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ASEAN MPs urge governments to put human rights at centre of COVID-19 response

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JAKARTA – As governments in Southeast Asia increase measures in response to the spread of coronavirus, regional lawmakers have today urged authorities to ensure that human rights are at the forefront of their responses.

“Now is a particularly challenging time for governments around the world to combat the virus, but it is more important than ever to ensure that people’s rights are protected, not hindered,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP), and chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Measures that do not discriminate, and that are anchored in human rights, will not only protect individuals, but also directly contribute to fighting more effectively against the spread of the virus.”

Globally, more than 12,000 people have died from COVID-19, and 294,000 infections have been confirmed in at least 187 countries and territories, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO has classified the outbreak as a pandemic.

APHR reminds governments that restrictions on rights for reasons of public health must only be strictly necessary and limited in duration, enacted in order to achieve a legitimate objective, and based on scientific evidence. Most of all, they must be non-discriminatory.

“Emergency responses must not be used as a tool to crush dissent, excessively restrict freedom of expression or target particular groups or minorities,” Santiago said.

The free flow of accurate information to all is crucial to ensuring the right to health. People must be able to know the real nature of the threats and how to protect themselves. Governments must be transparent, and provide reliable information that is accessible to all.

“When some of our governments share disinformation and then target and criminalise civil society organisations, political activists and journalists for sharing information about the crisis, this is not only a violation of people’s rights, but it puts the whole population at greater risk,” said Santiago.

“What’s more, now is not the time for governments to push through other legislation that may slip under the radar as people focus on responding to this pandemic. At times like this, people are relying on their governments to provide effective leadership, not manipulate the situation for political gain.”

Crucial to combating the outbreak will also be ensuring that all communities can protect themselves and access effective treatment without discrimination, APHR said. Some people face additional difficulties in accessing healthcare or protecting themselves against the virus, including those living in poverty or with no access to water and sanitation, those undocumented or on the move such as migrants and refugees, those living in detention, or those with already pre-existing health conditions.

“No-one should be left behind during this crisis. States must understand that only non-discriminatory measures that ensure the protection of all members of the population will be effective in combating the virus.” said Eva Sundari, a former Indonesian MP and APHR member.

Some measures to combat the virus will also have a disproportionate impact on certain groups, most often those who are already in vulnerable situations. For instance, those relying on a daily wage for their work, self-isolation is not an option; if they don’t go to work, they cannot feed their families, APHR said. The closure of schools is also likely to have a disproportionate impact on women, who provide most of the care within families, potentially limiting their work opportunities. In addition, lockdowns can trigger incidents of domestic violence due to increased stress and difficult living conditions.

“As is so often the case in times of crisis, it is those who are the most vulnerable who will suffer the most. In the midst of the crisis, governments must not ignore the potentially devastating impact of the measures they take on some members of the population. They must mitigate against this, and ensure that they consider the needs of those most at risk,” Sundari added.

Further, it is in difficult times that societies must come together to deal with challenges, APHR said.

“We are all in this together. Tolerance, solidarity and social cohesion are absolutely essential, and governments must not play into or exacerbate divisions.” said Santiago.

Finally, APHR calls on ASEAN to provide effective leadership at this time, coming together to provide a collective response.

“Wasn’t this the exact reason ASEAN was formed? To promote regional peace and cohesion, and to ensure human rights and social justice?” asked Santiago. “It’s time we saw coordinated direction from this region’s leaders, and we call on them to put together a cohesive response that its member states can use as guidance, and provide reassurances to the people in the region at this challenging time.”