Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: Civil Rights Defenders

April 10, 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, I will try and give some examples in the course of these weeks. Here the one by Anders L. Pettersson, Executive Director of the Stockholm-based human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders (as published in the The Globe Post of 9 April 2020): “COVID-19 Is No Excuse for Governments to Abuse Human Rights”:

……But the COVID-19 pandemic is no ordinary struggle. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis with far-reaching political, economic, and social consequences. Basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of movement and assembly, are being suspended to contain the virus’ further spread. Put simply, drastic measures have to be taken, and we are entrusting our respective governments to take them.

A member of the military police wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, as he patrols the streets in Bogota, on March 25, 2020. Photo: AFP

This, however, must not be understood as a blank cheque for authoritarian leaders to tighten their grip on power. While most national constitutions, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allow for the derogation of certain human and minority rights during a state of emergency, it is “only to the extent strictly required by the situation.”

Across the world, though, numerous examples point to clear overreach of such emergency power and, more depressingly, the abuse of trust vested in governments from civil society.

Abuse of Emergency Powers

  • In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev said in an address to the nation that his political opponents are trying to use the outbreak to destroy the country, and suggested that measures to “isolate” them might be required. The prominent opposition activist Tofig Yagublu has already been arrested and sentenced to three months of pre-trial detention. He faces up to six years in prison….
  • Meanwhile, Montenegro’s government made the inexplicable move of making public the personal data – including names and home addresses – of all those obliged to be in self-isolation, a gross infringement on the right to privacy.
  • Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, also wasted no time in flexing his newfound powers. Last weekend, he casually threatened his citizens by posting a video supposedly showing Spanish police beating and chasing people down the streets, with an outrageously inappropriate message “either respect social distancing… or you will also be running.” Except, the video was from a political protest, weeks ago – in Algeria, not Spain.
  • Speaking of “fake news,” we have received reports from partners in Cambodia that over a dozen people have already been jailed, or “re-educated,” for allegedly sharing false social media posts about the pandemic – a measure that we fear is prone to be replicated across the world, not least among E.U. states.
  • Namely, Hungary’s nationalist government recently passed legislation to parliament that would punish anyone who publicizes “fake news” that interferes with the “successful defense” of public health, with up to five years in prison. [see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/07/good-example-of-authoritarian-abuse-of-covid-19-emergency-hungary/]..

Civil society, therefore, finds itself in an incredibly delicate situation.

On the one hand, there is an understanding that the severity of the crisis calls for certain limitations on our fundamental rights. Only national authorities possess the legitimacy to enforce such constraints and the capacity to tackle the virus through strict health and safety measures. We have no alternative but to trust our respective governments to navigate us, and their intentions to save lives and minimize the virus’ impact. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to protect partners across the world, whose fight for democracy and fundamental human rights will be further strained as emergency powers, enforced curfews, and restrictions on free speech come into place. Some measures may be necessary, but others are clearly not – and all must be removed once this is all over. Further, using the pandemic to harass human rights defenders or abuse the rule of law for political gains, as we are already witnessing, is simply unacceptable. We will monitor your moves, keep you accountable, and call you out when the line has been crossed – this is our duty. Widespread trust that has been vested in governments – all governments – amounts to a historic responsibility. Civil society has reached out its hand; do not let us down.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post._

One Response to “Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: Civil Rights Defenders”


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