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Human Rights under threat during the Covid Pandemic

18 April 2020

Governments are introducing emergency restrictions to protect public health during the pandemic. However, some countries are taking advantage of the lockdown to violate human rights. This pandemic must not be used as a smokescreen in order to oppress and dehumanise.

At a demonstration in Honduras prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Juana Zuniga (38) speaks out about the injustice of 8 community members from the village of Guapinol being imprisoned without trial for defending their river from a mining company. Many human rights defenders' trials are now taking place behind closed doors during lockdown. This means nobody can monitor the fairness of the trial. Photo : Giulia Vuillermoz / Trócaire.

We have heard a lot about the impacts of the Coronavirus and how it is going to affect the most vulnerable.

Most governments are doing everything they can to protect their people. However, some are taking advantage of the global lockdown to carry out human rights violations.

Countries with weak democracies or authoritarian regimes are taking ad-hoc and disproportionate decisions. Some of these decisions cross a line from where it might be difficult to return. With everyone focused on their own internal problems, it seems no one feels accountable to anybody these days.

Some countries are almost denying the existence of the virus. This is stopping those affected from coming forward for fear of being stigmatised.

Others are making drastic and violent threats. In the Philippines, President Duterte threatened to “shoot” quarantine violators. In countries like Kenya and Honduras we are seeing police brutality and increased militarisation.

In many countries, from Myanmar to Uganda, we are seeing minority groups being wrongly blamed for spreading the virus. This is leading to discrimination and threats.

Human rights defenders are more at risk because of this crisis. Security services are on lockdown and the defenders themselves are easier to find. Many human rights defenders' trials are taking place behind closed doors. This means nobody can monitor the fairness of the trial. The individuals themselves are more likely to suffer harsh treatment.

"The danger is that states, particularly non-democratic or less open societies, would use the opportunity given by the health emergency to crack down on particular minority groups, or individuals or groups that they see as highly problematic" said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Some countries could be using IT to control the population. In Guatemala, Trócaire partners are concerned that a phone app developed to monitor COVID-19 is being used for further surveillance.

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The government in Myanmar is aiming to restrict access to internet. This cannot be justified at a time when access to information is so critical.

In Israel, emergency powers have been used to suspend key pillars of democracy, including parliament being adjourned. Courts have been shut down, which means that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming trial for corruption charges can’t take place during the emergency.  Linking anti-COVID measures to anti-terrorism measures, Israel is also using advanced technology to track mobile phones of suspected coronavirus cases, within Israel as well as Palestinians within the occupied West Bank.

There is also a real concern that violence against women will rise during confinement. The Government of Malaysia issued recommendations to women, telling them to “wear makeup, dress neatly and not nag husbands”. They later apologised.

Restriction of movement makes it difficult for our partners to monitor human rights violations. As such, they are now coming up with innovative ways to carry out their work. We cannot leave communities alone and unprotected. Likewise, we are doing what we can with our allies, lobbying authorities to protect those in need. 

Clearly governments do need to take significant measures to address the pandemic. This may result in emergency restrictions being brought in that are legitimate and justifiable to protect public health. Yet at the same time we need to prevent abuses of power which use the pandemic as a smokescreen in order to oppress and dehumanise.

We welcome the fact that members of the European Parliament have expressed public concern about arbitrary prolonged pre-trial detention of Guapinol human rights defenders in Honduras.

We must see more actions like this in order to protect human rights in the midst of this crisis.  We cannot let a dehumanisation pandemic spread across the globe.

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