GENEVA (17 April 2020) – UN Human rights experts* have expressed grave concern at the multiplication of accounts of police killings and other acts of violence within the context of COVID-19 emergency measures.

“We are alarmed at the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations,” said the Special Rapporteurs.

“Persons in vulnerable situations such as people living in poverty and those living in slums, homeless persons, minorities, individuals in detention, women and children victims of domestic violence, migrants and refugees, trans women and all those who defend their rights, are already affected disproportionately by the virus. No-visitor policies in nursing homes and home care exacerbate the risk of violence, maltreatment, abuse and neglect of older persons and others living in institutions.”

“All these people who are often disproportionately affected by the virus, because of their precarious conditions of existence, should not be victimized further because of state of emergency measures.”

The experts reminded governments and law enforcement agencies that the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and other ill-treatment, is absolute and non-derogable at all times.

“Even during states of emergency, the use of force remains guided by the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution. They demand that the use of force and of firearms must be avoided, and that all possible non-violent means must be exhausted before resorting to violent ones.”

Law enforcement agencies, the experts recalled, should only use force when strictly necessary. Lethal force should only be used to protect against an imminent risk to life and even then, reasonable precautions must always be taken to prevent loss of life.

“Breaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force.”

The experts insist that further precautions to protect the right to life and dignity should be taken in view of the fact that so many people have no home in which to remain confined, or live in dense and promiscuous conditions, and do not have the means by which to sustain their families under isolation.

“You can’t stay home if you don’t have one. You can’t remain confined if you don’t have what you need to feed your family,” the human rights experts noted. “How do you ‘physically distance’ in an urban slum? How do you eat or drink when you are a daily-wage labourer and need to go out every day to earn the money to do so?” 

“In addition, given the high number of reported COVID-19 infections among police officers, police interactions may represent an additional source of risk of infection for populations already in vulnerable situations that must not be disregarded in the deployment and use of police authority.”

The experts called on governments to devise specific measures to mitigate the disproportionate effects that emergency measures may have on groups in vulnerable situations, and to protect them.

“It is important that law enforcement agencies take into account the local context, the needs and vulnerabilities of particular groups of people, and exercise caution when resorting to the use of force to see to it that it is necessary and proportionate,” they said. “For millions of people, emergency measures can be a more direct threat to their life, livelihood, and dignity than even the virus itself. There are other ways to police than force first.”

“We recommend discussion, instruction, consultation and community engagement – as operating principles for the police, when implementing emergency measures. This is what international law demands because it is what protection of human rights in a time of contagion requires,” the experts concluded.

NOTE TO EDITORS: The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, is publishing Human Rights Dispatches to examine relevant human rights issues within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Other specific measures recommended by other Special Rapporteurs may be found here.


* The experts:Ms Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsMr Victor Madrigal-BorlozIndependent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identityMs Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Ms Yanghee LeeSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in MyanmarMrFernand de VarennesSpecial Rapporteur on minority issuesMr Bahame Nyanduga, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in SomaliaMrAhmed ShaheedSpecial Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;MsUrmila BhoolaSpecial Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slaveryMsMaud de Boer-Buquicchio, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of childrenMrMichel ForstSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenderstheWorking Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: Mr Luciano A. Hazan (Chair), Mr Tae-Ung Baik (Vice-chair), Ms Houria Es-Slami, Mr Henrikas Mickevičius, Mr Bernard Duhaime; Mr David KayeSpecial Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionMrS. Michael LynktheSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967MrDavid R. Boyd,Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Ms Maria Grazia GiammarinaroSpecial Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and childrenMr Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and LawyersMs Elizabeth Broderick (Vice Chair), Ms Alda Facio, Ms Ivana Radačić, Ms Meskerem Geset Techane (Chair), MS Melissa UpretiWorking Group on discrimination against women and girls; Mr Dainius PūrasSpecial Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental healthMs E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intoleranceMs Alice CruzSpecial Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members;Mr Alioune TineIndependent Expert on the situation of Human Rights in Mali;Mr Javaid RehmanSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran;Mr Livingstone SewanyanaIndependent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international orderMs Fionnuala D. Ní AoláinSpecial Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorismMr Yao AgbetseIndependent Expert on the situation of Human Rights in the Central African Republic; Mr Clément Nyaletsossi VouleSpecial Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association;Ms Koumbou Boly BarrySpecial Rapporteur on the right to educationMs Catalina Devandas-AguilarSpecial Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Ms Rosa Kornfeld-MatteIndependent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older personsMr Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rightsMr José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez (Chair), Ms Leigh Toomey (Vice-Chair on Communications), MsElina Steinerte (Vice-Chair on Follow-up), Mr Seong-Phil Hong and Mr Sètondji Adjovithe Working Group on Arbitrary DetentionMr Ahmed Reid (Chair), Ms Dominique Day, Mr Michal  Balcerzak, Mr Ricardo A. Sunga III, and Mr Sabelo GumedzeWorking Group of experts on people of African descentMr Chris Kwaja (Chair), Ms Jelena Aparac, Ms Lilian Bobea, Ms Sorcha MacLeod and Mr Saeed Mokbil, Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination; MrNils MelzerSpecial Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishmentMsRhona SmithSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in CambodiaMs Alena DouhanSpecial Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights; Ms Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.

COVID-19 security measures no excuse for excessive use of force, say UN Special Rapporteurs