By the Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*
Governments are responsible for protecting their citizens and ensuring their health and safety, and in extreme situations, this protection may include the temporary suspension or limiting of civil liberties for the sake of public health. However, these measures must meet a number of criteria in order to be credible and acceptable, including that they be limited in scope and duration, have general applicability (i.e. not limited to certain populations), be based on legal norms, be proportionate to the situation, respect human dignity, and be subject to review.
Unfortunately, a number of countries are taking advantage of the current COVID-19 global pandemic to implement repressive measures under cover of “public health protection.” These actions are taking place in the context of 14 years of democratic decline, according to Freedom House, and a resurgence of authoritarianism. According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, more countries have declined in their fundamental rights score than any other rule of law factor both over the last year and the last five years. Further, in the 18-24 months leading up to the pandemic, there has been an explosive rise in the use of digital media globally (and not always for a positive purpose), a rise in transnational corruption and kleptocracy, and continued lack of confidence in democracy with expectations for economic growth and security not being met. The COVID-19 pandemic has added fear to these other uncertainties, making it easier for some leaders to use the crisis as an excuse to expand their authority and repress their people. While popular protests against authoritarian rulers (from Russia and Hong Kong to Algeria and Iraq) were quieted during the early months of the pandemic, in Belarus and other places, the popular demand for accountability has since returned.
Since the pandemic began, there have been hundreds of measures passed in dozens of countries restricting freedom of expression and participation, which are being tracked by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. According to Larry Diamond, author of Democracy Versus the Pandemic in Foreign Affairs, “Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic.” In Egypt, at least nine doctors have been arrested and sanctioned for criticizing their government’s response to the pandemic. A constitutional law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing was detained for six days and then fired from his job after criticizing the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic. In Venezuela, President Maduro’s security officials are asking citizens to report those who may have come in contact with the coronavirus as “bioterrorists” and are detaining those returning from abroad in crowded conditions with limited food, water, or masks for weeks or even months out of fear of contagion. Uganda has escalated its attacks on the LGBT community. Further, more than 70 elections in all regions of the world have been postponed. Some of these postponements are legitimate in the context of the pandemic and have since taken place, but others seem to have been postponed for political expediency. Technologies such as digital surveillance and contact tracing pose the risk of being used for non-pandemic purposes as well, leading to loss of privacy if not properly controlled. In the most extreme cases, emergency decrees restricting freedoms without any end dates have been passed. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pushed a bill through parliament last March granting him emergency powers which allowed him to reallocate the country’s budget, as well as direct its hospitals. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban succeeded in obtaining the authority to suspend and issue laws, as well as arrest critics of the government’s handling of the pandemic. In a number of countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran, prisoners have been released to minimize the spread of the virus, but political prisoners and human rights defenders have remained in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
Of great concern, as well, are the democracies that have responded to the pandemic with repressive measures. A proposed law in Brazil, intended to counter “fake news” about the coronavirus, actually threatens to stifle free expression and invade privacy. India’s government started using a new tracking app in April aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, but some fear it could be used as a tool of mass surveillance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a track record of stifling dissent, judicial independence and press freedom since his election in 2014. In Chile, authorities are trying to censor the use of art to criticize police violence and express support for health professionals by suing an art troupe on the grounds of inciting hate against the national police force.
COVID-19 will not be the last disease to become a global pandemic. It is critical that the world be prepared to respond to future health crises while maintaining respect for democratic norms and civil liberties. Recommendations for the U.S. administration and Congress for protecting democracy, human rights and rule of law during a global health crisis include:
- Continuing to support U.S. and other democracy and human rights organizations that are active around the world, providing much needed and desired assistance to those striving to bring or restore freedom and rights to their countries particularly for vulnerable groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
- Reviewing the norms and criteria for limiting civil liberties during a health crisis and updating them to reflect the current reality of new and advanced technology so that a comprehensive set of best practices exists for the global community to follow.
- Preparing for the inevitable next pandemic by communicating the updated norms and developing benchmarks for countries to follow if it becomes necessary, once again, to limit civil liberties in the name of public health protection.
- Tracking the actions taken by countries to restrict civil liberties during the pandemic, and monitoring them to determine whether they accord with international human rights norms and are lifted once the health crisis has ended.
- Once a safe vaccine is available, civil society should be encouraged to monitor and report on whether access to the vaccine is provided in a manner that is fair and non-discriminatory, where priority is given to subgroups of the population based on medically recognized criteria rather than political or other bases.
- Encouraging civil society organizations to monitor their governments’ actions, especially with regard to surveillance, tracking, and contract tracing initiatives, to ensure that they are used in a limited and appropriate manner and with respect for personal privacy.
- Identifying targeted issues with regard to infringement of civil liberties and working to form coalitions of like-minded organizations to raise concerns and demand change.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.