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HRW: Ebola Outbreak Tests Human Rights

A child looks at a man suspected of suffering from the Ebola virus, while holding his hand over his nose, in a main street and busy part in Monrovia, Liberia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. A Western Kentucky University student has developed a way to track the Ebola virus outbreak. Armin Smailhodzic developed a smartphone app that uses Twitter data to track the virus. Western says the app could predict the spread of the virus.(AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

West African governments are being urged to ensure human rights are respected as they battle the ongoing Ebola outbreak. Human Rights Watch says the response to the crisis has been slowed by ignorance, fear, denial and mistrust.

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Human Rights Watch says protecting rights is “a crucial element in controlling the unprecedented Ebola epidemic ravaging the region.”

Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher, said, “We do call on these governments to adopt a human rights framework in addressing this illness, which is creating an incredible strain on these countries, which are recovering from armed conflict in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia – and then decades of authoritarian rule in Guinea.”

She says Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have histories of corruption, abuses by security forces and media restrictions.

Dufka said the protection of health care workers is a top priority. At least 140 have died in the outbreak. She said many have raised concerns about a lack of protective suits and equipment needed when treating patients.

“We are asking that the governments step up to the plate – that [the] international community help them do that to ensure that the right they have for protection during epidemics is respected.”

Besides health professionals, Human Rights Watch said better protection is also needed for janitors, cleaning staff, drivers and burial staff.

Recently, tension filled the West Pointe neighborhood of Liberia’s capital Monrovia when it was placed under quarantine. Dufka agreed that quarantines are needed at times, but said they’re often more effective in isolated communities.

“Because quarantines necessarily address liberty and freedom of movement – as well as freedom to make livelihood – we’re asking that other measures that involve public education, working with the community, cooperative measures be used instead. These measures are really the least intrusive and restrictive available to be able to reach the same objective,” she said.

HRW said quarantines must be based on scientific evidence. And when they are imposed governments have an obligation to provide food, water and health care. It said that “quarantines imposed during this epidemic have frequently not met these standards…and have been applied arbitrarily and been overly broad in implementation.”

There’s a gender dimension to the Ebola crisis, too. UNICEF reported that women account for 55 to 60 percent of the deaths. HRW’s Dufka said it has to due with the role women play.

“Women are disproportionately represented among nurses and cleaning staff at hospitals and so on. They also care for the sick and then prepare the dead for burial. They’re also more likely to be cross-border traders. So, all of these professions and occupations leave them more vulnerable to infection.”

Dufka said governments must take steps to bridge the information gap about Ebola, which has led to fear and mistrust. This includes public education campaigns and community involvement in prevention strategies. She says that’s an obligation defined under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“Now, the local human rights community, local radios, local NGOs are doing a fantastic job at trying to educate the public. They’re using community radio. They’re using local, traditional and religious leaders. And so we’re calling on the governments to work directly with them. They already are in many places to really systematize that relationship, as well as for the international community to support these groups,” she said.

Dufka said security forces “are playing a central role” in the epidemic and are charged with enforcing quarantines. She said since the end of regional conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s they have received much training and are more accountable for their actions.

“That said -- we have been receiving reports of particularly extortion and bribe taking during periods and places of quarantine.”

Human Rights Watch called on the governments of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to adopt a zero tolerance policy when it comes to abuse by security forces.

Also, HRW said the international community must do much more to help African governments deal with the health crisis – and ensure transparency into how donor funds are being spent.