Rights Chiefs Call on African Governments to Preserve Free Expression, Other Rights During COVID-19

Solomon Ayele Dersso, Commissioner, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
Solomon Ayele Dersso, Commissioner, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Two human rights chiefs, Ms Michelle Bachelet, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Dr. Solomon Dersso, Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), have stressed the need for Governments in Africa to preserve the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, among other rights, in the current context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. They also called on Governments and businesses on the continent to consider making Internet tariffs more affordable so that information can reach a broader audience

On May 19, 2020, the disease had reached all 54 African States, infecting nearly 88,172 people with South Africa having the highest number of cases, with nearly 16,433 affected. The death toll on the continent stood at 2,834 as of May 19.

Bachelet and Dersso warned: “We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope this most viral and deadly of diseases bypasses Africa, which is home to many of the world’s poorest countries who are simply not in a position to handle such a pandemic.”

“The lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Africans are at stake not just due to COVID-19, but mostly due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 response measures adopted both continentally and globally.”

They listed poverty, lack of social protection, limited access to water and poor sanitation infrastructure, a pre-existing disease burden, conflict situations and overstretched and poorly equipped health systems which create heightened risk of the spread of the pandemic and its potentially dire consequences on the health and lives of people.

Bachelet and Derssotherefore urged equitable access for COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines and also called upon creditors of African countries to freeze, restructure or relieve African countries’ debt in this challenging time.

They noted that: “This health crisis, along with the debt burden of the continent and its already fragile economies, threaten to further drain reserves, cripple nascent job creation schemes and annihilate gains made in social development and efforts to industrialize. This could throw millions of more people into want and poverty, with catastrophic consequences to the human rights of the most vulnerable, including the poor, women and children.”

The duo noted that in many countries, the cost of water and basic commodities have spiked, with many people facing hunger due to disruption of access to food items and cooking fuel. Recession in the region now looms large for the first time in over 25 years compounding people’s distress.

“It is a matter of human rights necessity that there must be international solidarity with the people of Africa and African Governments, and priority given to investing more in health, water and sanitation, social protection, employment and sustainable infrastructures to ensure that no one is left behind,” they said.

The human rights chiefs noted that while measures to restrict movement and increase social distancing were essential in the fight against the virus, they were having a dramatic impact on populations especially those who rely on informal daily work for their survival.

They also underlined the importance of preserving freedom of association, of opinion and expression and access to information during this time and in particular, called on Governments and businesses on the continent to consider making internet tariffs more affordable so that information can reach a broader audience.

Bachelet and Dersso said the continent had learned from its past experiences in dealing with diseases such as Ebola and malaria and acted swiftly to counter the spread of the virus.

They reminded African governments that it is a legal imperative and a pre-requisite for success in the effort to defeat the pandemic that they protect the most vulnerable and stamp out violations emerging in the context of COVID-19, including discrimination in all its forms, violence against women, food insecurity, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings.