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Human Rights Abuses to Slip Under the Radar

Annie Grey looks into how poor governance has resulted in increased neglect of human rights during the pandemic.

Photo by Luis Galvez

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled a crisis for democracy around the world. Since the outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries, according to Freedom House. Both authoritarian and democratic governments have taken the epidemic as an opportunity to erode human rights under the pretext of protecting their populations’ health.

Some governments have responded to the unprecedented circumstances by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics and weakening or closing important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public wellbeing.

Mass Oppression

China is in the midst of its darkest period for human rights violations since the Tiananmen Square massacre, Human Right Watch has reported. China’s government initially withheld basic information about the coronavirus from the public, under-reported cases of infection, downplayed the severity of the infection and dismissed the likelihood of transmissions between humans. At the very beginning of the pandemic, authorities detained people for reporting on it on social media for “rumour-mongering”, censored online discussions of the virus and curbed media reporting.

Further, oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet includes the detention and forced labour of more than one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in a bid to pressure abandonment of Islam and their culture, as well as replacing Mongolian as the language of instruction in their schools with Chinese. This action triggered protests and class boycotts, with at least one reported suicide. The targeting of whistle-blowers, the crackdown on Hong Kong, and attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak are all part of the deteriorating situation under President Xi Jinping.

In Thailand, whistle-blowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they critised government responses to the outbreak, raised concerns about a possible cover-up and reported alleged corruption related to the hoarding and profiteering of PPE and other supplies. Key medical workers were also threatened with disciplinary action – including the termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses – for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across Thailand.

Free Speech Silenced

In a number of countries, governments have failed to uphold the right to freedom of expression, taking actions against journalists and healthcare workers. This ultimately limited effective communication about the onset of the disease and undermined trust in government actions. In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev reportedly implied “he would use measures introduced to slow the spread of the coronavirus to crack down on political opponents, whom he described as traitors and enemies”. Following this, Azerbaijani authorities arrested a number of activists and bloggers, most of whom had criticised conditions in government-run quarantine centres or the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to individuals experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Turkmenistan continues to deny it has any COVID-19 cases, despite strong evidence to the contrary. The country “experienced cascading social and economic crises as the government recklessly denied and mismanaged the COVID-19 epidemic within the country”, according to the HRW report. Other human rights issues observed include food shortages, restrictions on media and religious freedoms and the imprisonment of opposition activists.

A Disaster for Human Rights

The report described Former US President, Donald Trump, as a “disaster for human rights”, citing examples such as separating migrant children from families, befriending cruel dictators, selling weapons to regimes known to commit war crimes, slashing funding for reproductive health, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement (although Joe Biden has thankfully subsequently re-joined it) and empowering white supremacists. And that’s not to mention inciting the first insurrection of the Capitol since the Civil War.

The grossly disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on BAME people, connected to longstanding gaps in healthcare, education, and economic status, revealed the enduring effects of past racist laws and policies and the continuation of obstacles to equality in the United States. The police killing of George Floyd in May, and a series of other police killings of black people, inspired massive and largely peaceful protests, which in many instances were met with brutality by local and federal law enforcement agents.

In the UK, as approximately 5,000 migrants and asylum-seeker arrived by boat from France between January and September, the government threatened to opt-out of human rights laws and use offshore detention and processing to facilitate the deportation of those arriving. The UK continues to detain asylum-seeking and migrant children facing deportation. UNICEF launched a domestic emergency response in the UK for the first time in its 70-year history to help feed children in need throughout the ongoing pandemic. A YouGov poll in May 2020, commissioned by the charity Food Foundation, found 2.4 million British children (17%) were living in food insecure households. By October, an extra 900,000 children had been registered for free school meals.

The charitable act received backlash from government officials, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP, stating “UNICEF’s work was a ‘political stunt of the lowest order’ and the charity ‘should be ashamed of itself’”, prompting further public outrage. Anna Kettley, UNICEF UK’s Director of Programmes and Advocacy responded: “We believe that every child is important and deserves to survive and thrive no matter where they are born”.

To end on a positive note, 2020 saw a “renewed outpouring of popular support for human rights” among the public as these rights violations were reported. In various countries, often at great risk, people took to the streets in large number to press abusive and corrupt governments to be more democratic and accountable. The impact of current events has resulted in increased amounts of people actively holding their governments to account. Hope remains that these actions will pave the way for a fairer society in the future.

Article on a similar topic: The Hidden Cost of Cotton

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