Covid-19 and human rights

In early 2020, Covid-19 develops into a pandemic that has the whole world in its grip. In Belgium, a lockdown is declared in March 2020 and various freedom restrictions remain in place by the end of 2021. In total, by the end of 2021 more than 25,000 people have died in Belgium as a result of Covid-19.

What are my rights?

Right to health and to life

The Covid-19 crisis is a real human rights crisis. On the one hand, the virus threatens the population's right to health and right to life. The government must take measures to protect these rights. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to health, also explicitly requires governments to take measures to prevent, treat and combat epidemic diseases.

Freedom and privacy

On the other hand, several measures taken by the government can also be seen as an attack on human rights. Travel bans for example, or the ban on congregating, the curfew, the closure of shops and the ban on religious services. Such sanitary measures restrict all kinds of human rights, such as freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to privacy, etc.
The fact that a human right is restricted does not automatically mean that this right is violated. However, the law requires that such restrictions meet strict conditions.

  1. They must serve a legitimate purpose. The protection of public health is undoubtedly such a legitimate aim.
  2. They must have a legitimate basis. In Belgium, there was criticism of the lack of a legitimate basis for the measures and the fact that such measures could be taken by one minister.
  3. They must be proportionate. This means that the measures must be suitable for serving the legitimate purpose (= the protection of public health), and that they may not go beyond what is necessary to achieve this purpose. In December 2020, for example, the Council of State ruled that a general ban on worship went too far in restricting freedom of religion. Particular attention must also be paid to the impact of sanitary measures on vulnerable groups.

What does FIRM/IFDH do?

The Federal Institute for Human Rights wrote an advice on the preliminary draft of the pandemic law. FIRM/IFDH was positive about the fact that the pandemic law would provide a legal framework for the Covid-19 measures, but had some suggestions to strengthen this framework. The law finally adopted followed FIRM/IFDH's proposal: measures in the context of an epidemic emergency should be adopted by the government as a whole and not just by one minister.

In its report to the UN Committee against Torture, FIRM/IFDH drew attention to the rights of detainees (e.g. visiting rights) which were severely restricted for a long period of time in the context of combating Covid-19.

What are other institutions doing?

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