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Human rights cannot be a cost for eradicating Ebola

February 5, 2015 By: Aruna Kallon

Twelve years after a devastating civil war that shredded Sierra Leone apart and claimed thousands of human lives, with rank and palpable violations of human rights, including indiscriminate killings, rape, abductions, child abuse, maiming, arson attacks, etc., the country was again struck in May 2014 by the deadliest peril since the rebel war—the Ebola Virus Disease—which has by January 28, 2015 claimed over 2,850 lives. As the deracinating and unremitting spread of the disease prompted a proclamation by the President of a State of Emergency on July 30, 2014, pursuant to Section 29 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No 6 of 1991, in order “to enable us to take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak”, extraordinary measures were soon afterwards instituted by government, including a ban on public meetings and gatherings “with the exception of essential meetings relating to Ebola sensitization and education”.

These exceptional measures have led to worrisome intrusions on human rights, ranging from restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, to education, and to assembly; to infringements on the right to physical integrity through the inordinate use of force by security forces in enforcing emergency response by-laws. Thus, it quickly became sorely clear that the Ebola outbreak had ramifications reaching far beyond the human cost and the emaciation of the nation’s economy which were already excruciating.

There have been apprehensions among citizens and humanitarian agencies about persons in quarantine not receiving ample supplies of basic life necessities to cover the 21-day quarantine period. More often than is okay, there have been reports of persons breaking quarantine to go in search of food or water. Understandable! Absolutely! Yet, if government is any bit serious about re-opening schools in March or thereabouts, and if this has to be done, as many Sierra Leoneans would fancy, when we shall have recorded naught in new infections, then government and all partners in the fight against Ebola should home in on improving the living conditions of persons in quarantine and communities hardest-hit by the virus and having once been behind travel restrictions. This will not only pull the teeth out of their dire situation but will also ensure people stay in quarantine.

Healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors and burial teams, who are on the frontline of the ruthless cut and thrust of the war against the virus, have sometimes complained about inadequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), irregularities in the payment of safety allowances, and a dearth of health insurance. Also, no system has been instituted to address the welfare, including stigmatization and discrimination, of children orphaned by Ebola and Ebola survivors; and there is currently no plan for their reintegration into society.

Stigmatization of Ebola survivors and families of those who die from the disease is an increasing challenge even as desperate efforts are being made to end the epidemic. Such stigmatization is partly owing to the fact that Ebola is a new and poorly understood disease in Sierra Leone. There is therefore a serious need, now and in the post-Ebola era, for public awareness, through sensitization, to educate members of the public that Ebola survivors should not be stigmatized or discriminated against, as they are not carriers of the virus and no longer pose any threat of infecting others.

Moreover, not only have many of the government’s emergency response strategies basically encroached on the rights and liberties of citizens—both infected and uninfected—but they also seem to and sometimes actually do flout international human rights standards, thereby raising international eyebrows. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is quoted in the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) External Situation Report October 2014, as having said, while commenting on the emergency response measures being introduced by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, that “respect for the rights of survivors and affected communities are at risk of being sacrificed”. Concerns have also been expressed by international human rights organisations about failure by the governments of Ebola-hit countries, including Sierra Leone, to observe international human rights standards in their emergency response mechanisms. For example, Human Rights Watch was quoted in the same report to have noted that “some EVD quarantines had been ineffective and did not meet human rights standards, as they disproportionately impact people unable to evade the restrictions, including the elderly, the poor, and people with chronic illness or disability”.

In many parts of the country, quarantines have been imposed without evidence to support their imposition. This is regardless of valid presumptions that for quarantines to be justified under international law, they should be proportionate, time bound, undertaken for legitimate aims, strictly necessary, voluntary wherever possible, and applied in a non-discriminatory way. The Government of Sierra Leone imposed a three-day nation-wide quarantine (19th -21st September 2014), which confined individuals to their homes even when they had not yet been identified as having the virus or showing symptoms of it. This venture may have been helpful in a way, agreed; yet it ignored the international human rights standard that freedom of movement can only be legally curtailed in extreme circumstances, and that compulsory quarantine should only be imposed on a patient suspected to have an infectious illness.

Although restrictions on movement and quarantines might be necessary to tackle the spread of the disease, it should be noted that the right of all persons deprived of liberty to be treated with humanity is a non-derogable right. This is supported by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which asserts in Article 4 (1) that: “In time of public emergency…the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law….” Thus, while striving to liberate the country from the current bane, the government of Sierra Leone should always remember to keep emergency response strategies in line with the state’s obligations under international law and human rights standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many of the provisions of which, including the right to life, liberty and security of person; equal protection against any discrimination; inhuman or degrading treatment, etc., are upheld in the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone.

While it is necessary for government to use extraordinary measures to stem the spread of the virus and subsequently eradicate it, it is also extremely important that all parties to the fight against Ebola take undistorted cognizance of the international human rights road signs in the fight to eliminate the virus, no matter how desperate our approach would need to be. We just cannot afford another onslaught on the fundamental rights and freedoms of our citizens; not when all we need this time to avoid that is as simple as a resolve, which won’t break the bank, to conduct all Ebola emergency responses in a way that strong regard is had for the basic rights of the very citizens we are striving to protect.

As the sense of a let-up in new infections continues to increase our hopes of an end in sight to winning the fight against the virus, it is welcome news that the President of Sierra Leone has, in a national address on 22nd January 2015, eased district and chiefdom level restrictions on movements and on trading hours, while also stressing that no more quarantines or restrictions on movement above the household level would be imposed either by government or local authorities. I am however irked by the President’s failure to, as “Father of the Nation”, include in his message an admonition to all parties in the fight against Ebola, including security forces and law enforcement officers, to always respect the fundamental human rights of infected persons at treatment centres and persons in quarantine.

Equally, if I had 10 seconds with President Koroma before his national address I would ask him to include in his message a promise that strike actions over non-payment or unwarranted delays in the remuneration of Ebola health workers will henceforth cease to be an issue. Just recently, it was reported by Concord Times newspaper of 23rd January 2015 that: “The discharge of 28 Ebola survivors at the second Ebola Treatment Center at the Police Training School (PTS2) in Hastings,…was yesterday overshadowed by a strike action by support staff and members of the burial team”, who “…have gone without salary since mid December 2014”. Be they doctors, nurses or burial teams; in this desperate fight against Ebola, the smallest circle has as many degrees as the largest.

It is my unaffected opinion that protecting the fundamental rights and providing the basic needs of infected persons and persons in quarantine; and ensuring that uninfected persons remain healthy and live in a safe environment; that emergency health workers have indemnity; and that survivors of the disease and relatives of victims who have succumbed to the virus are comfortably reintegrated into society without being stigmatized, are as much imperative as the fight to end the epidemic.

Whatever we do, we should remember that fundamental human rights cannot be sacrificed on the altar of Ebola emergency response.

Aruna Kallon is Editor/Communications Consultant at Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, and Part-Time Lecturer in the Department of Language Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone

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