El Salvador’s Response to Coronavirus Raises Human Rights Concerns

A blog post by Seamus McDonough, Junior Associate.

On Sunday, April 12, El Salvador’s Congress voted to extend its national state of emergency law allowing the government to prolong certain health measures taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus, despite critics’ concerns of human rights violations.[1]

Following the first registered cases of the coronavirus in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele implemented swift and strict measures to curb the spread of the virus.[2] Following President Bukele’s request, El Salvador’s Congress approved an emergency regime, which temporarily suspended some of its citizens’ constitutional guarantees such as free movement and the right to gather.[3] The President decreed a mandatory home quarantine, where one person per family is allowed out to procure food or medicine and only essential service workers can leave their homes and must carry credentials along with a letter of approval from their employer.[4] The President threatened a 30-day detention for violations of the Order.[5] These strict preventive measures have caused concerns for human rights groups, including the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).[6] Human rights organizations say the emergency regime has allowed state officials, police, and military to act arbitrarily by not applying these measures evenly to all citizens, to commit rights abuses, and to carry out illegal arrests.[7] On April 5, the President announced that the quarantine order would be extended and in effect for an additional two weeks through April 28th.[8]  The President said that security officials should be tough on people found violating the quarantine order, including seizure of their cars.[9]

The IBAHRI claims that El Salvador has unnecessarily detained more than 850 people- and that number is growing-  in containment centers for breaching lockdowns since the order took effect.[10] The IBAHRI also claims that more than 4,000 El Salvador citizens cannot return home due to the order’s stringent travel restrictions. Additionally, of the citizens who have been able to return home, some are kept in detention centers with harsh circumstances, including a lack of food, water, and hygiene products.[11] El Salvador’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice stepped in and ordered Bukele’s government to refrain from arresting people who failed to comply with the mandatory home quarantine, and prohibited confiscating cars or the property of detainees, considering both actions to be violations of citizens’ constitutional rights.[12] The IBAHRI also penned an open letter to President Bukele on April 8th urging him to rectify the human rights violations, stating:

Whilst certain emergency measures are required to secure the public health of citizens, these measures should be proportionate, temporary and guaranteeing respect for an individual’s human rights. The rule of law must prevail throughout times of crisis and it is imperative that the El Salvadorian government upholds the decisions enacted by the Supreme Court.[13]

With the April 12th vote to extend the state of emergency law another four days, the strict quarantine rules will remain in place.[14] During these four days, lawmakers have promised to work with the President to discuss a new decree that protects citizens’ constitutional rights during the quarantine, including the creation of an agency to regulate quarantine violation arrests.[15]

Other measures of the government in response to the quarantine have received praise, including measures to avoid overconsumption and price increases, support to financial institutions, and streamlined medical purchases.[16] Of the 6.5 million people in El Salvador, there have been only 125 cases of coronavirus, with six deaths.[17]

[1] Nelson Renteria, El Salvador’s congress extends national coronavirus emergency law​ (April 12, 2020, 7:03 PM),https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-el-salvador/el-salvadors-congress-extends-national-coronavirus-emergency-law-idUSKCN21U0XS​

[2] Id.

[3] Rebecca Salmacha, El Salvador extends COVID-19 state of emergency law despite human rights concerns (April 14, 2020, 6:34 PM), https://www.jurist.org/news/2020/04/el-salvador-extends-covid-19-state-of-emergency-law-despite-human-rights-concerns/


[4] MENAFN, Qatar- El Salvador warns drivers violating coronavirus rules (April 13, 2020, 6:05 PM), https://menafn.com/1100019578/Qatar-El-Salvador-warns-drivers-violating-coronavirus-rules


[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.


[10] Salmacha, supra, note 3.

[11] Id.

[12] Renteria, supra, note 1.

[13] Salmacha, supra, note 3.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

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