Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: Gulf Center for Human Rights 

April 9, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many human rights organisations have been formulating a policy response. While I cannot be complete or undertake comparisons, here the position of Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) posted on 8 April 2020 in Global Voices:

COVID19 cases in the MENA region have led governments to institute containment and other measures to slow the spread the highly contagious coronavirus. These measures have especially targeted some of the most vulnerable groups such as human rights defenders in prison, migrant workers and independent media. The Gulf Center for Human Rights have tracked how some of these measures have seriously impacted the overall human rights situation in the region.

Below is GHCR’s brief human rights review of COVID-19’s impact on the MENA region:

1. Detained human rights defenders

The reality is that most human rights defenders are still in prison in the MENA region at a time when governments including those of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt released some prisoners as part of preventive measures to contain the spread of the virus. With the spread of COVID-19, the lives of jailed human rights defenders are at imminent risk in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and other countries that have crowded prisons lacking minimum health standards. Among those currently imprisoned are Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, founding directors of the GCHR, serving a life sentence and five years in jail, respectively. In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor has been held in solitary confinement for three years, serving a 10-year jail sentence for his human rights activism, including peacefully expressing his views on social media. In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights activist Lugain al-Hathloul also remains in prison.

2. Access to information and shutting down newspapers

Most governments in the MENA region are not releasing the actual numbers of cases of those infected with the virus and also making it very difficult for journalists to have access to reliable information about the spread, treatment, and the victims of COVID-19. Also, journalists who are providing factual information about the crisis to citizens are at risk.

….In Oman, on March 22, 2020, the Supreme Committee for Dealing with COVID-19 ordered all newspapers, magazines, and other publications to cease printing and circulating, according to the Times of Oman, which published the committee’s order. The order also prohibited the sale and circulation of newspapers, magazines and publications imported into the country. In Morocco, that same day, the minister of culture, youth and sports, Hassan Abyaba, announced in a statement the suspension of the publication and distribution of print newspapers until further notice. Also, in Jordan, on March 17, 2020, the Jordanian Council of Ministers suspended the publication of all newspapers for two weeks, according to an official statement by the Jordanian Communications Minister Amjad Adaileh. Newspapers continued to be suspended due to the quarantine and the government’s demand for citizens to stay in their homes.

3. Draft law threatened freedom of expression in Tunisia

4. Temporary imprisonment for spreading rumours in UAE

On April 1, 2020, the Gulf News, a daily English-language newspaper based in Dubai, published an article that says that “people who circulate rumours may be jailed for one year if they spread false information.” It is now possible that COVID-19 could be used as a pretext to imprison some of the bloggers and Internet activists who are targeted by the State Security Apparatus (SSA).

5. Location-tracking applications

Some Gulf states such as Bahrain are using location-tracking technologies which would enable the full detection of the movement of citizens. There are concerns that the use of these applications in countries widely known for gross and documented violations of human rights will allow them to place greater restrictions on personal freedoms.

6. Xenophobia against migrant workers in the Gulf

…..Reports that GCHR received from various Gulf countries confirmed that migrant workers are not given equal access to medical care and they are facing some difficult time at the moment, as many of them already live and work in poor conditions. Authorities across MENA could help stop the spread of COVID-19 by freeing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public — but rather are at great risk themselves. While detained, authorities must uphold the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners to provide basic healthcare and sanitation for all. It is also important to allow visits from UN experts and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

https://advox.globalvoices.org/2020/04/08/impact-of-covid-19-containment-measures-on-human-rights-and-civil-liberties-in-the-middle-east/

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