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17 April 2020

Defending rights during a pandemic: Impact of Covid-19 on the safety and work of human rights defenders

This report was researched and written by Jewel Joseph & Ed O’Donovan

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, governments around the world have begun introducing and implementing sweeping restrictions on the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Such draconian restrictions are necessary to confront a rapidly contagious – and for some, lethal – virus for which there is yet no vaccine, but that some governments are using this crisis to specifically target human rights defenders (HRDs) is both concerning and revealing. The most recent example of this came over the weekend when 15 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested for their alleged role in “organising and participating” in demonstrations last year. With the rest of the world distracted by the pandemic and a public unable to gather in protest, the Hong Kong authorities used the opportunity to round up some of those whose years-long human rights activism has made them well-recognised internationally and a thorn in the side of Beijing. Similar moves against HRDs in other countries can be expected over the coming months. 

States have recognised that prison conditions enable the quick spread of Covid-19 and have subsequently released large numbers of prisoners, but HRDs remain jailed. As a result of their work exposing human rights violations, fighting for the rights of others and exposing corruption, defenders are seen by repressive governments as a fundamental challenge to their rule and are often singled out for the harshest treatment. In Iran, for example, where nearly 40% of its prison population has been released, women activists Nasrin Sotoudeh, Narges Mohammadi and Atena Daemi remain imprisoned for their peaceful work. Similarly, in Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree granting pardons for 901 prisoners “for humanitarian reasons” last month, yet numerous human rights defenders, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, were among those who remain in unsanitary prisons. In Spain, the Supreme Court warned civil servants in Catalonia that they could be committing the crime of “breach of official duty” if they authorised the release of political prisoners, including HRD Jordi Cuixart, to house arrest as part of a process by the Catalan government to make more room in prisons to cope with the crisis.

Journalists, bloggers and those covering the Covid-19 response have been targeted. In Venezuela, journalist Darvinson Rojas was arrested by special agent forces for his reporting on the pandemic. Similarly, numerous reports of journalists and HRDs being arrested, placed under house arrest, harassed and threatened for their criticisms of governments’ handling of the coronavirus have been documented in a number of countries, including China, El Salvador, Iraq, Turkey, Serbia, Egypt, Iran, Belarus and Vietnam. In China, Chen Qiushi, a citizen-journalist who had reported critically on the government’s response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, has been missing for nearly two months. In El Salvador, President Bukele accused human rights organisations of “being on the side of the virus” after they questioned some of the restrictive measures he was implementing in a country which has been heavily scarred by autocratic rule in its recent past. In light of the increasing number of attacks on journalists, UN human rights experts issued a joint statement reminding governments that: “The right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions.”

Additionally, HRDs who were already at risk because of their work have been further impacted by the general restrictions. Front Line Defenders has received reports of activists who were arrested on trumped-up charges before restrictions were implemented and, while in custody, governments announced that either hearings would be suspended or would take place behind closed doors. For those defenders whose hearings have been suspended until restrictions have been lifted, they are now being held in detention centres in often unhygienic conditions when they should not be in custody in the first place. In China, artist and HRD Zhui Hun was formally indicted on 1 February after his detention the previous May. However, a court date for his case is yet to be announced, with Covid-19 being used as an excuse for the delay. He remains in detention in Nanjing. HRDs whose hearings are taking place without the possibility of observers or monitors, because their work is viewed as a challenge to ruling elites, are often more at risk in these circumstances. While in some countries the presence of trial monitors, journalists or foreign diplomats can contribute to a fairer judicial process, when those observers are not permitted to attend, as is currently the case in many jurisdictions, the risk of unfair proceedings and political judgements increases significantly.

The outbreak of the virus has also been used as an excuse to prolong the incommunicado detention of HRDs. Requests for access to detained HRDs have been denied and proceedings in their cases have been postponed until further notice. Chinese authorities used the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to send human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang back to his home town of Jinan after serving four and a half years in prison, despite having lived in Beijing with his wife and son for years prior to his imprisonment. Although released HRDs are often sent back to their home towns to isolate them from their networks of support, often in bigger cities, this time the authorities maintained that Wang was being returned to Jinan for a 14-day "precautionary quarantine".

Quarantine measures have made it difficult for HRDs facing threats to file complaints with police and access judicial remedies. In Chile, a woman human rights defender who works to defend the rights of marginalised communities to access water was unable to file a formal complaint after receiving misogynistic threats and death threats. There have also been instances where threats to weaponised the virus to target defenders, often women, online. In El Salvador, Bessy Rios was threatened that she would be contaminated with Covid-19 in retaliation for her work on reproductive rights.

As has been reported elsewhere, since the imposition of curfews in Colombia on 19 March, six HRDs, including indigenous peoples’ rights defenders and women human rights defenders, have been killed in separate attacks. Activists who have been instructed to stay in their homes as state-provided protection measures are scaled back or withdrawn are targeted by armed groups who take advantage of this opportunity to attack. In the state of Yucatán in Mexico, the authorities have threatened to withdraw the security escorts of WHRDs to safeguard the health of the security personnel. The WHRDs had been granted protection measures by Federal authorities and implemented by local authorities because of serious risks they are facing on account of their work. In Brazil, where indigenous leaders are frequently killed, there have been reports of increased illegal mining and logging on indigenous territories while attention is focussed elsewhere. With restrictions on movement in place, communities and their leaders have been left isolated from outside support, placing them at higher risk when they attempt to defend their lands. Given the vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples to viruses brought into their communities by outsiders, the presence of illegal miners and loggers on indigenous territories is particularly worrying.

Enhanced government power, increased militarization and police presence have become the new normal in many parts of the world giving rise to concerns that these powers will not be relinquished once the crisis has passed. In the Philippines, for example, President Rodrigo Duterte has assumed emergency powers that could remain in force until 2022. Following protests by residents of a Manila slum who said they had not received any food aid since a strict lockdown had begun two weeks’ previously, demonstrating the increased risk at the intersection of poverty and rights defence, President Duterte announced that he would instruct the police and military to “shoot dead” anybody who violated the quarantine in future. In a clear sign that Duterte is attempting to use the crisis to quash any questioning of government policy, he stated: "Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose." In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used his party’s parliamentary majority to secure an indefinite state of emergency that enables him to rule by decree and imprison those who spread what the government deems to be false news which could ‘alarm the public’ for up to five years.

HRDs also fear the long-term consequences and implications of increased digital surveillance being implemented around the world to purportedly stay the spread of the virus. The Israeli government has cited Covid-19 as a reason to work jointly with NSO Group, an agency notorious for supplying malware to governments to gather data from users’ phones. HRDs have been targeted by such malware in the past. In Russia, the state is installing one of the world’s largest surveillance camera systems equipped with facial recognition technology. These technologies will make the work of HRDs significantly more challenging both in the context of the virus itself and once it has passed, with the likelihood of continued monitoring of their movements and work.

Defenders working on the margins of society, without much access to resources or support have faced particular challenges. In Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal, a shelter providing a safe space to LGBTI+ youth, who are often shunned by their families, was raided by security forces. Among the 23 people arrested and charged with ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease’ were HRDs working at the shelter. The arrests ignored the particular vulnerabilities of this section of the population and that they were complying with a government order to stay indoors. In Bangladesh, defending rights within the world’s largest refugee camp has proven to be especially difficult. HRDs both inside and outside the camps have been unable to send and receive vital information about the virus due to internet restrictions that have been in place since last September. Telecommunication restrictions have made it hard to even reach helplines dedicated to the Covid-19 response, making it especially challenging for defenders within the camps to raise awareness of the risks involved and the preventive measures that should be taken.

While curbing the spread of Covid-19 must a priority for every government, states must also refrain from additionally targeting HRDs and civil society. Respect for human rights and protection of human rights defenders are essential to the success and effectiveness of public health responses and recovery from the pandemic. As stated by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.” With the world focused on the pandemic, it is clear governments are taking powers at a time their citizens cannot mobilise to protest and challenge the authorities. There is a growing concern that when this crisis passes, human rights defenders in a number of countries will be facing greater security risks as a result of measures passed to ostensibly deal with the pandemic.