Civic space another of COVID-19’s victims
German playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “War is like love, it always finds a way.” This observation can be extended to the actions of authoritarian regimes, and even some supposedly democratic ones, in their constant efforts to limit civic space and, with it, crack down on basic civil and human rights.
In the last few months, hiding behind the urgent necessity to monitor and contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), governments in different parts of the world have been cracking down on various freedoms and encroaching on people’s privacy in a brazen exploitation of the shift in the public’s priorities — a public that is either oblivious or not interested enough to proactively object to such assaults on its rights.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently highlighted that governments’ public health responses to the protracted COVID-19 pandemic have, in many cases, entailed unacceptable restrictions of key public freedoms, such as the right to freedom of expression; restrictions that have an adverse impact on civic space and, as a consequence, democracy.
Civic space is, after all, regarded as the bedrock of any open and democratic society, as it enables citizens and civil society organizations to freely participate in the social and political arenas and mobilize support for worthy causes, including the protection of civil rights, while holding governments accountable.
Many of the measures to contain and defeat COVID-19 intrinsically restrict some of our basic human and civil rights, including even the right to step out of our own home at will and travel whatever distance we like. Such measures affect our livelihood when we are not allowed to work the way we prefer to, or open certain businesses at times of lockdown. We are told how many people we are allowed to meet and we are even obliged to wear protective masks.
While the public understands and generally accepts such measures when they are linked to scientific evidence and when it makes common sense, other restrictions — such as those which advance a government’s pre-existing agenda that might include cracking down on minority groups — are strongly objectionable.
The Fund for Global Human Rights’ James Savage, who follows this disturbing phenomenon very closely, says that groups supported by his organization in different countries have documented how governments have used the pandemic to introduce sweeping and draconian emergency measures that grant the authorities “almost unlimited executive power, some of which (is) now hard-baked into permanent legislation.”
Some governments have used the pandemic to introduce sweeping and draconian emergency measures.
This haste to produce legislation that has far-reaching and long-term implications for society — instead of being a restricted response to a specific situation — is a clear sign of the strategically sinister nature of such moves, especially when the measures are not time-limited.
Savage spoke of “restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly through lockdowns and curfews, with punitive fines and powers to detain people (in some cases indefinitely),” and “restrictions on freedom of expression and the media with the aim of controlling information and quelling criticism and dissent.” It is more than likely that these examples blatantly compromise the privacy of millions of us through state surveillance by digital monitoring and data collection with no accountability, and are intended to outlive COVID-19.
A further disturbing aspect of the cynical exploitation of COVID-19 for political gain has been the explicit or implicit blaming of minority groups for its spread. This has been the case in India, where the authorities have allowed the spread of viral disinformation accusing the minority Muslim community of deliberately spreading the virus. Similarly, Yazidis and Kakais in Iraq and Christians are being scapegoated, vilified and assaulted as governments encourage and exploit this as a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for the dire situation. Consequently, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned in May that, instead of bringing communities together, the spread of the pandemic “continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering.”
And, as always, the media is not exempt from being on the receiving end of harassment in efforts to silence criticism of governments’ widespread failure to deal with the coronavirus. According to Human Rights Watch, journalists in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Venezuela have been harassed, arrested and detained for reporting or expressing what can only be regarded as legitimate opinions on how governments are functioning in the face of the challenges presented by COVID-19.
At a time when societies and communities should be coming together to deal with the deadly nature of the pandemic, and when civic space could help mitigate its devastating consequences, some governments are treating elements of civil society as if they themselves were the enemy, not COVID-19. If our civic spaces are not protected, a trail of destruction of many of our liberties will ensue and will linger even after the coronavirus is defeated.
Measures such as those used to track and trace infected people will be retained in order to monitor political dissidents. The warning issued by UN human rights special rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain that the world is facing “a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures” should reverberate loud and clear as a call to arms for all who seek to prevent the destruction of civic space.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.