Covid-19: lawmakers push through controversial agendas under shadow of crisis

Yola VerbruggenTuesday 19 May 2020

Arbitrary arrests, violations of international human rights treaties and discrimination against women and minorities are on the rise as governments push through controversial agendas while the world is distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Governments are leveraging the pandemic, which has proven to be a hand grenade for some of the laws that are meant to protect human rights. This disproportionally affects women and minorities,’ says Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security.

The arrest of two lawyers in Hong Kong, Martin Lee Chu-ming and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, more than six months after the pair are alleged to have committed their crimes, is an example of the blatant exploitation of the distraction created by the pandemic, says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. According to Amnesty International, the lawyers and 13 other pro-democracy activists were arrested on 18 April for their role in organising and joining what Hong Kong’s government calls ‘unauthorized assemblies’.

In Poland, in the US, in many of these places where, for example, abortion rights have been taken away from women, there is no ability just now to protest

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute

‘They wait for a crisis, when heads are turned,’ says Baroness Kennedy. ‘It is a march against democratic rights.’

In Poland, the country’s parliament discussed in April a controversial proposal for further restrictions on access to abortions. The proposed law has been reintroduced after a similar bill was withdrawn by the government in 2016. As Poland has implemented a nationwide lockdown, opponents of the bill could not replicate the mass protests of 2016 that led to bill’s withdrawal. However, protestors still did turn out, in cars and on bicycles, despite the lockdown.

The law has been sent to a parliamentary commission but has not been voted down.

In several states in the United States, abortions have been marked as ‘non-essential procedures’ during the Covid-19 pandemic, and either remain prohibited or, in the case of Texas for example, were unavailable for a number of weeks. These restrictions on procedures are ostensibly in place to ensure medical resources are prioritised for treating cases of Covid-19.

In response, charities are urging the World Health Organization to declare abortion an essential health service during the pandemic.

‘In Poland, in the US, in many of these places where, for example, abortion rights have been taken away from women, there is no ability just now to protest,’ says Baroness Kennedy. ‘To put these kinds of laws through when the citizen’s right to protest has been removed, is a terrible affront to human rights.’

In Bangladesh, the government is quarantining a group of 29 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. The group arrived in early May, having been at sea for several weeks. Bangladesh’s authorities say the quarantine is to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Cox’s Bazar camp, home to almost one million Rohingya refugees. The move has drawn concern about the quarantined group’s access to aid, however.

In Greece, an extension to the country’s lockdown in late April led to the postponement of the planned removal of asylum seekers from camps on its islands.

During the Covid-19 crisis, US President Trump, whose campaign for re-election in November has been sidelined as a result of the pandemic, has been making good on the promises that got him elected four years ago. In a move to further restrict access across the country’s borders, President Trump signed on 22 April a proclamation temporarily suspending entry into the US for immigrants seeking permanent residence.

The proclamation – which will last for 60 days – refers to Covid-19’s impact on the US economy, and uses as its rationale the ‘impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor.’

Travel restrictions announced by the US in March, meanwhile, allowed border agents to repel asylum seekers arriving through Canada or Mexico without valid documents, on the grounds of public health.

‘Under international law, public health measures must be proportionate, non-discriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence,’ says Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. ‘Measures such as requiring a period of isolation or quarantine may be permitted, but the pandemic cannot justify blanket border bans which do not allow for asylum procedures as this violates international obligations to provide access to asylum and not to return anyone to a place where they would face a risk of torture or other ill-treatment.’

Hardman adds that international human rights law also requires authorities to address the health needs of refugees. ‘In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, any restrictions on basic rights for reasons of public health or national emergency must be lawful and non-discriminatory as well as necessary and proportionate,’ she explains.

Lockdowns around the world have posed challenges for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, meanwhile. Members of the community face discrimination in Panama and Peru, where men and women are only allowed to leave their homes on different days, leaving them vulnerable to harassment.

‘Progress made on charters concerning women and the LGBTI community are stalled and, with lockdown, citizens are prevented from intervening,’ says Baroness Kennedy.

In the shadow of the pandemic, it’s not only governments that see an opportunity to push their agendas. In the Netherlands, a proposed new bankruptcy law has been the subject of discussion for seven years. According to Dutch investigative journalism platform Investico, advocates of the new law are now urging Dutch members of parliament to immediately approve the law, arguing it would save businesses affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

The proposed law would make it easier for heavily indebted businesses to reorganise and effectively cancel those debts. But critics want an amendment to protect small business owners, as creditors, from potential misuse of the law.

Worldwide, states are relaxing procurement laws, typically to ensure public buyers can purchase sufficient quantities of medical supplies. This can increase corruption risks, such as price gouging. The non-governmental organisation Transparency International has warned that in some instances, governments have been forced to purchase masks at 25 times the original price.

Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com