Policy response by Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: WOLA

April 14, 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 am giving some examples in the course of these weeks. Here the one by WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America), as published in Reliefweb of 13 April 2020.

In the midst of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America, saving lives and reducing community transmission of the disease should be the number one priority of governments, international organizations, the business community, and civil society groups. Addressing the virus will require decisive public health interventions grounded in the best available public health recommendations. At the same time, the pandemic is having serious consequences for democracy, equality, and human rights in Latin America. Actions that are taken by governments today will have long-term impact.

Over the years, WOLA has worked with civil society partners in the aftermath of disasters, both natural and man-made. Though this pandemic is unprecedented, the lessons we’ve drawn from those experiences are clear: we cannot wait until the pandemic passes to investigate challenges to human rights, raise questions, and hold governments accountable. Some public health interventions will include infringements on key rights, like restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly. Those should be time-limited and legally grounded restrictions. Other interventions will require significant investment in health care, social safety nets, and community support and action. These should be transparent, equitable, and accountable.

While acting promptly and decisively, governments across the Americas need to protect key values like democracy and human rights.Upholding these values is critical to establishing the public trust and the social cooperation that will be required to combat this public health emergency and to move forward in the future. Otherwise, the fight against COVID-19 will not only lead to ineffective public health responses, but could further fuel anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies in the region.

Some challenges that WOLA will be monitoring in the Americas include:

Reinforcement of authoritarian tendencies

Many governments have appropriately invoked emergency powers to respond to the crisis—but their implementation has not been without concern. In El Salvador, over 1,200 people have been detained in “containment centers” for violating curfew orders, provoking debate among legal experts about the legality of such measures (the country’s Supreme Court ruled on April 8 that curfew violations do not justify arbitrary detentions by the police and military). In Honduras, the president issued a decree temporarily restricting freedom of speech rights as guaranteed in the nation’s constitution, asserting this was necessary to combat the spread of misinformation related to the pandemic; the move received strong criticism from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations. In Venezuela, the de facto Maduro government has sought to silence criticism of its response to the pandemic, harassing and detaining journalists who question official statistics.

Emergency powers need to be clearly limited; the role of legislatures and judiciaries in overseeing and reviewing the exercise of executive power should not be indefinitely suspended. These powers and roles are easy to ratchet up and hard to ratchet back down. It’s been a difficult struggle for governments and societies in the hemisphere to overcome the legacy of Cold War-era military dictatorships; backsliding needs to be avoided.

Military engagement in civilian governance

In some countries, militaries will necessarily play an important role in responding to public health emergencies given their resources, surge capacity, off-the-shelf plans, logistical capabilities, and medical facilities…….In a region still struggling to overcome a history of military dictatorships, any deployment in the current crisis must have a clear end date so that the military’s presence on the street does not become “normalized.”Whatever supporting role the armed forces may play in responding to the pandemic, the military should remain under firm civilian control.

….public health responses that need military involvement must not result in a retreat of democratic progress made over the last few decades in the region.Corruption

……The fight against corruption is a key part of restoring—or establishing—functioning democracies. In Latin America, we’ve seen a major attack on entrenched corruption in the last few years, from Peru to Mexico, and in reaction we’ve seen corrupt actors fighting to preserve their privileges and impunity in countries like Guatemala and Honduras.The need for transparency

Both to provide effective guidance to the public and to assure accountability, governments need to provide clear, consistent, and accurate information based on the best available science from health professionals about the virus and its spread. Authorities also need to be transparent about how public funds are being spent to address the crisis. Additionally, once states impose restrictions on the freedom of movement and assembly, leaders should be clear about what criteria they are using to justify implementing—and eventually lifting—these restrictions. As was highlighted in the IACHR’s resolutionon the pandemic and human rights in the Americas, governments must also refrain from restricting the work and movement of journalists and human rights defenders to provide information and document abuses that may occur in the governments’ response to COVID-19.

The spread of disinformation related to the pandemic is a particularly serious concern. Contrary to other presidents in the region, the presidents of Brazil and Nicaragua have sought to downplay the crisis and even encourage social interaction, while Mexico’s president was slow to act to promote social distancing. The situation in Brazil is particularly worrisome, with President Jair Bolsonaro disregarding all expert medical advice and defying measures taken by governors across the country, as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise at an alarming rate. These actions, which contradict public health experts’ advice, present the population with damaging mixed messages about how they should respond as concerned citizens, which will worsen and prolong the severity of the pandemic….

Restrictive measures will disproportionately affect low-income workers and those in the ****informal sectors **of the economy,** which accounts for over 50 percent of employment in Latin America. Many of these measures will especially impact women, who make up a large share of the informal sector in Latin America. Governments will need to implement income supplements, food security, and strong social safety net measures to protect this population. These measures must take into account gender disparities, and the particular risks that women face; there are already reports from across the region of increases in domestic and gender based violence.

Without increased support, poverty and inequality will increase, along with political discontent and instability. Communities in Colombia, Honduras, and Bolivia have all protested in recent weeks—“the government locks us up, hunger is going to kill us,” read one protest sign in Bolivia, reported El País. In Colombia, where some 40 percent of the workforce consists of informal workers, communities across the country have taken to hanging red flags outside their homes to indicate that they are hungry.

Protecting those in the most vulnerable situations

Governments will need to prioritize protections for historically underserved populations, who traditionally have poor access to health services and live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Specifically, governments will need to ensure protections for:

Migrants and asylum seekers

Many countries have closed their borders and are limiting entries to their own citizens and legal residents. Others are taking more extreme measures and closing their borders completely. These measures will limit movement and the ability of individuals fleeing violence and persecution to seek protection abroad. The United States, for instance, has used public health as a pretext for ending the right to asylum at the border. In the last two weeks, U.S. border agents have expelled more than 6,000 migrants, including asylum seekers, without giving them a chance to seek protection.

Similarly, countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador have imposed new restrictions making it difficult for Venezuelan migrants, who are fleeing dire circumstances, to gain entry and access services. Many are choosing to return home despite the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela; some of these migrants are now being confined in overcrowded “quarantine zones” with reportedly poor sanitary conditions near the border.

As governments in the region limit public services, asylum seekers waiting for a resolution of their cases will confront an even longer **period of uncertainty.** For undocumented migrants who are apprehended and detained in countries such as Mexico, they may be held in detention centers with a history of overcrowding and poor hygiene. Anti-immigrant sentiment is likely to increase in this context.

Incarcerated individuals

There are an estimated 1.6 million people behind bars in Latin America, many of whom are in pretrial detention. With prisons and detention facilities already overloaded and ill-equipped to control contagion or address COVID-19 illness, governments should urgently take measures to **ease prison congestion,** such as releasing those who are older and have underlying health issues, mothers and pregnant women, those in pretrial detention, LGTBQ+ individuals, and those who have completed much of their sentence. Moreover, governments must and refrain from measures that would result in even more people being confined in such facilities, including those detained for violating stay-at-home orders.

Afro-descendants, Indigenous, and other groups

Progress on public health requires understanding that we are all in this together. Placing blame on specific groups or excluding them from access to health care and other necessities can be a dangerous temptation for leaders seeking scapegoats or those who seek to deflect blame from their own failures. Limiting access to health care or other protections to certain categories of people is a violation of fundamental rights and will only serve to exacerbate the current crisis….

Restrictive measures as a pretext for political repression

Governments may be tempted to use restrictive measures imposed for public health reasons as a tool to repress political opponents. Even where restrictions are initially conceived in good faith, certain sectors of the population may be targeted for more aggressive controls, policing, and disproportionate punishments….Increasingly empowered nationalist leaders may face the temptation to undermine or defund international systems and conventions, processes of conflict resolution, and human rights. But now more than ever, there is a need for international cooperation during a pandemic. This is a time to strengthen institutions that promote peaceful, negotiated solutions—not only to deal with the health crisis but also to other arenas of political conflict.

…..

We will be investigating and analyzing trends. We will be making recommendations to policy makers. We will be working with partners and civil society activists throughout the region who are facing new challenges to basic freedoms. As we recognize the absolute centrality of taking strong and decisive measures to protect the health of the public, we will redouble our efforts to stand for human rights and democracy during this crisis and beyond.

View original

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/monitoring-anti-democratic-trends-and-human-rights-abuses-age-covid-19

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: