Protecting Human Rights During the Pandemic

Even as governments across the globe rush to protect their citizens from the deadly effects of COVID-19, some are using the coronavirus as an excuse to violate human rights laws and expand their powers.

They are targeting whistleblowers, silencing critics, and infringing on citizens’ privacy with overly aggressive surveillance.

What can be done about this?

On April 16, the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program organized a virtual roundtable to talk about some of the problems and possible solutions. Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union served as panelists; Karin Ryan, the Center’s senior policy advisor on human rights, moderated.

Below the video you’ll find five key takeaways from their conversation.

Here are five takeaways from the discussion:

1. Emergency Orders and Quarantines Don’t Necessarily Violate Human Rights

International law allows governments to declare states of emergency, Harris said, but emergency declarations cannot be discriminatory. They must be proportionate, based in law, necessary, and timebound.

2. Freedom of Expression is Under Attack

In places like China, Brazil, Egypt, and Turkey, governments have targeted doctors, nurses, and journalists who’ve tried to get the word out about what’s happening in their countries, according to Harris. Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, and Oman have suspended publication of all print newspapers. Turkmenistan is reportedly arresting people just for saying the word "coronavirus." Armenia, South Africa, and Botswana, among others, have put in places rules restricting misinformation about the virus, but the rules are so vague that they could be used to squelch any criticism of governments. In the Philippines, officials have arrested people demanding government relief (and the president has ordered those enforcing quarantines to shoot to kill resisters).

3. The Pandemic is Exposing Long-Festering Human Rights Issues in the U.S.

COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the already vulnerable – particularly poor people and people of color – and exacerbating other longstanding issues such as gender-based domestic violence and unsafe, overcrowded prisons and jails. About 2.3 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated, according to Dakwar – and that doesn’t include those in migrant detention centers. Roughly a quarter of those are in pretrial detention – not yet even convicted of a crime. Because social distancing and proper hygiene aren’t possible in jails and prisons, they are now essentially "deathtraps."

4. This Crisis Does Present Opportunities

The pandemic gives us time to look at who and what is most important in our society, said Harris, time to think about how to reshape our countries to protect the most vulnerable and to create a more equitable society. In the last few weeks, the U.S. government has stepped in to offer some basic economic safety nets that would have seemed unimaginable just months ago but that could become the basis for a real transformation of U.S. society.

5. There Are Things We Can Do Now

This is a moment for organizing. People can sign online petitions for things like universal healthcare. They can help support robust, independent journalism. They can challenge government officials on social media. They can take part in in-person protests as long as they practice social distancing. They can vote.

Visit the Center's Forum on Human Rights »

Tune In Again: On April 30 at noon, the Center’s Forum on Human Rights will host another coronavirus-related discussion, "Colombia’s Defiant Peace Communities."

photo on homepage: Mstyslav Chernov

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