access to reliable information is more important than ever. Limiting free speech and press freedoms can impede accurate understanding and hence mitigation of the crisis. Beyond COVID, freedom of the press and expression are foundations of any functioning democracy.


[1] António Guterres, We Are All in This Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery, 23 April 2020.

[2] International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) website: COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker.

[3] Article 15 ECHR; article 4 ICCPR; Siracusa Principles.

[4] David Kaye, Harlem Désir and Edison Lanza, COVID-19: Governments Must Promote and Protect Access to and Free Flow of Information during Pandemic – International Experts, 19 March 2020.

[5] International Press Institute (IPI) website: COVID-19: Number of Media Freedom Violations by Region.

[6] Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Proposed Hungarian Laws Could Imprison Journalists Covering Coronavirus Response, 24 March 2020.


Read the publication here.

This blog first appeared on the IAI site. 

Author: Michele Collazzo, Alexandra Tyan, IAI. 

Image courtesy of George A. Spiva Center for the Arts via Flickr.

The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.

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