At least six European countries have announced plans to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights, (ECHR), invoking the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Critics, however, fear that this sends the wrong political signal.
Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova and Romania have notified the Council of Europe (CoE) of their intention to derogate from the human rights treaty under Article 15, which allows signatories to derogate from the convention in times of a “public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”
In the meantime, the press in Sofia announced that Bulgaria has also asked for a similar derogation.
“It is absolutely the right of the country to do so, and the Council of Europe has an obligation to inform the other” countries of such a notification, Daniel Holtgen, CoE spokesperson told EURACTIV on Friday (20 March).
“However, we see that most measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are already covered by the Convention and therefore, we are not currently actively encouraging or even obliging member states to make such notification,” he added.
Some provision of the treaty, such as the one on the freedom of assembly already provide exceptions to maintain public order and public health.
“Therefore, it is evident that an exception is possible without a derogation under Article 15,” Holtgen said and added that “this does not exclude the possibility that measures could be taken which are not covered by the Convention, they would then would have to be duly notified.”
However, derogation is not possible from the ban on the death penalty, torture and forced labour.
The spokesperson emphasised that while measures that are already covered by the convention do not necessitate a formal notification, they are “a sign of respect for the convention and the Council of Europe.”
Critics, however, fear that the announced derogations are a damaging move.
“It is a very dangerous precedent and at the same time a very weak political signal to first think of a situation where you intend to derogate from the ECHR,” said Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu from the centrist Renew Europe group, pointing out that countries with weak human rights records, such as Turkey, are “frequent claimers” of the derogation.
Strugariu also condemned the lack of transparency and communication from the part of the Romanian government.
“We don’t know what is the purpose of the notification because they provided no explanation,” the parliamentarian said and stressed that other European states that introduced strict measures to contain the epidemic, such as France, have not submitted a notification.
“We should keep our minds clear in situations like this, because we need safeguards,” said Strugariu. “I am really afraid that very many of these measures and attempts are actually to limit freedom of information and freedom of the media, which are essential right now.”
Some European states are currently considering introducing increased penalties for spreading misinformation during the pandemic.
Under the draft text of a law currently being considered by the Hungarian parliament, spreading “false fact or true facts distorted in a way” that could “impede or thwart” the effectiveness of defence measures against the coronavirus becomes punishable by one to five years of imprisonment.
On Sunday, (22 March), Bulgarian President Rumen Radev vetoed proposed amendments to the penal code that would have imposed a fine of more than €5,000 and jail terms of up to three years for spreading “false information” about an epidemic, fearing the consequences for free speech.
“I cannot understand the reasons behind any suspension of the implementation of the ECHR during the challenging times we are living,” said French MEP Nathalie Loiseau (Renew).
“We are fighting a pandemic. Let us not hurt ourselves by letting the virus of authoritarianism sneak and spread.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]