Nine medics detained and charged in Egypt for “spreading fake news,” “misusing social media,” and “joining an unlawful organization.” In China, 17,000 people investigated for “fabricating and spreading false information online.” And at least 84 prevented from joining protests in Cuba.
These are just a handful of the hundreds of examples of abuse over the past year that Human Rights Watch documented in a recent report on how at least 83 governments and their security forces used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on free speech and peaceful protest. Forming part of what the United Nations Secretary General calls a “pandemic of human rights abuse,” the free speech clampdown includes physically assaulting journalists, bloggers, and protesters; arbitrary arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of critics of government responses to the coronavirus, including medics risking their lives on the frontline; broad censorship through new laws and threats; and arbitrarily banning or breaking up protests against government responses. At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly. Similarly, Amnesty has revealed in two reports how security forces have carried out abuses in the name of Covid-19, while the Omega Research Foundation has mapped similar abuses.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association has said that many governments have adopted “measures geared more at cementing control and cracking down on oppositional figures than at ensuring public health.” Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Omega Research Foundation, and the Special Rapporteur will join forces on February 25 with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law in the margins of the UN Human Rights Council to spotlight these heavy-handed responses. That day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will report to the Council how states’ responses highlight the need to reform health care systems, address global inequalities, ensure equitable vaccines access, reduce civic space restrictions, and help marginalized groups. Given this extensive record of abuse, the Council should request the High Commissioner to monitor further abuses, systematically assess states’ compliance with their international obligations, and contribute to ending violations and providing support to victims. As the world tries to end the Covid-19 pandemic, it should do all it can to ensure the related human rights pandemic is also brought to an end.
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