Even as the Biden administration lost its battle to impose a national COVID-19 vaccination mandate on those who work at companies with at least 100 employees, governments around the world ratcheted up their already strict coronavirus protocols. Now, a growing chorus of human rights groups warn that in some nations vaccine mandates, vaccination passports, and other government restrictions threaten to cut off the unvaccinated population’s access to basic necessities. In others, autocratic governments have selectively exploited COVID-19 restrictions to quash freedom of speech and criminalize political opposition. NGOs warn that as they are implemented by some rulers, anti-COVID measures may threaten democracy.
Against vaccination mandates
Western readers would assume mandatory vaccinations promote human rights — based on media coverage and President Biden’s talking points (to the extent the two can be separated). In reality, human rights organizations have consistently argued against government-mandated vaccinations and in favor of people’s right of choice. In a World Health Organization press conference in December 2020, Dr. Kate O’Brien said, “I don’t think we envision any countries creating a mandate for vaccination.” The UN Human Rights Council cited this press conference as it chastised the government of Cambodia last May for its vaccination mandate:
[W]e would like to bring to your attention a [World Health Organization] position of 7 December 2020, where WHO experts did not recommend mandatory vaccination. The health experts stated that [s]tates should “encourage and facilitate the vaccination without those kinds of requirements.” Persuading the population on the merits of COVID-19 vaccine would be better than making jabs mandatory. … [T]he UN Secretary General emphasizes the centrality of human rights in shaping the response to the pandemic and how any restriction placed on human rights must be necessary, reasonable, proportionate non-discriminatory and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health. The Secretary General guidance also emphasizes the need for the participation and involvement of people in making decisions that affect them to combat the pandemic.
Similarly, when Ghana’s Health Minister, Kweku Agyemang-Manu, considered instituting a system of vaccine passports to access public accommodations, the Ghana chapter of the International Human Rights Commission in Geneva responded: “Vaccination should be by choice and not by force. … [W]e think that it is advisable for the government to allow ordinary Ghanaians to decide, rather than imposing it on them.”
Against vaccination passports
The Italian chapter of Amnesty International — Amnesty International Italia — also issued a statement on January 14 which allowed for vaccination mandates but emphasized that in general, “states should focus on increasing voluntary vaccine adherence” rather than making injections compulsory.
Amnesty International’s statement has become the most widely reported criticism of COVID-19 lockdowns. It came in response to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s recent vaccination mandate for everyone over the age of 50. He also ordered that, from now until June 15, Italians cannot use public transportation, and Italians over 50 cannot go to work, without a vaccination passport, even if they wear a mask and have a recent negative test for COVID-19. He also denied access to anything but the most basic necessities to people without a “super green pass,” issued only to Italians who have had three COVID-19 shots (two vaccination shots plus a booster).
Amnesty responded that the Italian government must assure the unvaccinated can live their lives “without discrimination” in public transportation and other necessities. “The government must continue to ensure that the entire population can enjoy its fundamental rights, such as the right to education, work, and medical treatment … [They] should not be penalized,” it reads. Although the human rights organization did not question Draghi’s decision to extend the nation’s state of emergency until March 31, it urged the prime minister “to carefully reconsider whether to extend the measure beyond” that date, “as all emergency measures must respond to the principles of necessity, temporariness and proportionality.” The government first declared a “temporary,” six-month state of emergency government in January 2020 but, like “15 days to flatten the curve,” the status has taken on a life of its own.
While many will not find this statement perfectly pro-freedom, it is a stunning rebuke that even in one of the nations hardest-hit by the pandemic, government policies to fight COVID-19 can violate fundamental human rights. Obviously, nations with dubious human rights records also take advantage of COVID-19 to silence critical voices.
Eight human rights groups, including Amnesty International, also signed a statement last May accusing the Cambodian government of using COVID-19 measures to quash independent journalism. The government banned any journalist not working for the government from reporting from COVID “red zones” and classified critical social media posts as “acts of attack” that would be prosecuted. For instance, the government warned farmers against posting pictures of crops rotting in their fields because the markets were closed. These actions are another part of “the government’s systematic and relentless