We will all be judged by how we treat the elderly and the vulnerable during this crisis - Les Allamby
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland’s human rights chief Les Allamby looks forward to the day when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted… but until then, he says, stay safe by obeying the law.
These are extraordinary times. We must all follow Government advice on social distancing and social isolation in order to weather the crisis.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) supports and thanks all the health and social care staff, other front line workers, volunteers and political leaders for all their critical work.
It is heartening to see so many initiatives from individuals and communities to support one another at this difficult time.
Currently, we are having to live with severe restrictions on our freedoms - things we normally take for granted: to go out when we like, to see family and friends, visit our loved ones in residential care, or hospital, play sport and to go to the many beauty spots that Northern Ireland has to offer.
The Government - in both Westminster and Belfast - has taken sweeping measures, unheard of in times of peace.
Powers have been taken to close businesses, hotels, holiday accommodation, community centres and playgrounds, among other facilities. Most of us may leave home only with a reasonable excuse except in very specific circumstances, for example to shop for food and medical supplies, to take exercise, to seek medical help, to do voluntary and charitable work and to access critical public services.
There should be no gatherings of more than two people in a public place unless you are all members of the same household, or attending a funeral, providing emergency assistance, giving blood, or if coming together is essential for work purposes.
Failing to follow these rules can be enforced by police officers in a necessary and proportionate manner, so you may be asked to return home and, if you refuse to obey, then fines can be levied against you.
The Chief Constable has been at pains to make clear that common sense will be applied by his officers. This is welcome.
Powers to restrict and detain people who may have the coronavirus have been taken and safeguards to detain and release people on mental health grounds are also being relaxed.
Curtailing cherished freedoms during a time of emergency does not mean that human rights automatically take a back seat.
International and domestic human rights standards provide a framework for emergencies. Some rights remain absolute, no matter what, and cannot be interfered with, including the right to life, freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, while other rights are qualified and may be restricted, including the right to private and family life, for example, where it is necessary to protect our health, or the health of others. For civil and political rights, such as freedom of movement and assembly, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, a set of principles has been developed on when limitations can be applied during an emergency.
Under the Siracusa principles limitations must be set out in law, respond to a pressing public or social need, and pursue a legitimate aim.
There should be rights of redress where any sweeping powers are applied in an arbitrary way.
The powers taken locally in this case are being kept under review and, as soon as the Department of Health considers the restrictions are no longer necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus infection, they should be ended.
In addition we must pay particular attention to vulnerable groups and individuals.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides that “all necessary measures should be taken to ensure the safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk including during humanitarian emergencies”.
Moreover, no group should be treated as expendable. Older people are bearing the brunt of the impact of the coronavirus and face a disproportionate risk of death.
The UN independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons has issued a statement reminding people that society has a duty to exercise solidarity and to protect older people during the crisis.
Other individuals and groups face particular challenges, including the homeless, asylum seekers and those with the immigration status of “no recourse to public funds”, who have lost their income.
We must see and treat everyone as individuals, with their own personal stories, their own families and friends and not place people into single categories where one size fits all.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put it succinctly: “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one. You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.”
We also need to recognise that people on low incomes are less likely to have savings to provide a cushion through these difficult times.
That is why the arrangements to continue to cover the cost of free school meals and continue social security mitigations by the Northern Ireland Executive are especially welcome.
These are difficult times and we must all pull together and help one another. Prevention is better than cure, so we should all follow the rules.
Nonetheless, we must be vigilant and the restrictions should last no longer than necessary and not be enforced in an unlawful, or unreasonable, way.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission remains open for business, with our staff working from home.
We will monitor how the new powers are applied in practice and we would welcome feedback through our website or by phone of your own experience. We have produced a briefing on the new laws, which is available at www.nihrc.org.
We look forward to coming out of the coronavirus pandemic and seeing our rights and freedoms restored. Until then, stay safe.
Les Allamby is chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (www.nihrc.org)
06 Apr 2020