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Watchdogs Warn Human Rights Could Be Collateral Damage In Fight Against COVID-19

Big Brother Vs. The Coronavirus
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As countries around the world take extraordinary steps to fight the coronavirus pandemic, global watchdogs are concerned that human rights and civil liberties could become a casualty.

In crafting their individual response to the deadly COVID-19 crisis, many governments are invoking emergency powers and introducing measures that observers warn could be abused for political gain and could be difficult to revoke when the crisis passes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), for one, has published recommendations on how governments and other actors can contain the coronavirus outbreak while respecting citizens' freedom of expression and movement, the well-being of prisoners and refugees, and other human rights.

"As governments are starting to scale up their public-health response, the threat posed by COVID-19 is reason to reaffirm, not abandon, everyone's rights," HRW director Kenneth Roth said in introducing the recommendations on March 19. "That means prioritizing science over politics, caring for those most at risk, avoiding censorship, limiting lockdowns, and building the public trust that is essential to an effective response."

On March 25, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) singled out Azerbaijan's recent adoption of amendments to the country's media law.

"I fully understand the need to combat false information during a health emergency," wrote the OSCE’s representative on media freedom, Harlem Desir. "But the amendment to the law on information, which aims to combat the publication of false information that poses a threat to the life and health of the population and seeks to avoid panic, should not impede the work of journalists and their ability to report on the pandemic."

Europe's leading human rights organization, meanwhile, sent a message to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban regarding a bill that could allow him to rule by decree.

Saying she was watching developments in Hungary with "great attention," Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric wrote on March 24 that "the measures which member states take in the present exceptional circumstances of the pandemic must comply with both national constitutions and international standards, and observe the very essence of democratic principles."

Draconian Measures

Russia's efforts to approve a raft of constitutional amendments that could keep President Vladimir Putin in office for an additional two terms have been widely criticized as the pandemic unfolded, although the move was initiated before the scope of the crisis became clear.

And Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Russian North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, drew attention when he said on March 23, while outlining new steps to contain the outbreak, that he would personally endorse killing those who violate quarantine orders. The remark was hard to ignore, coming from a man whose human rights record has been a subject of criticism for years.

In Israel, moves taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shutter courts, mine mobile-phone data, and adjourn parliament have been deemed undemocratic and excessive.

In its recommendations, HRW acknowledged Iran's decision to release tens of thousands of prisoners for the Norouz holiday, "apparently because of health concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak." But the watchdog also pointed out the continued imprisonment of "dozens of human rights defenders and others held on vaguely defined national security crimes."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right)

Amnesty International has dedicated an entire webpage to COVID-19, pledging that "even in times of uncertainty, Amnesty will continue to call out human rights violators wherever we see them."

Among other countries, Amnesty criticized the United States for new measures that will allow border agents to turn back asylum seekers trying to enter the country from Mexico.

Others are also watching developments in the United States closely after President Donald Trump on March 13 invoked the National Emergencies Act, under which the government could, in theory, take control of the Internet and beef up the armed forces.

In the United Kingdom, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has given assurances that emergency legislation that will allow "extraordinary measures" not seen in peacetime will be reviewed regularly and relinquished once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

At the international level, the UN high commissioner for human rights has said that broad sanctions against states facing the coronavirus pandemic should be urgently reevaluated. "It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country's medical system -- given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering, and wider contagion," Michelle Bachelet said on March 24.

"At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended."

In a global pandemic, she added, "impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us."

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