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COVID-19, Human Rights, and Human Rights Defenders

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a serious global health crisis that has already caused several hundred thousand deaths worldwide and continues to be a threat to our health and livelihoods.

Millions have been, and millions more will be, infected. Measures to contain the spread of the virus are vital, but they also bear potential for new risks. Public health aims can justify temporary restrictions to certain rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of peaceful assembly. Advice by medical authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), and government officials should be followed to protect the population, in particular those who are most at risk because of age, pre-existing conditions, or other factors. 

Unfortunately, we are observing a worrying trend in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region, as well as globally: under the pretext of combating the COVID-19, human rights are unduly restricted in various ways. DefendDefenders stresses that States continue to be duty bearers and to hold obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. Any restrictions to rights must be temporary, lawful, non-discriminatory, strictly necessary, and proportionate to the threat. They must not outlast the pandemic. 

Serious violations have also been reported in relation to governments’ handling of the crisis, including police brutality in enforcing the lockdown (including beatings and killings), failure to take protection measures for prison inmates, and censorship and intimidation of those, including journalists, who report information not in line with, or challenging, official narratives. States of the sub-region have also failed to take measures to combat incitement to hatred and violence, in particular against LGBTI persons, and to acknowledge the surge in gender-based violence, in particular domestic and intimate partner violence, that has accompanied confinement measures. 

We encourage all human rights defenders who need emergency protection to reach out to us via [email protected] or our 24/7 emergency phone line on +256 783 027 611. This line is also available on signal.  

Specific information and resources on the relationship between COVID-19 and human rights are available below. We will update this compilation, which is by no means exhaustive, regularly.


  • Human rights experts, including the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special procedures appointed by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), have been publishing analyses of, and recommendations on, the relationship between COVID-19 and human rights. This includes (1) respecting human rights while fighting the pandemic; (2) paying attention to the risks facing specific groups who are disproportionately affected by measures taken in response to the crisis; (3) exposing violations committed under the pretext of combating the pandemic, including against critical and independent voices; and (4) building resilience and solidarity and placing human rights at the centre of post-COVID-19 societies. Press releases, briefing notes, and reports are available at the Office of the UN High Commissioner’s (OHCHR) website:
  • OHCHR continues to provide guidance on COVID-19 and human rights, categorised by topic and target group:
  • “Safety, Security, & Well-being during COVID-19,” a DefendDefenders publication containing security Guidelines for HRDs:
  • A comprehensive “Human Rights Checklist” compiled by Human Rights Watch for decision-makers:
  • Our partner CIVICUS’s “Civic Space Monitor” now includes regular updates on COVID-19 and civic space issues:
  • ISHR has been monitoring UN guidance on the crisis and advocated for State action to be human rights compliant and protect HRDs:
  • Front Line Defenders has documented the impact of COVID-19 on HRDs worldwide:
  • The International Press Institute has monitored media freedom violations amid the COVID-19 crisis:
  • The Human Rights and Democracy Network has compiled resources to help guide crisis responses, monitor, inform and assess the impact of COVID-19:

On the African continent

  • The African Union’s (AU) Africa CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) has made available a COVID-19 cases tracker for Africa:
  • AU resources are available at:

DefendDefenders COVID-19 Updates

  • DefendDefenders continues its advocacy work. Although its 66th ordinary session (ACHPR66) has been postponed, we just submitted a bi-annual report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, highlighting, among other issues, human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for governments of the sub-region to respect human rights while combating the pandemic. At the HRC, which has suspended its 43rd session (HRC43), we join forces with partners, including members of the HRCnet network, in highlighting the need for a human rights-based approach to COVID-19. We participated in the first-ever online conversation with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and continue to engage the HRC, as a President’s statement (similar to a resolution) is due to be discussed in May 2020 to outline the UN’s top human rights body’s response to the crisis.

  • Our research work also takes the crisis and its impact on HRDs into account. Travels are suspended for the time being, but desk-research, monitoring, analysis of key regional trends, as well as remote interviews with HRDs and sources of information,
    continue during this period. This year, DefendDefenders will publish several research reports.

  • Lastly, our Capacity-Building and IT (DefendersTech) departments continue their work, focusing in particular on providing HRDs of the sub-region with the tools and expertise they need to pursue their work, including digital security and other online tools.
  • Statements & open letters: