Coronavirus: five ways some states have used the pandemic to curtail human rights and democracy
In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, at least 95 countries declared a national emergency, empowering governments to act in ways they would not normally to protect citizens.
1. Lockdowns and their enforcement
Most countries around the world adopted some form of lockdown, ranging from partial or night-time curfew to complete lockdown. Lockdowns may help to flatten the curve and curb the spread of disease, but for many they also impose extreme hardship. One study estimated that, across 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, only 6.8% of households could stay at home without major damage to their health and welfare.
In many countries, security forces were used to enforce lockdowns, and reports document several incidents of excessive force and rights violations. In Kenya, for instance, police fired tear gas and beat commuters ahead of imposing curfew. In India, which adopted one of the most stringent lockdowns with complete restriction on any non-essential activities, an estimated 900 people died due to the lockdown and its enforcement.
In South Africa, security forces brutally beat a man after finding him in possession of alcohol, which was restricted under coronavirus measures. The case of Collins Khosa, who died from his injuries, has subsequently become a rallying point for protest against police brutality.
In its ruling, the Pretoria-based High Court ordered the development of a code of conduct for security forces during the lockdown, including the “absolute prohibition on torture”. Nevertheless, police violence in poor neighbourhoods exacerbated by the lockdown has continued, underscoring the gap in many contexts between formal rules and practice.
2. Laws to consolidate power
One case of this that has received a lot of global attention is Hungary, where the Viktor Orban-led government passed a law in March allowing the prime minister to rule by decree for an indefinite time. While this “extraordinary legal order” was formally revoked in June 2020, another bill was passed, allowing similar powers during a state of medical emergency.
The law passed in April grants the prime minister vast new powers, including unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, restrictions of freedom of movement and assembly, seizing of private property, and “other measures that are deemed appropriate and necessary in response to the state of emergency”.
3. The curbing of dissent and opposition
Closely related is the use of emergency laws to curb dissent and opposition. Citing emergency-linked restrictions on freedom of assembly, movement and information, states have arrested activists and political opposition leaders, and restricted protests. In many cases these laws existed before the pandemic but were invoked during the pandemic to curb dissent. In Azerbaijan, the president, Ilham Aliyev called for the arrest of opposition leaders and termed them “traitors” in a speech on March 19, as part of the country’s COVID-19 response.
Since the speech, the country has witnessed the arrest of opposition leaders who are apparently what Aliyev had in mind when he mentioned traitors. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, the police arrested nurses and doctors during protests for salary hikes, on the grounds that they were violating lockdown.
4. Restrictions on the media
Some states have used the pretext of curbing the spread of “fake news” and “false information” about the coronavirus to restrict press freedoms, either by passing new laws or enforcing previously passed laws more strictly. Such laws have been used, as in Cambodia, China, and Egypt, to arrest journalists critical of government policies.
In India restrictive press laws have been used to force news organisations to adhere to the “official version” on COVID-related reporting. Reporters without Borders has said that coronavirus emergency laws “spell disaster for press freedom”, offering examples from several dozen countries.
5. The use of new surveillance technology
Government responses to the coronavirus have included the use of apps for contact tracing and other new surveillance technology. Many of these apps collect more data than necessary for contact tracing and allow the possibility for individuals to be identified, with inadequate data protection for users.
In Russia, for instance, legislation was passed in June 2020 on the use of facial recognition technology and a unified federal register, supposedly to help authorities ensure social distancing. In Ghana, special emergency laws give the government access to subscriber data from telecoms companies.
The major concern is that these technologies will outlive the pandemic, and could be used for continued monitoring and control of populations. Alongside rollbacks in rights and weakening of democratic institutions, these new surveillance tools raise strong concerns for the future.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.