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How to operationalise human rights for COVID-19 measures
  1. Njal Hostmaelingen1,
  2. Heidi Beate Bentzen2,3
  1. 1 Division of Health Services, Department of Global Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo, Norway
  2. 2 Faculty of Medicine, Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
  3. 3 Faculty of Law, Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, Oslo University, Oslo, Norway
  1. Correspondence to Dr Njal Hostmaelingen; njal.hostmaelingen{at}

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Summary box

  • There is an emerging awareness that governments must strike a fair balance between protecting and promoting public health on one side and individual human rights on the other.

  • Human rights could smoothly be integrated into the COVID-19 measures’ decision process.

  • Such integration will ask for human rights awareness, knowledge and accessibility.

  • Governments are responsible for fulfilling human rights, and thus also for introducing the right tools for decision-makers and implementers.

  • An easy to use human rights assessment as presented in this article could be an integral part of introducing and scaling back COVID-19 measures.


States across the world employ far-reaching measures to handle the corona virus outbreak. Time and resources are limited, and there is immense pressure to introduce effective measures and to scale them back at the appropriate time. When making these decisions, many states strive to uphold acceptable governance standards.

Universal human rights provide limits for the exercise of state authority. The human rights framework is complex and not readily accessible to anyone not specialised in human rights law. However, it is paramount that human rights are respected in the current situation. This article provides a basic how-to guide for the assessment and operationalisation of human rights for COVID-19 measures.

Human rights treaties by organisations such as the United Nations, the African Union, the Organization of American States and the Council of Europe build upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and provide well established and accepted legal boundaries for use of state power, applicable of course also when implementing virus mitigation measures.1 Human rights are legally binding on State Parties through international treaties and domestic legislation. State institutions and individuals acting on behalf of the state have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. This includes a parliament passing legislation, a public …

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