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Are governments violating human rights and civil liberties in coronavirus response? 

Historically crises have been exploited to introduce dangerous policies—right now may be one of these moments.

Airport in Hong Kong. Photo: Lei Han / via Flickr CC

With the rise of far right, nationalist governments over the past few years, the world has seen more measures to systematically target voices of dissent and political opposition—resulting in the rapid shrinking of space for civil society organizations, including human rights groups, activists, and academics. And these efforts to restrict civil space may have just received a boost from the global pandemic we’re now facing. 

By far, COVID-19 is the widest spread global pandemic of our lifetime, and its cost in human life, livelihoods, and community structures is devastating. Governments and authorities on both local and national levels have been using extreme emergency measures to contain the spread of the virus. 

While public health should be a priority for everyone, these extreme measures are sounding alarm bells. Governments and corporations have historically used crises as opportunities to introduce new policies that would otherwise be impossible to pass, normalizing them in a new status quo—what author Naomi Klein calls the "shock doctrine." COVID-19 may be one of these moments. 

On March 16, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights published a statement advising states to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic responsibly, voicing concerns regarding the possible human rights violations within measures being undertaken to slow the spread of this virus.

In an environment where many governments have failed to take adequate steps to protect public health through proactive investments in care capacity, research, supplies, and planning—often because their focus and resources have been directed at systems of militarized security rather than human security—it is doubly concerning that many of these same countries’ response to this crisis has been more focused on social control than public health. 

In the past few months organization around the world, including AFSC, have started to monitor the measures our governments are taking, organize communities in this new environment of physical distancing, and find ways to mitigate these state policies. In most cases, it seems the demand that any emergency measures are focused solely on advancing public health and well-being—and restricted in time and scope so that they cannot be used beyond containing the virus, has not been successful.  

Criminalizing dissent 

One concerning tactic that governments are taking to control the spread of the virus is the criminalization of citizens breaking quarantine, citizens spreading fake news, or citizens not reporting sickness. While these measures are reasonable responses from a public health perspective, how they are being implemented and the vague language in which they are passing may allow them to be used against dissident voices. 

In Myanmar, the government has made “not reporting an illness” a criminal offense and designated military bases to forcibly intern quarantined citizens. Many political activists have fled cities in fear that such a broad definition can be used against anyone the government wants to criminalize. In Hungary, new legislation suggests up to five years in prison for circulating “misinformation.” With such a broad definition, activists feared it would once again allow the government to arrest whoever they see fit. A month into the implementation of this law, 85 people were indeed indicted. In Cambodia, Human Rights Watch found that at least 17 people have been arrested on “fake news” charges for comments they made about the coronavirus, including four members and supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Similar cases can be seen in Turkey and Thailand. 

While for the most part complete lockdowns and blanket restrictions on large gatherings, including protests, have been lifted in the past few months, other forms of protest oppression continue. That includes fining people who take off their masks in protests (as is happening in Israel) as well as blaming protesters for the spread of the virus (as has happened in the U.S., though the majority of the scientific community has found that protests in open spaces have not seemed to increase spread).  With reports coming in from across the globe of thousands being arrested for breaking lockdown rules, there is a sad irony that little has been done to address public health in detention facilities worldwide, where crowded conditions and lack of access to soap and other implements of basic hygiene are more the rule than the exception, and threaten devastating consequences.

Expanding legislative authorities  

Countries around the world have already declared states of emergency, which allow drastic measures to be taken quickly. While in most cases these declarations are temporary and time bound, a law passed by the Hungarian parliament allows for the state of emergency declaration to be valid throughout 2020, allowing the government to overwrite parliament.   

On the other side of the world, the president of the Philippines has managed to pass his extremely controversial “anti-terror” law, effectively criminalizing entire populations and much of the opposition to him. While these practices were in place long before COVID-19, the law was able to pass at this time--increasing the power and reach of the government--due to restrictions on civil society to resist this law as they would have under normal circumstances. 

Increasing technological surveillance

In the era of smartphones, most people walk around with a potential tracking device in their pockets. Digital surveillance, specifically based on geolocation, is an extremely easy measure for states to implement as a means to try and track the spread of the virus. While there is a clear appeal in knowing where infected people were, are, and will be–and who they have come in contact with–this raises important questions of privacy and normalization of technological surveillance by our governments. 

Through enforcing the use of a GPS phone application, South Korea used geolocation surveillance to monitor quarantined citizens. More intrusive measures are being implemented by the Israeli government, which allows the General Security Service to collect historic and present geolocation data on the phones of COVID-19 infected people to locate and enforce quarantine of those who were in close proximity during periods of contagion. China and Iran have been doing the same, and these mass data collection tools are already being sold to other countries by the Israeli company NSO, notoriously famous for their role in surveilling human rights activists. 

China and Russia have taken this one step further, employing facial recognition software to track people’s locations, including through developing new abilities to identify people wearing masks. In both countries, which have seen mass protest movements in recent years, masks have been primary protection tools for protestors against state persecution. 

To these, we can add the normalization of the use of drones for civilian surveillance purposes (China and Europe), electronic tracking bracelets (Hong Kong), assigning QR codes to citizens to control movement (China), and tracking of credit card use (South Korea). And we are seeing new surveillance measures every day. 

While these measures may certainly aid in ensuring public health and safety and could be vital in stopping the spread of this pandemic, there should be certain minimum, rights-based standards and considerations for these regulations and policies. Such standards are critical to ensure they are not later normalized and perpetuated once the spread of the virus is controlled. These may include:

  • Clear and short time limits for the use of these measures
  • Clear regulations about the storage, access, and deletion of private information stored during this time, as well as restrictions on what information is taken; 
  • Transparent decision-making processes based on guidance from public health professionals, answering questions such as: Whose professional opinion is being taken in order to decide on such measures? Whose opinion will be taken to determine when they will be lifted? 

Careful monitoring of these measures and clear messaging that they cannot be used to suppress civil liberties will allow us to mobilize and demand their lift once the crisis has ended. In the meantime, we must not allow these tools to be normalized. For this, we can use social media and other online platforms to keep a conversation going, to raise awareness of these dangers, and to make sure our authorities know that we’re paying attention.

About the Author

Sahar Vardi has served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into Israel's military service. She works with other refusers and serves as Coordinator of AFSC's Israel program in east Jerusalem.