The COVID-19 has lead to exposure of many areas of our society’s inequality. It has created little but enhanced the underlying lack of equity in the world we have built.
Over 84 governments across the world have used the pandemic to justify violating the human right of free speech, and peaceful assembly. This is not due to grounds of safety or social distancing -Those are responsible ways of handling the pandemic. Instead these abuses have been where governments create double standards or actively criminalise Human Rights laws with the pandemic as the excuse.
Even here in the UK with have not only had a vagueness of interaction with the human rights laws but also conflict with the inequality of how they have been applied. Our leaders it appears have actively taken the decision these laws do not apply to them. That is the strongest warning signal for any population that their government is looking at ways to abuse them.
Our governments should be encouraging masks and safe spaces, not gags and silence.
Globally we have people who speak out. Not just the activists or political opponents, but doctors, nurses, lawyers, health care workers, all of whom are attacked for their criticism of the global governmental response to the pandemic. In countries around the world the professional groups above have been held in detention, beaten, prosecuted and demonised in the press. -All breaches of their Human Rights.
It is a missed opportunity for any government introducing Pandemic emergency measures to not also introduce a compassionate review of it's equalities and human rights laws alongside this. -What a reassuring and ethical step forward that would have been. (It's also not too late).
The UN Human Rights Council in it's February 22nd 2021 session had the chance to commission a report focusing on state compliance with their human rights obligations while responding to Covid-19, this is a missed opportunity.
If we take a short review of governmental responses, we find that the abuse of free speach, and the rise of hate speech, state endorsed or not, is the common theme.
Countries such as Bangladesh, China, Egypt and others, still have people held in detention for government criticism in public, months later. These are not political prisoners, they are healthcare workers and journalists.
Human Rights Watch, a great resources website, highlights the story of Zhang Zhan, a 38 year old Chinese citizen whom is serving a four year prison sentence for reporting truthfully from Wuhan about the then new 'Coronavirus outbreak' and it's potential risks. Now nearly two years later, Zhang is 'on hunger strike' and being force-fed. No one is allowed access to them.
Away from China, a further 18 countries have mis-used military or police force to physically assault, bloggers, journalists, health professionals and journalists.
A further 10 countries have taken this mis-use to using live ammunition and killing protestors and social media commentators.
The social media messaging is perhaps the area of most impact on hate speech, both for the abuses against reporting but also the abuse of mis-information and hate speech.
In 23 countries around the world, governments have enacted, vague laws, to protect people from mis-information but have since been used to stop free-speech and abuse human rights. A further 51 countries, including the UK, have used these COVID-19 new laws, linked to existing counter-terrorism laws to arrest, detain and prosecute. Should these laws be linked, the fact they can be does suggest further vagueness to the protection of human rights.
We have seen a huge increase in racism in language and online, targeted (wrongly) at perceived carriers of the pandemic due to race and of course, refugees. We've also seen a 'shutting down' of voices raising concerns, such as the UK traveller communities whom have faced undue racism during the pandemic and a loss of Social Media free-speech and activism.
Globally, each and every government DOES HAVE a duty to protect the fundamental human rights of it's people, all it's people.
According to human rights monitors, the Russian authorities between March and June prosecuted at least 190 people, mostly journalists, activists, and politicians, for allegedly spreading false information relating to Covid-19. Authorities across India said that between late March and early May they arrested at least 640 people including bloggers, students, teachers, government employees, and traders, for allegedly publishing false information relating to Covid-19. Free speech activists accused the government of carrying out the arrests to curb criticism of authorities.
At least 13 countries have targeted opposition figures and activists.
In Azerbaijan in March and April, the authorities sentenced at least six activists and a pro-opposition journalist to between 10 and 30 days in detention on spurious charges, including breaking lockdown.
Cuba in November, security forces broke up a meeting of 14 members of an artists’ coalition organising anti-government protests and detained 13 for hours, and one overnight, after alleging that one of them had violated Covid-19 rules by failing to retake a Covid-19 test.
At least 14 countries have targeted protesters using Covid-19 policies as pretext. Following bans and shutdowns on protests in April, the Russian authorities used Covid-19 social distancing measures as pretext to deny permission for a protest in July over a constitutional referendum, despite lifting almost all other restrictions on public gatherings including in cinemas and sports venues. They then arrested at least 132 protesters who demonstrated anyway.
In January, the Russian authorities again cited Covid-19 social distancing rules for refusing to sanction peaceful protests against the detention of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, warned people to avoid mass gatherings, maintain social distancing, and wear masks and gloves under Covid-19 rules; and then announced that gatherings were illegal and demanded that protesters leave. As of late January, the authorities had placed five protest organisers and protesters under house arrest after opening criminal investigations into possible breaches of sanitary measures.
At least 10 countries have targeted medical workers.
In Cameroon, the government in September scheduled the country’s first regional elections for early December, prompting opposition protests due to procedural and security concerns. Several regional authorities responded by indefinitely banning public meetings and demonstrations, claiming they would endanger lives by spreading Covid-19. Yet the central and regional authorities allowed bars, restaurants, nightclubs, schools, training centres, churches, and mosques to remain open. Cameroon’s communication minister warned political parties that the government would consider protests “insurrection” and punish protesters under the country’s counterterrorism law. In September, the main opposition party, Cameroon Renaissance Movement, said that the ban “threatens to force our party underground.”
Turkish authorities used the pandemic as a pretext to try to reduce the influence of the country’s leading bar associations, which have criticised the government’s systemic human rights violations. Under a July law, 2,000 or more lawyers in provinces where the bar association has more than 5,000 members may establish rival associations. Citing Covid-19, the Interior Ministry in July and October extended the initial deadline to form a new association to March 2021, giving pro-government lawyers more time to meet the threshold. Yet throughout October and November, political parties that are not critical of the Turkish government met in large numbers to hold internal elections.
The governor of Istanbul banned public gatherings on January 6, citing Covid-19 risks, but only in the two districts with Boğaziçi University campuses. The ban followed student protests at the university against President Erdoğan’s appointment of a controversial new rector, a move they criticised as an encroachment on academic freedom.
In all the above cases and examples, hate speech has won over free-speech.
What can be done?
Governments should, actually MUST, ensure that all Covid-19 responses meet their duties towards international and domestic law. Human Rights Laws being the top of this list.
The 'can' be a place for measures that reduce or impact for the short term, and a clear fixed term, fundamental rights including free speech and assembly should be strictly necessary and proportionate as well as temporary, with sunset clauses, and subject to independent review.
The UN Human Rights Council should request a new report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on countries’ compliance with their human rights obligations in responding to Covid-19, including the impact of their restrictions on free speech and assembly. The UNHCR Should also commission an impact on the human rights of refugees alongside this, sharing the same framework if possible.
And us, what about us, we should always ensure we refrain from hate speech, we share information responsibly, and most of all we seek allyship and friendship with those affected. Google the names I've included in this article, write on their behalf, show solidarity and hold ALL our leaders to account on their behaviour with our human rights.