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COVID-19: “No excuse for impunity for those convicted of crimes against humanity” – UN expert on transitional justice

29 April 2020

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GENEVA (29 April 2020) – Urgent measures to protect against COVID-19 in overcrowded jails should not lead to impunity for persons convicted in many countries for serious violations of human rights, crimes against humanity, genocide, or war crimes.

“Existing international law prohibits the adoption of measures that create, de jure or de facto, impunity for persons convicted of such crimes,” today said the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Fabián Salvioli.

“Measures such as amnesties, pardons, exemptions from criminal liability, and benefits in the enforcement of sentences are null and void, and have no legal effect,” said Salvioli, who has just published detailed guidelines to Governments on the issue. “Humanitarian pardons can only be granted in cases of terminal illness of imminent resolution.”

In the context of a pandemic such as COVID-19, where the risk of contagion endangers the health and life of the population, he recalled that “States have a greater duty to prevent violations of the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, avoiding overcrowding and ensuring hygiene and sanitation in prisons and other detention centres.”

However, the UN expert on transitional justice noted that these individuals usually enjoy conditions of detention established for security reasons that avoid mass contact, which places them at an advantage in terms of safety and health compared to other persons deprived of their liberty.

“In the current health emergency,” he said, “once general measures have been implemented to avoid overcrowding of the prison population, if the problem of possible overcrowding of persons imprisoned for committing such crimes persists, it is recommended to relocate them to another prison facility where they have safe and healthy detention conditions.”

“If this is impossible, temporary house arrest should be granted, with appropriate controls,” the UN expert said. “However, the individuals must return to prison once the emergency situation has passed, to serve the remainder of their prison term.”


Mr. Fabián Salvioli (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 as the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. He is a human rights lawyer and professor. Salvioli is professor of International Law and Human Rights at the School of Law of the University of La Plata. He has lectured in many countries and universities across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. Salvioli has authored several books and articles on international human rights law. He was member of the UN Human Rights Committee between 2009 and 2016, and its President between 2015 and 2016.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9445 / [email protected])

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