UN urges restriction of protests to protect public health

by Maruf Adedeji

The United Nation Human Rights Committee has urged governments to restrict protests in order to continue protect public health against Covid-19.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the committee had started formulation of its legal interpretation due to the need for the international norms.

The committee’s report said that the rights of the government in response to efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus pandemic have been compounded by the increasing protests and demonstrations in many parts of the world in recent times.

For example, Black Lives Matter protests and other demonstrations have continued to spread across worldwide, posing a great challenge to the health authorities of countries fighting infectious outbreaks.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by 173 countries, including the United States and China, has always allowed for restrictions to be placed on the rights of peaceful assembly on grounds including public health in the new document, called a “general comment,” confirmed that.

The report released on Wednesday July 29, 2020, said that the protection of “public health” may exceptionally permit restrictions to be imposed.

“The legal interpretation was intended to set out the rules of the game not just for protesters but for police,” the document’s author, Christ of Heyns said.

The report said protesters had the rights to wear masks to hide their identity like the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have.

However, the report said that government’s restrictions, sometimes given as public order, should not be used unduly.

Heyns commented on COVID-19, saying that the government’s position on enforcing wearing of masks during the pandemic is not a human rights violation if it is for health reasons.

In parts of the United States, as well as Australia, the issue of mask-wearing has been divisive in some cases resulting in anti-mask protests.

The UN Human Rights Committee comprising 18 members is empowered to review the implementation of its rules and question the member states for not confirming.

But the committee does not have the enforcement powers over the member states to follow its rules.

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