Americas: Authorities must protect people from COVID-19 instead of resorting to repressive measures

Authorities across the Americas must avoid resorting to repressive and overreaching measures that unduly restrict human rights in the name of “protecting” people from COVID-19, Amnesty International said today, after its Crisis Evidence Lab and regional experts verified almost 60 incidents in the region over the past seven weeks that point to governments using arbitrary, punitive and repressive tactics.  

“The footage we have verified from across the Americas since late March provides worrying indications that governments are reverting to the kinds of repression we documented in 2019 and earlier, but this time to enforce pandemic-related public health measures,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International’s researchers and its Crisis Evidence Lab have verified videos that show the use of detention as a first rather than last resort; excessive and unnecessary use of force in the enforcement of COVID-19 lockdowns; and the imposition of mandatory quarantines in inhumane conditions. The videos suggest that people living in poverty, people who are homeless, and migrants and refugees are more likely to be impacted by these punitive measures.

“While COVID-19 affects us all, it does not affect us all in the same way. Many of those who face repression in the Americas are marginalized people who need access to food, healthcare and other necessities, not criminalization and ill-treatment. Governments are mistaken if they think repressive measures will protect people from the disease,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Detention used as a first resort to policing lockdowns

Since early April, many countries in the Americas have declared states of emergency and implemented quarantines and/or curfews with the aim of halting the spread of COVID-19. While restrictions have varied, some countries are resorting to coercive approaches to enforce the restrictions, including the use of detention and other penalties as a first rather than last resort in policing these measures.

For example, authorities in the Dominican Republic, have imposed a state of emergency and curfew since March. According to reports from the National Police, law enforcement made an estimated 27,000 detentions between 8 April to 7 May, allegedly for non-compliance with the evening curfew implemented. Amnesty International is concerned about the authorities’ decision to detain people solely for breaching restrictions imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when there is little public and accessible information regarding the conditions in which they are being detained. It is also unclear whether those detained have access to a lawyer and other due process guarantees. We wrote to the authorities requesting further information.

The videos verified suggest that Dominican police have been routinely rounding up people and detaining them without physical distancing for failing to wear masks. Authorities often use unnecessary force during detentions, a trend Amnesty International documented while investigating the repeated arbitrary arrest of women sex workers and young people in previous reports on the country.

Similarly, authorities in El Salvador have detained thousands of people for alleged home quarantine violations in government “containment centres” since March. Amnesty International has reviewed legal documents that challenge such detentions and state that some people were detained after leaving their homes simply to buy food or medicine.

Amnesty International has verified further videos from Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic in which police appear to stop or detain individuals on their way to get food and other basic items.

Even during times of emergency, states have an obligation to prohibit arbitrary detentions. Penalties for non-compliance with restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 must be the last resort and need to be proportionate to protect public health. Instead of simply relying on punitive measures to enforce the restrictions, governments should prioritize measures that empower and support people to comply with restrictions, including policies to guarantee that everyone can access food and other necessities. This is especially important as many people in these countries live day-to-day and have no alternative than to breach the restrictions. Evidence from previous public health emergencies has shown that coercive enforcement approaches, including criminalization, can be counterproductive, and have a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups.

Ill-treatment as punishment for breaking lockdowns

Other videos that Amnesty International verified show police making frequent use of humiliating and degrading punishment against people for breaking lockdowns.

This example from Venezuela shows a trend repeated in multiple countries including Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.

In Argentina, Amnesty International verified a video in which the police beat a homeless person supposedly for being in the street during the lockdown. In the context of COVID-19, governments must provide facilities for people who are homeless to self-isolate if needed and ensure that no one is left vulnerable to catching the disease.

In late April, authorities in El Salvador published videos on social media of the inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees reportedly belonging to criminal organizations. The authorities implemented punitive measures in places of detention, including 24-hour-a-day confinement, solitary confinement of some alleged leaders of criminal organizations, and the suspension of their communication with the outside world. According to the UN, such measures risk exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.

Indications of unlawful use of force against people protesting lack of food, water and medicine

In April, the World Food Program warned of possible famines of “biblical proportions” due to the economic impact of COVID-19, and named ten countries, including Haiti and Venezuela, as most at risk. Amnesty International has seen people protesting their lack of access to food, water and sanitation in several countries during the pandemic.

In Venezuela, where a humanitarian emergency has led to almost 5 million people fleeing the country, despite the quarantine, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, during April there were 150 protests related to demands for food, and 464 calling for access to basic services including electricity, water and gas.

In some instances, like in this video from Venezuela, there have been indications of excessive and unnecessary use of force to disperse the protests, consistent with a widespread policy of repression used to silence dissent since at least 2017.

In Honduras, the NGO ACI Participa documented 106 peaceful demonstrations of people demanding food, medicine and water from local and national authorities in April. According to their reports, security forces repressed many of the protests including through the use of tear gas and firearms against peaceful protesters. 

Mandatory quarantines in inhumane conditions

Some governments have implemented mandatory quarantines, either for people who break home quarantines, as is the case in El Salvador, or for migrants, refugees and those who have returned to their country of origin, as is the case in Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay.

While authorities may legitimately impose mandatory quarantines in response to COVID-19, governments must ensure humane and non-discriminatory conditions for people subjected to those measures, enact an effective monitoring and review system that safeguards against ill-treatment, and grant those affected access to independent medical advice and legal assistance.

Instead, in multiple videos that Amnesty International has reviewed, people placed in mandatory quarantines describe being held in centers not equipped for physical distancing, or with necessities such as shelter, water and sanitation. Some report having not been tested or not having received the results of their COVID-19 test, meaning people who have not contracted the virus may be being deprived of their liberty arbitrarily in a place where they carry a greater risk of infection.

As of mid-April, in the context of COVID-19, some 6,000 Venezuelan refugees faced with informal jobs and no social security, returned from neighbouring host countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador to Venezuela, where they have been placed in approximately 97 centers to carry out forced quarantine and to face inadequate conditions and stigmatization. According to various reports, as many as 33,000 Venezuelans could have returned to the country in response to COVID-19 at the time of writing.

One video shows Venezuelans recently returned from Colombia protesting such a quarantine in the inside of an indoor stadium in Pueblo Nuevo, Tachira.

Additional material from 27 April shows that the stadium has since been cleared.

Amnesty International has raised similar concerns with authorities in Paraguay, where it has received complaints that Paraguayans returning from working in informal jobs in Brazil and other neighbouring countries have been subjected to mandatory quarantine in inadequate conditions. They alleged that they had not been tested for COVID-19, had insufficient masks and sanitary conditions, and were unable to take preventive measures, including physical distancing. Amnesty International also has concerns about a new protocol adopted on 9 May regarding mandatory quarantines and whether it lacks sufficient safeguards against human rights violations.

Another video from El Salvador, where thousands have been confined in centres with inadequate conditions, shows returned migrants battling a thunderstorm in an almost open-air shelter.

On 30 April, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations wrote to El Salvador’s president to express concern over his apparent disregard for a ruling of the Constitutional Court, which said that authorities could not deprive people of their liberty for failing to comply with the home quarantine order, and that forced confinement without evidence of symptoms or exposure to COVID-19 is unconstitutional.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

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