ECtHR’s President Statement on challenges posed to human rights protection by COVID-19
President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos (until 17 May 2020) delivered a video speech in the Saint Petersburg International Forum on the Covid-19 health crisis, which took place from 10 to 12 April 2020. The speech, which has now been published on the ECtHR’s website, addresses the issue of the implications of the current health crisis for human rights in general, in particular those protected by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
In this regard, he recalled that protecting life and physical integrity are positive obligations of States under the ECHR. He stressed the difficulties in defining the scope of such positive obligations under the ongoing crisis, giving the limited effect of local responses and the undoubted need for transfrontier cooperation.
Concerning measures adopted by Member States restricting liberty and movement with the aim to meet their positive obligations, President Sicilianos indicated that, under the current circumstances, they have a legitimate aim and, in view of the seriousness of the health crisis, they seem to be proportionate in most cases. However, he stressed that such measures must be temporary and lifted as soon as possible.
The President of the ECtHR also addressed the need to provide accurate information and to avoid panic. However, he recalled that measures affecting the right to impart or to receive information must be proportionate.
Specific mention was made of rights covered by the right to private and family life, such as the ban to attend funerals of relatives due to health risks. President Sicilianos stressed the need for such measures to be justified by medical reasons, not to be arbitrary, and to respect procedural rights of those affected.
Concerning the closure of schools and other educational centres, it was stressed that although the measures adopted seem to be justified, measures must be taken to mitigate their impact on the right to education. In a similar vein, the President of the ECtHR recalled that mitigating measures must be adopted as regards measures affecting the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time and the right to access to a Court, in particular through the use of new technologies.
President Sicilianos made specific mention of the derogation clause in Article 15 ECHR and to the intention of several States to make use of it under the ongoing crisis. He admitted that there are reasons for and against the use of such a mechanism, recalled that in no circumstances can it be used to curtail fundamental rights, and stressed that States considering this possibility can benefit from the technical advice of the Secretariat of the Council of Europe.
The speech is available here.