Positive Obligations in Crisis

Dr Natasa Mavronicola is Reader in Law at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. She has written extensively on the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. She is co-editor of Lavrysen & Mavronicola (eds), Coercive Human Rights: Positive Duties to Mobilise the Criminal Law under the ECHR, forthcoming with Hart Publishing (2020).

On the flip side of rights are wrongs. It is now indisputable that the State may wrong us as a matter of human rights law not only by actively mistreating us, but also by failing to protect us from certain harms. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) boasts a formidable jurisprudence on positive obligations borne by States to protect persons within their jurisdiction from grave threats to our life or physical or mental integrity. It is important to understand and apply these appropriately to the current crisis, particularly as positive obligations to protect life are being actively invoked, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, to justify extensive (coercive) measures across Council of Europe States.

In this short piece, focusing on positive obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), I want to underline the following: (a) the State bears positive obligations to protect, rather than coerce; (b) the State’s positive obligations do not extend to duties to act unlawfully under the Convention; and (c) positive obligations must be responsive to, and entail ancillary obligations to determine, the relevant context and risk. Continue reading