Put human rights at the heart of COVID-19 response

The government must not abandon basic rights in these trying times. It should use human rights to guide their course of action – this is how we will get through this together.

Preethi Bhardwaj

As the government prepares to enforce further measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Amnesty International Malaysia calls on the authorities to put human rights at the heart of its prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts.

“Human rights save human lives. Rights should be protected without discrimination in the COVID-19 response and should not be sidelined during the imposition of emergency measures,” said Preethi Bhardwaj, Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

“Measures taken should be temporary, necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory, and not result in arbitrary restrictions.”

Malaysia has currently recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia.

Prioritize those most at risk

“There must be sufficient measures to protect the health of groups and people who are most at risk,” said Bhardwaj. “Treatment for COVID-19 must be administered to all persons without discrimination, scientifically and medically appropriate, and of good quality.”

Certain groups of people are especially vulnerable to the virus or may not be able to adequately take preventative measures on their own. These include the elderly, those with disabilities, those with pre-existing medical conditions, and those living in poverty. Authorities should deploy measures to protect them regardless of identity or immigration status – including those in detention, irregular migrants and the country’s thousands of stateless peoples.

“The government has to ensure that each and every single group is accounted for and afforded adequate healthcare to minimise the threat of the virus,” said Bhardwaj.

Emergency powers must be proportionate

Powers under the nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) and to address the spread of misinformation when it comes to COVID-19 should be necessary and proportionate.

“The powers afforded to law enforcement should be checked so that the military and police force protect, and do not abuse human rights,” said Preethi Bhardwaj.

“Sufficient steps need to be taken to make sure the public is aware of the reasons for restrictions and are sufficiently supported to do so. The penalty of imprisonment for breaching quarantine is disproportionate and should be revised.”

Since the MCO came in, there have been statements made by government officials telling Malaysians not to question the powers of the police and military enforcing the order, and authorising them to use “whatever means required,” including force, to ensure the public complies. Those who breach quarantine can face fines of up to RM 1000 or up to six months in jail. The authorities have also used other laws that carry stricter punishments to go after the public.

Given the elevated risks of transmission of COVID-19 in places of detention, using prison sentences to enforce quarantine restrictions in the name of safeguarding public health is counterproductive and therefore disproportionate.

Ensure freedom of expression

Criminal investigations and charges against individuals who have spread “fake news” about COVID-19, brought under the Communications and Multimedia Act and Penal Code, should also be dropped. These laws have overly broad provisions, opening the possibility of arbitrary use by the government.

“Amnesty International Malaysia has long called for the abolition of draconian provisions that restrict free speech. Criminally charging disseminators of misinformation on Coronavirus using these provisions is a clear violation of freedom of expression, and we urge the government to drop these charges,” said Bhardwaj.

“The government must not abandon basic rights in these trying times. It should use human rights to guide their course of action – this is how we will get through this together.”


On 16 March, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced a Movement Control Order (MCO) that would take effect from 18 March until 31 March. Malaysians were told to stay at home; social and religious gatherings were prohibited; and educational institutions and businesses were shut down apart from essential services. On 25 March, the MCO was extended by another two weeks until 14 April. The government has announced that the second phase of the MCO will begin on April 1, and see stricter rules being enforced by the authorities.

On 20 March 2020, Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob warned citizens not to question the powers of the police and military. The Ministry of Defence also did the same, in posts on its official Twitter account.  On 25 March 2020, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Takiyuddin Hassan said law enforcement agencies could use “whatever means required” against members of the public who fail to adhere to the MCO. Since the start of the MCO, more than 1000 people have been arrested under various laws.

So far, at least 11 people have been charged for spreading “fake news” about COVID-19 under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and Section 505 of the Penal Code. The government has listed examples of fake news including claims that veterans will assist the Defence Ministry in enforcing the RMO, that the military are authorised to use physical force against the public, the claim of a Covid-19 prevention guide by Japanese doctors and a claim that the Health Ministry is requesting for donations.

Those found guilty face a maximum fine of RM50,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both under the CMA, or a maximum of two years of imprisonment or a fine or both under the Penal Code.