Global Leaders Are Using Coronavirus to Trample on Human Rights, Group Warns

Police officers wearing masks guard inmates, also wearing masks, during a security operation after President Nayib Bukele decreed maximum emergency in prisons housing gang members at the Izalco prison on April 25, 2020, in San Salvador, El Salvador - (EL SALVADOR PRESIDENT PRESS OFFICE/AP)

‘A global emergency is an authoritarian’s best friend,’ said one advocate during a briefing on how the pandemic has eroded human rights.

HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATES are sounding the alarm about what they see as a growing number of human rights abuses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The novel coronavirus is being exploited as a pretext for oppression in nearly every region of the world, Amnesty International USA, the U.S.-based arm of the international rights group, said in a teleconference briefing on Wednesday. Leaders from South America to Southeast Asia are using the virus as an excuse to crack down on their opponents, the group said, while doing little to protect vulnerable populations such as prisoners, refugees and migrant workers.
"More than 80 countries have declared states of emergency and there are growing reports of human rights abuses around the globe," said Joanne Lin, AIUSA's national director of advocacy and government affairs. "Some world leaders are taking advantage of contagion in order to crack down on civilians in ways previously not seen pre-COVID-19."
The organization also raised concerns about governments that have tried to squash information about the virus, which has spread to all but one continent and killed more than 228,200 as of Thursday morning. In some cases, it said, governments have used jail time, harassment or other measures to silence media, doctors and other critics who have tried to shine light on the pandemic.
For many parts of the world still reeling from war, civil unrest, migration crises and other disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic adds yet another layer of emergency to which leaders may be unwilling or unable to respond, the group said.
While the threats to human rights vary by country, AIUSA said nearly every region of the world has cause for concern.
Africa
Afrca, a continent of 1.3 billion people, recently saw a 43% jump in reported COVID-19 cases, according to Lin. The World Health Organization has warned that Africa could become an epicenter for the outbreak, but its health care system is already fragile, and a shortage of doctors make it even more ill-prepared for COVID-19, said Adotei Akwei, AIUSA deputy director for advocacy and government relations.
The pandemic could also cut Africa's economic output in half, Akwei said, causing widespread food insecurity and putting people in extreme poverty at even greater risk.
In the meantime, Akwei expressed concern over how police across the continent are administering curfews. More than a dozen people have been killed by police enforcing curfews in both Kenya and Nigeria – more than have died from the virus. In South Africa, he noted, there have been reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips to enforce social distancing.
Asia and the Pacific
In Asia, where the virus was first detected, some officials are using the virus as a cover for oppression and disregard for human rights, said Francisco Bencosme, AIUSA Asia Pacific advocacy manager. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has given police "shoot to kill orders" for those who resist the lockdown. Amid calls to lessen jail overcrowding by freeing petty offenders, Sri Lanka's government pardoned a notorious war criminal. In Bangladesh's refugee camps, where crowded conditions increase the risk of disease spread, older residents are left behind.
In some countries, such as India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, discrimination against Muslims is also increasing as people begin to blame them for spreading the virus, Bencosme said. Some Muslims have had their businesses boycotted or have been denied medical care. In Sri Lanka, Muslim COVID-19 victims were cremated against family wishes.
Eurasia
As the virus moves east through Europe, some politicians are attacking the rule of law and using arrests and threats to silence critics, according to Daniel Balson, AIUSA advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia.
One of the most blatant examples is in Hungary, where the Parliament used the pandemic as justification to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban authority to rule by decree with no end date, Balson said. The government is also using the moment to pass controversial legislation, such as ending the legal recognition of trans people.
In Russia, a journalist received a death threat by the head of Chechnya after writing about the pandemic, Balson added. And in Azerbaijan, the government is using COVID-19 restrictions to justify a crackdown on opponents and critics.
Middle East and North Africa
Syria and Yemen, two countries plagued by ongoing conflicts, were in particularly dire straits before the pandemic, and the virus is likely to make the humanitarian situation in them even worse, according to Philippe Nassif, AIUSA advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
War has shattered Syria's health care system, he said. And in Yemen, 11 million people are already under the threat of famine.
Countries such as Syria, Libya and Egypt also have thousands of detainees and prisoners at risk of contracting the disease, Nassif said. Refugees from Syria and elsewhere are stuck in crowded camps with poor sanitation. The region's migrant workers, who often live in overcrowded and unsanitary accommodations, are also at greater risk of infection.
While it's clear the virus has moved beyond Iran, the epicenter in the region, Nassif said Egypt had been "less than forthcoming" about the extent of its spread within the country's borders.
The Americas
Ongoing deportations from the U.S. to Latin America continue to be an issue for the region, as many migrants have spent time in U.S. deportation centers where it's easy to acquire the disease, said Charanya Krishnaswami, AIUSA advocacy director for the Americas. Earlier in April Amnesty released a report stating that U.S. immigration officials are failing to provide detainees soap and sanitizer at detention centers, or introduce social distancing.
Prisoners in the region face the similar challenge of being confined to crowded jails, she added. One recent photo showed hundreds of inmates in El Salvador stripped and placed close together.
Several governments in the region have been dismissive of the virus or used it as a cover for oppression, Krishnaswami said. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed COVID-19 and, like U.S. President Donald Trump, speculated openly about unproven cures.
In Venezuela, the government of Nicolás Maduro has cracked down on people trying to spread information about the virus because it "doesn't want the public to know how bad things are," Krishnaswami said, adding, "A global emergency is an authoritarian's best friend."
On Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned of "excessive use of force" across Latin America against people seeking access to basic human rights during the pandemic. The former president of Chile said her office has received reports of arrests and detentions in various countries by police and the military while enforcing lockdowns.


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