West Africa seeks to cordon off Ebola-affected area

Posted by Gabriel Armas-Cardona on August 13, 2014

As the Ebola epidemic rages on, affected States are desperate for any effective measures they can take. This situation has pushed Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to establish a cordon sanitaire, a measure not used in almost a century. A cordon sanitaire is a cordoned off area that contains an epidemic that, traditionally, no one could enter or leave until the epidemic ended. This allowed the epidemic to “burn” itself out, with the number of lives lost considered a necessary cost to ending the epidemic.

From a right to health perspective, a traditional cordon sanitaire is a clear violation of the State’s obligations. To abandon the people within the cordon sanitaire violates their right to health and right to life. This traditional approach would violate, inter alia, States’ duty to respect as they would be interfering with people’s ability to obtain food or medicine and their core obligations under the right to health, which all states must fulfill regardless of the availability of resources. Thankfully, experts recognize that the modern usage of the measure must allow food, water, and medical care to those inside.

Whether Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia will violate their right to health obligations will depend on how they implement the measure. At a minimum, they must continue to fulfill their core obligation to all people and ensure that the cordon sanitaire is the least restrictive measure the States can take to effectively combat the epidemic. Considering that the States have the support, and attention, of the entire world, they must recognize that any poorly developed or discriminatory measure will not be acceptable.

Gabriel Armas-Cardona is a Legal Officer at Lawyers Collective.