As Covid Brings New Repression, Democracies Must Push Back

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As Covid Brings New Repression, Democracies Must Push Back
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
As Covid Brings New Repression, Democracies Must Push Back
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
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That authoritarian regimes around the world are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grip on power is not surprising. Unfortunately, a number of democratic and semi-democratic governments are doing the same thing. Left unchecked, the combined actions could result in terrible damage to democracy and human rights around the world.

Freedom House has documented a steady global erosion of political rights and civil liberties for the last 14 years. Now, according to the Economist, no fewer than 84 countries have granted emergency powers to the executive branch, in many cases with no sunset provisions. Some easing of checks and balances by parliaments may be understandable under the unprecedented circumstances we face, but it increases the risk that the powers will be abused.

Things are likely to get worse before they get better. Here are seven types of restrictions to watch for as telltale signs of creeping authoritarian expansion around the world:

1) Limitations on press freedom and freedom of expression

From Jordan and Thailand to the Philippines and Hungary, governments have been empowered to punish those deemed to have spread fake news, harmful rumors, deliberate fabrications, or false information. Executive authorities for the most part have broad discretion to define what constitutes false or otherwise harmful content.

In the United Kingdom, the government is working with social media firms to “stem the spread of falsehoods and rumors, which could cost lives.” In the United States, internet providers have been removing outright disinformation concerning the pandemic. This can be lifesaving, so long as it does not go down a slippery slope toward censorship of legitimate speech, whether in error or for political reasons.

2) Limitations on freedom of assembly, both online and off

Bans on gatherings that exceed a certain number of people are critical to public health, but they also help some governments suppress political dissent. In the past year, demonstrations have toppled authoritarian leaders in Sudan and Algeria. Despots fear any crowd that they did not summon themselves, and the pandemic gives such rulers a potent new reason to prohibit assemblies.

There are encouraging signs that the energy that went into last year’s protest movements is being channeled into online activism and other forms of civic engagement. But these will go nowhere if authorities are able to shut down the internet or arrest bloggers and other netizens who criticize governmental responses to the pandemic, as has already happened in places like China.

3) Limitations on travel and emigration

As with restrictions on assembly, reducing travel is necessary to limit the risk of contagion. This imposes tremendous hardship on many, but for democracy and human rights advocates facing violence and persecution, the ability to flee a repressive environment, even to a safer location within their own country, may itself be a matter of life and death.

Recent moves in Europe and the United States to close borders for various types of entry could contribute to the problem by effectively cutting off activists and other victims seeking asylum, regardless of their circumstances.

4) Indefinite detentions and closed trials

In a number of countries, governments are detaining individuals indefinitely because court hearings are not possible under current conditions. Such open-ended confinement can be used selectively to silence political opposition. When trials do go forward, restricted travel may prevent diplomats, journalists, and even defense lawyers from attending to ensure due process.

Getting ensnared in the criminal justice system can prove deadly, especially during a pandemic. In Iran, for instance, political prisoners are being held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, putting them at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. There are reports that at least 10 have died in recent weeks, but accuracy is impossible given the government’s stranglehold on information.

5) Mistreatment of minorities

Nationalist responses to the pandemic could lead to discrimination against and scapegoating of minorities. In India, the Hindu nationalist leadership is blaming the Muslim minority for the spread of COVID-19, escalating its campaign of repression against a community of 170 million people.

Certain regimes may target LGBT people and other marginalized groups, thinking that they can avoid meaningful international repercussions while the world is distracted. Migrant workers are also at risk of neglect or scapegoating; cramped housing conditions have endangered migrants in Singapore, for example, and authorities in China have singled out Africans and other expatriates.

6) Surveillance

Both democratic and nondemocratic governments are moving aggressively to adopt new tools that take advantage of advances in surveillance technology and artificial intelligence to control the pandemic. Some democracies, like South Korea, have been effective in limiting the spread of the virus with the help of special surveillance powers.

But such tools are prone to abuse and should be subject to a strong proportionality test, among other safeguards. Facial recognition systems and mandatory, intrusive mobile applications are not necessary to protect public health and can be exploited to monitor activists and critics. Nevertheless, many regimes are deploying them with little oversight.

7) Disruption of elections

Already in Bolivia, the pandemic was cited to postpone the scheduled presidential election. Some primaries in the United States have had to be postponed. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was forced to delay an April 22 nationwide vote on his constitutional reforms. A number of other upcoming elections are question marks.

If elections do go forward, health-related restrictions on campaign activities may give incumbents a distinct advantage, and international observer missions may be unable to monitor the balloting. Yet South Korea recently demonstrated that with adequate preparation, it is possible to hold a safe and fair election in the current environment.

How democracies should respond 

These varied challenges to human rights and democratic norms present a dilemma for the United States and other traditional leaders of the democratic world. The choices made today will help shape the world that emerges from the pandemic, whose course has only underscored the dangers posed by governments that lack transparency and accountability to the public. The United States and other democracies need to make clear to abusive governments that using the pandemic to persecute political enemies is unacceptable. They should: 

  • Demand that journalists be allowed to do their jobs, and condemn attacks against them in any shape or form. 
  • Lift restrictions on freedom of assembly and travel as soon as public health allows. Until then, democracies should make travel exceptions for those who must flee their homeland to avoid persecution or death. 
  • Impose targeted Magnitsky Act sanctions on individual government officials who are responsible for egregious human rights violations. 
  • Press governments for the release of political prisoners, or where that fails, demand release through expedited court hearings, even if they must be held remotely, so that detainees are not left in dangerous conditions of confinement during the crisis.
  • Urge protection for minority groups from scapegoating and physical attacks. 
  • Insist that increased surveillance and incursions on privacy be limited in time and scope and do not exceed what is strictly necessary to control the pandemic. 
  • Ensure that elections are held without unreasonable delay using safe alternative voting methods—for example voting by mail or casting ballots over a number of days to reduce crowding. Election observers should also be accommodated to ensure a free and fair process.
  • Continue funding to support those working to protect freedom and human rights around the world. Thankfully, Congress and U.S. government agencies have already signaled that they intend to carry on with important democracy assistance programs.

 The widespread condemnation that followed the recent arrest of more than a dozen Hong Kong activists was a good model for international solidarity on democracy issues during the pandemic. Whatever its merits as a weapon against the coronavirus, sunlight remains an important disinfectant when it comes to human rights violations. Democracies should intensify their efforts to draw attention to these abuses as the health crisis and its economic and political consequences continue to unfold.

Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House.

David J. Kramer, a former president of Freedom House, is the director of European and Eurasian studies and senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.



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