Covid-19: UN Human Rights Office concerned by excessive force, death reports during SA lockdown

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office has raised concerns about the use of excessive force in several countries, including South Africa, as governments enforce lockdowns in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19.

On Monday, Georgette Gagnon, director of field operations and technical cooperation for the UN Human Rights Office, highlighted the "heavy handed" and "highly militarised" law enforcement response to Covid-19 in several countries, including the Phillipines and Sri Lanka.

Gagnon also noted that the human rights office had received "reports of disproportionate use of force by security officers" in South Africa.

"We've received reports of disproportionate use of force by security officers, particularly in poor and informal settlements," said Gagnon.

"Rubber bullets, tear gas, water guns and whips have been used to enforce social distancing in shopping lines…and outside their homes".

According to Gagnon, 17 209 people have been arrested in South Africa for breaking lockdown regulations.

Unacceptable response

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) was investigating complaints of "murder, rape, assault, discharge of firearms and corruption," Gagnon said.

"Again, the South African government has opened investigations into the [police's] excessive use of force to enforce lockdowns."

When asked about the deaths reported in African countries, Gagnon noted that IPID had received at least "39 complaints against police for murder, rape, assault, discharging of firearms and corruption related to enforcement of COVID measures, as part of what some have called this toxic lockdown culture".

The message came after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet emphasised that emergency powers "should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power".

"Shooting, detaining, or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response.

"So is making it difficult or dangerous for a woman to get to hospital to give birth. In some cases, people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them," she said.

IPID investigations

Just a week into South Africa's nationwide lockdown, IPID reported that it was investigating three deaths, allegedly at the hands of police.

The family of Collins Khosa from Alexandra, who was allegedly beaten to death by law enforcement during the lockdown, will approach the High Court in a bid to force government to intervene in the alleged heavy-handedness.

This followed the dismissal of their application for direct access to the Constitutional Court last week.

"This case is about civilians being murdered, tortured and subjected to other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment during the nationwide lockdown," court papers read.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the comments of Georgette Gagnon more accurately.

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