IBAHRI urges President Nayib Bukele not to disregard the rule of law in El Salvador amid Covid-19 pandemic

Thursday 9 April 2020

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In an open letter to the President of El Salvador, Mr Nayib Bukele (pictured), the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has called on him to take action to uphold the rule of law and respect fundamental human rights whilst measures are taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Co-signed by IBAHRI Co-Chairs, the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG and Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, the letter was penned in response to reports of President Bukele’s arbitrary measures taken as part of the lockdown imposed on El Salvador on 21 March.

In a separate statement, International Bar Association (IBA) President, Horacio Bernardes Neto, said: ‘The situation in El Salvador is of concern. While certain measures are necessary to curb the spread of COVD-19, there has been a severe disregard for the rule of law.’ He added, ‘As the world faces an unprecedented crisis, the IBA is committed to continuing to defend the rule of law, and, with the cooperation of independent journalists around the globe, will highlight unnecessary and disproportionate disruptions to the administration of justice.’

As of 7 April, it is reported that over 850 people have been unnecessarily detained in containment centres for breaching lockdown. It has also been communicated to the IBAHRI that the Minister of Justice and Public Security made a statement threatening citizens who break domiciliary quarantine with being taken to a detention centre where they ‘might catch COVID-19.’ Furthermore, there are more than 4,000 citizens who are unable to return to El Salvador due to travel restrictions imposed by the government. Some of those who returned before the travel ban are being held in proper sanitary conditions in hotels, while others have been sent to detention facilities where conditions are not fit for mass confinement as they lack access to hygiene amenities, food or water.

While acknowledging ‘the efforts being made by the Government of El Salvador to restrain the spread of the coronavirus disease’, the IBAHRI urges President Bukele to fulfil the demands from El Salvador’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, including ensuring that those quarantined are treated with dignity and that they are returned to their homes in cases of continued lockdown. In the open letter, the Co-Chairs state: ‘The IBAHRI urges El Salvador to release those in arbitrary detention and immediately provide those detained with access to essential provisions.’ They continue: ‘Whilst certain emergency measures are required to secure the public health of citizens, these measures should be proportionate, temporary and guaranteeing respect for an individual’s human rights. The rule of law must prevail throughout times of crisis and it is imperative the El Salvadorian government upholds the decisions enacted by the Supreme Court.’ At the time of writing, some people have been released but many remain in detention.

photograph by PresidenciaSV, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

In addition, the IBAHRI calls on President Bukele to ensure efficiency in distribution of governmental subsidies, and condemns the reported use of pepper spray by the police to disperse crowds who had gathered to receive financial aid in light of the pandemic. Such action is in violation of Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which states that in time of public emergency, measures to restrict fundamental freedoms can only be undertaken in a manner that is not inconsistent with other obligations under international law. This is also a violation of the Siracusa Principles, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984, which state that emergency restrictions during a health crisis should be least intrusive to achieve the objective. Detention of persons in containment centres is a breach of human rights guaranteed under Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

In the letter, the IBAHRI also underlines the importance of the right to freedom of information and expression at this critical time. Following an emergency declaration by the President, journalists were excluded from the right to circulate as they were not considered essential workers. Whilst initially instated restrictions on the press have now been lifted, the IBAHRI has received reports that journalists who criticise the government are facing attacks on social media platforms – fundamentally opposing the right to freedom of expression without threat of persecution.

Regarding this matter, the Co-Chairs state: ‘The IBAHRI is committed to defending a vibrant free press. The right to freedom of information and expression at this time becomes even more crucial. These fundamental rights are essential pillars upholding the rule of law. It is of great concern to see the attacks made on social media platforms against journalists who speak out against the government’s actions. The Public Attorney for the defence of human rights in El Salvador has denounced this, including the restrictions on asking questions at informative press conferences regarding COVID-19, and reports that the National Civic Police and Army have been “destroying journalistic material”. This is far from a proportionate measure implemented to protect the health of El Salvador’s citizens, but an arbitrary measure implemented under the guise of this global crisis to extend the government’s power.’


Notes to the Editor

  1. IBAHRI Co-Chair The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG was a Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009) and has previously held international posts including as Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee on North Korea (2013-2014).
  2. IBAHRI Co-Chair Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc is the Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association (2000-2019) and has held a number of assignments including as an ad hoc judge of the European Court of Justice.
  3. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), an autonomous and financially independent entity, works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

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