Coronavirus versus human rights: an interview with Pavel Chikov

18 March 2020

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Медиазона

The closure of Europe, the absence of laws and the duplicity of the authorities in Russia, the ethical dilemma and the dispersal of computer clubs – the editor-in-chief- of the media outlet Mediazona Sergei Smirnov asked the head of the human rights group Agora, Pavel Chikov, about what is happening to human rights during the pandemic.  

Is the closure of borders inside the European Union a crisis of the EU itself? Is this a violation of human rights? How are the events to be understood from a human rights perspective?

We have to start with the fact that the world has never faced such a threat before. At least, European civilisation in the post-war years, when we have a universal system of human rights, the Council of Europe, European communities and the European Union that is based on them. As we haven’t encountered this before, it follows that there’s nothing to really compare it with. The outbreaks [of epidemics] in South-East Asia and Africa were more local; they didn’t affect Europe or the USA. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, it has to be said that this is not an EU crisis. This is a broadly justified reaction to a threat to public health. Health is a public value and the authorities have a duty to protect the life and health of the population. Therefore the measures are justified, the authorities in the EU and in Russia are obliged to take them. The European Union still has a single territorial area, common borders. The measures would inevitably affect the EU as a whole, not excluding the measures taken by national authorities. Are there restrictions on human rights here? Yes, there are. The question is one of their adequacy, appropriateness, proportionality etc. A question of balance.

Let’s compare the measures taken in the EU and in Russia. You have criticised the forcible hospitalisation of people in Russian hospitals, but really this is the authorities taking care of the health of their citizens.

Yes, that’s right. We haven’t said that forced hospitalisation is unjustified. We have said that forced hospitalisation is not based on law. Because there is not a single federal law that allows you to hospitalise people who are suspected of having coronavirus. Legislation provides for hospitalisation in only a few cases. Firstly, mental disorder, provided a person might pose a threat to his own health or that of others, based on a court decision. And there’s a separate law about that. Secondly, active tuberculosis, if a person poses a threat to his own health and to the lives of others. Again this is based on a court decision on individual cases : Ivanov, Petrov, Smirnov, Chikov. There must be a court hearing and a decision. With a right to defence, a chance to appeal, a review of the decision.

Well, and the third instance is drug addiction. The method by which you are treated, or you are put in jail. A provision which is in any case uncertain in Russia. And by the way, when it comes to tuberculosis this is only the case in law, it’s not generally applied in practice. There is a requirement that the deprivation of liberty be based on law – that is a general standard of human rights. You can’t deprive a person of their liberty on the basis of a decree from the Mayor of Moscow or a decision of the chief doctor at a hospital, as is now being done in Moscow. After a month and a half they have realised that individual decisions are needed. And not a mass order to deprive everyone who has come from China or Europe of their freedom. That’s not really right.

It’s clear that in the context of such a rapidly developing situation it’s hard to immediately adopt all the needed regulatory standards and requirements. On the other hand, our Constitution is changing faster than the time elapsed since the start of the coronavirus epidemic. It would have been possible to take adopt all the measures if there had been the desire to do so. In addition, we need to understand which people to hospitalise. Take the first cases in St Petersburg, Anna Ilyina for example. She had no symptoms, and she’d had all the tests done. The only reason for hospitalisation was that she had come back from China. But this was clearly insufficient grounds for hospitalisation. There needs to be a reference to a law, and it must have been passed. We still don’t have a single federal regulatory law or presidential degree. The epidemic has been developing since the autumn of last year, and has been in its active phase for two months already. This is why the authorities are being criticised.

We wrote a story for MediaZona about Central Asia saying the mayor of Bishkek went to a computer club and reprimanded children who were violating the quarantine. You wrote on Twitter that he did the right thing.

Well, I said that because my son also likes to play computer games — excessively, in my opinion as a father. Breaking up these computer clubs is good outside the context of the epidemic.

Okay. But is that not a violation of the children’s right to leisure?

When they’re at home, they can be monitored and limited. But when they’re out all night at a computer club, there’s no monitoring or limitation. It’s harmful to their health.

Okay, then let’s consider freedom of assembly. Many of us in Russia, it seems to me, have good reason to believe that all these bans on meetings are happening at a time when the Constitution is effectively being overridden. And the authorities are thinking about the possibility of protest. How do freedom of assembly and freedom of protest relate to quarantine?

Restrictions on freedom of assembly are also possible for the same reasons: protecting public health. But the thing is, if you limit assembly because of an epidemic, then you must also suspend all political proceedings. Including those related to changes in the country’s constitution. Because depriving people of the opportunity to protest and express their political perspectives, their disagreement or agreement with political events — that’s a natural right of people. To prohibit them from expressing this point of view with one hand, while making changes to the constitution on the sly with the other, it’s unwarranted. They should have put the brakes on the entire political process, as did Nikol Pashinyan, the President of Armenia, for example. He postponed a referendum on the Constitution. The same exact process is happening there.

But there’s no point in griping about this. Let them do as you wrote on Facebook. All the actions the government is taking will delegitimize these changes. The lack of public discussion and our inability to protest regarding the constitutional changes are an additional reason for recognizing these changes as illegitimate in the future and for a rollback — restoring the status quo. Why? Because people didn’t even have the basic ability to speak out. And there’s a whole list of other things: about the Constitutional Court, Valentina Tereshkova, space flight, and automatic voting machines.

On the other hand, pro-government mass events have also been canceled. Including events supporting the elections on April 22.

But that’s what I said. Suspend the process, don’t continue with the constitutional changes. This is illegal, it’s wrong. And it undermines the basic right of the people to participate in how governmental affairs are managed.

It’s illegal in terms of the letter of the law, or it’s illegal in the spirit of the law?

It’s illegal from the perspective of violations of human rights standards on freedom of political expression. The Constitution expressly states that citizens have the right to participate in the management of state affairs in person or through representatives. Now we are being forbidden from it in person. We are also forbidden through representatives, but that’s more complicated.

Restrictions on rights and freedoms must be based in law. And they must be reasonable. They cannot ban single-person protests. They cannot ban opposition rallies and at the same time host large sports events, carry out voting, and have a Victory Parade. They cannot organize racist raids to capture Chinese people; they cannot ban going out for groceries or taking out the trash.

Small- and medium-sized businesses are about to face a host of problems. If the authorities ban catering, tourism, cultural events, sports, hobby groups, and recreational classes for a month, or two, or three, this will hit all sectors. Many people have debt, they have rental agreements, they need to pay salaries. The damages will be colossal. Right around the corner from the high tourism season, which is on the verge of collapse. We also need to understand how many businesses are in a dead gray zone, and how many people will lose their income. The government will be obligated to help them, to compensate for their losses and for the losses of the banks, which will have to grant extensions and provide deferment and payment holidays.

Translated by Anna Bowles and Nina dePalma

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