chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 08, 2022 REPORT

COVID-19 Related State of Emergency Measures: Impact and Responses

Global Protests

Global Protests

Top right: Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków (October 2020). Top left: 1,000+ people protested against the Government’s controversial proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at Devonshire Green in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England (March 2021). Middle right: International Workers’ Day & Kill the Bill demonstration in London (May 2021). Middle left: Workers protesting the year-long closure of a factory and the that previous private companies that ran the factory did not pay up to 20 monthly wages (September 2020). Bottom: Anti-government demonstrators wave Lebanese flags as they protest in their cars, amid a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus (April 2020, Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, democratic and non-democratic countries have imposed states of emergency in declared and de facto forms. According to the International Center for Non-Profit Law’s COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, 110 countries have declared a state of emergency since March 2020.

International law provides States with the ability to declare a state of emergency to respond to threats to public safety, health, or national security. Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) explicitly recognizes that, during officially declared public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation, States may derogate from some of their obligations under the ICCPR to the extent “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” In its General Comment 29, the UN Human Rights Committee has set requirements for these states of emergency. In particular, it notes that States are under obligation to ensure that measures imposed under the declared state of emergency must be proportionate, timebound, temporary, and prescribed by law. It further notes that, although international law permits restrictions on the enjoyment of certain rights in times of emergencies, including public health crises, these restrictions should meet the principles of legality, proportionality, necessity, and non-discrimination. Despite these legal obligations, during COVID-19, several governments have declared states of emergency without a time limit, and have used these states of emergency to pretextually curtail fundamental rights. Fifty-eight countries have enacted legal measures that infringe on the right to freedom of expression while 153 countries have issued orders and enacted laws that affect the enjoyment of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

COVID-19-related emergency measures have further worsened the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs). These measures have been used as “a cover for human rights violations, further restricting fundamental freedoms and civic space, and undermining the rule of law.” HRDs have been subjected to an increased level of harassment, arrests, intimidation, and criminalization for their legitimate work.

In response, several civil society actors have led initiatives to document the adverse impact of these restrictive measures on HRDs. Others have led initiatives to track these restrictive measures and assess whether they meet the ICCPR requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination. HRDs in some countries adopted innovative approaches to continue to operate and advance their human rights advocacy work. Others chose to use strategic litigation to challenge the constitutionality of states of emergency and the legality of orders and measures.

The American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights (CHR) undertook this report to analyze the impact of COVID-19 emergency measures on HRDs and explore the responses of HRDs through the use of strategic litigation and other actions to push back against disproportional restrictions related to COVID-19 states of emergency. This report captures the successes and challenges of such strategies. It examines the viability of such approaches to effectively push back against attempts to normalize restrictive measures that do not meet public health goals and maintain civic space for HRDs and other civil society actors. The report finds that the success of challenges largely hinged on the nature of the authorizing statute and scope of its enforcement. Successful legal efforts challenged the repurposing of statutes originally meant to target activity unrelated to public health or public safety. Further, in cases where litigants focused on separation of powers, courts seemed more receptive to challenges to executive measures without legislative oversight.

As the viability and success of strategic litigation largely depends on the degree of respect for rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, the report also examines non-litigation approaches adopted by civil society actors to challenge de facto measures and practices, including the deployment of military forces to enforce lockdown measures, selective or disproportionate enforcement, and police brutality. Through the formation of new coalitions, enhanced coordination with other actors, and pressure on government agencies, civil society actors successfully challenged de facto measures. Finally, the report concludes with a set of recommendations for all stakeholders to help ensure that, in the future, governments effectively respond to public health crises while protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.


In this commentary on the report, Lana Baydas, Marissa Jaime Priceman, and Sally Alghazali discuss pushing back against the normalization of COVID-19–related state of emergency restrictive measures., and note that it is time for governments to rescind repressive measures and laws, and to ensure the inclusion of civil society actors in response to the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery efforts.




On Tuesday, February 8, 2022, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights (CHR) hosted a Zoom Webinar for the launch of its report “COVID-19 Related State of Emergency Measures: Impact and Responses.” The launch event examined the findings and recommendations of the report and focus on the impact of COVID-19-related state of emergency restrictive measures on the work of human rights defenders. Panelists discussed HRDs’ effective responses to push back against the normalization of over-reaching measures that go beyond the legitimate public health goals.

  • Moderator: Marti Flacks, Senior Fellow and Director, Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Panelists:
    • Mary Lawlor, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
    • Apar Gupta, Executive Director, Internet Freedom Foundation 
    • Adrian Jjuuko, Executive Director, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum 
    • Adilet Alimkulov, Executive Director, Kyrgyz Indigo 
    • Suhad Bishara, Legal Director, Adalah
    • Lana Baydas, Senior Program Manager, ABA Center for Human Rights

The ABA Center for Human Rights would like to thank Kersty McCourt, Ken Nyaundi, Shalom M. Ndiku, and Kristie Bluett for drafting their respective chapters. It would also like to thank Howard University School of Law students: Patricia Adekunle, Leah Herring, James Lynn, Pamela Quanrud, Kathrina Mia Ruiz, and Donelle Wande for conducting preliminary research on the typology of de facto and declared state of emergency measures. Finally, it would like to thank Lana Baydas, Senior Program Manager at the Center, for leading and managing the development of the report, and Marissa Jaime Priceman, Law Fellow, Sally Alghazali, intern, and Emilia Truluck, intern, for their support in the review process.

The views expressed in the report and the commentary represent the opinions of the authors. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities.