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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 started 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. 

We must monitor the measures our governments are taking, organize communities in this new environment of physical distancing, and 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.  

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 fear it will once again allow the government to arrest whoever they see fit. 

In Switzerland, France, Iran, Israel, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, South Korea, Vietnam, Poland, U.K., Palestinian Authority, the United States, China, and other countries, gatherings of a certain number of people (in most cases over 10) have been completely banned, criminalizing most forms of protest. In a protest in Israel on March 19, against the de-facto shut-down of Knesset (parliament), nine people were arrested under the “people’s health” emergency decree barring such public gatherings.

With reports coming in from across the globe of thousands being arrested for breaking lock-down rules, there is 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 bill put forward by the Hungarian government will allow for the state of emergency declaration to be valid throughout 2020. Further, the Hungarian proposed bill cites the possibility of a “forced parliamentary break,” which has raised concerns that this bill is purposefully setting the stage for the suspension of parliament.  

Despite just coming out of elections, the exiting speaker of the Israeli parliament is citing the COVID-19 crisis and the need for the (exiting) government to not be challenged in this time, as a justification for his refusal to step down as speaker and allow the newly elected parliament to operate.

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 is using 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 (regardless if there was a wall or a few floors between them–geolocation has its clear limitations). China and Iran are 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 (that can be extended for further, short periods of time as needed);
  • 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.

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