Rights and freedoms under Covid-19

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By Ced Simpson

“We are a non-political organisation focused on protecting New Zealanders’ fundamental human rights with a particular focus on freedom of speech…”

The description starts well, sounds like Amnesty International — which in 1986 published a book Voices For Freedom, an anthology “attesting to the countless men and women around the world who have raised their voices in defence of those who have been silenced” through political imprisonment, torture and killings.

But “Voices For Freedom NZ” is not talking about those voices, and has a very selective and odd interpretation of human rights. The description on their website continues by adding “health/medical freedom and all freedoms under attack from an overzealous and oppressive Covid-19 response.”

Social distancing, wearing a mask, vaccination expectations become violations of individual freedom, prompting demonstrations and largescale refusal. Misinformation about Covid-19 becomes a “right”. Much of “Voices For Freedom” literature appears to come from selective sources in the USA, where human rights often appear to be misunderstood, and take a second place to how rights were expressed in the US constitution 157 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. US constitutional rights are often more limited, and expressed and interpreted in more absolutist language than the more recent cross-culturally negotiated and internationally agreed human rights.

So what are “New Zealanders’ fundamental human rights” in the Covid-19 pandemic?

Everyone has “the right…to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” and “the steps to be taken…shall include those necessary for…the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic…diseases”  (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights article 12). 

“Everyone has the right freely…to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 27.1).

“The individual, having duties to other individuals and to the community to which he belongs, is under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance of the rights” of all (Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 29, preamble to the International Covenants on Human Rights). 

While “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression” including “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds“ but exercise of the right “carries with it special duties and responsibilities” and may be subject to restriction for a range of reasons including “public health”  (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights article 19).

These human rights are imperfectly reflected in our local law, but you can see them at work in the COVID-19 orders issued under the  Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020.

While the requirement to obtain free and informed consent to vaccination is underpinned by “the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment’ (NZ Bill of Rights Act section 11),  section 5 states that the rights covered in the Act can be subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” It is possible that orders mandating vaccination issued under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 may be seen as necessary to protect public health.

The ability of children to consent to vaccination is related to their right for “the best interests of the child [to] be a primary consideration”, and the right of the “child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the[ir] age and maturity” (Convention on the Rights of the Child articles 3.1 and 12).

We need a balanced approach to the human rights of all during the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than one based on slogans borrowed from distorted foreign hyper-individualised notions of “freedom” and “rights”. 

Postscript: In June 2021 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that leaflets printed and distributed by Voices For Freedom (V4F) were in breach of principles including social responsibility, truthful presentation, and rules governing advocacy organisations communications. In July V4F had its page removed by Facebook for spreading Covid-19 misinformation to its 12,000 followers. Its website, warning that “Our freedoms and wholesome Kiwi way of life are being stripped away from us” is still available, offering podcasts with “experts” and its “Covid-19 Response Survival Kit:Your Guide to Surviving the Madness in a COVID-crazy World”.