The future of the left since 1884

Taking liberties

Governments around the world are capitalising on the pandemic to limit freedoms and escalate human rights abuse. Helena Kennedy QC discusses.


Long read

We can take some comfort in this week’s announcement of new Magnitsky law sanctions which allow the UK government to freeze the assets of individuals who abuse human rights and deny them visas. It will be for us to ensure that these orders become regular tools in our pursuit of international justice. This is particularly important now, because the pandemic presents huge challenges to societiesthe risk of cataclysmic death toll means that governments have to take exceptional steps. Few people of sound mind disagree. It is why virtually every nation in the world has passed emergency legislation to end our freedom of assembly, curtail freedom of association, create powers to enforce rules on social distancing and quarantine and even develop apps which involve locational surveillance. The key part of this deal is that any liberties taken should not be out of all proportion to social need and the powers should be time limited and circumscribed 

The problem is that this contagion coincides with another contagion: the rise of populism and authoritarianismUnder the flag of the pandemic, or using it as a distraction, many of the world’s new style “illiberal democrats” have seized the moment. The escalation of human rights abuse is truly alarming. Horrifying, in fact. 

Everywhere women are facing a terrifying increase in domestic violence and murder. Across the Middle East and North Africa, in Pakistan and India, through Europe and the United States there has been an explosion of reported abuse. Women everywhere are being harassed and victimised on social media. They are seeing their children abducted and marriages forced on girls. And this is the crime that we are hearing about. Given the lockdown, many women cannot seek help; they are closed in with their abuser. They have no access to a mobile phone nor access to clean water and the hygiene necessary to ward off the virus. In places like Poland and some American states the opportunity is being taken to ban abortion or reduce access to it with no opportunity to protest given that public gathering is also banned.   

Police and military forces are using the virus as a pretext to round up dissidents – thousands are in detention in El Salvador. In Kazakhstan, removal of the right to assemble is being written into permanent law. In the Philippines, president Rodrigo Duterte has given the instruction to shoot dead anyone breaking the lockdown rules. Throughout India the opportunity to turn on Muslims has been seized. They are being blamed for spreading the virus and driven out of their homes and factories, sent on foot without their wages back to rural areas from which they had come to the cities. Blaming is the product of fear and a deliberate ploy by governments who fail to provide good information and stifle a free press. In parts of Africa it is the LGBTQ+ community that is being scapegoated and in China those accused of reintroducing the virus are African students.  

The Muslim Rohingya community has been subjected to genocidal violence and rape at the hands of the Myanmar military and are now huddled in squalid camps in Bangladesh. The Uighar Muslims in China are locked up in concentration camps. Until now it was hard to imagine greater suffering but the virubrings further devastation. In Kashmir, restrictive laws are being enforced in cruel and shocking ways and there has also been an internet lockdown so people do not even know how to access help if they are ill.  

Journalists are being targeted in many authoritarian regimes if they write in any way critical of governmentViktor Orbán in Hungary has seized power by decree and without time limit. He has also introduced laws which jail persons publishing matters that contradict his statements or policy, claiming he is ending fake news, but it is independent journalists who are under the spotlight. Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, whole tracts of Eastern Europe and all of the oligarch-run states of Central Asia are following suit.  

Then, there are the places where leaders are in denial or putting enrichment ahead of human lifeJair Bolsanaro, the Trump protégé, is childishly dismissive of the protections that are needed to contain the epidemic and continues to permit the logging and deforestation which means the virus is being brought into the realm of the indigenous people of BrazilDaniel Ortega in Nicaragua not only refuses a lockdown but actively encourages large public gatherings.  

Trump in the USA has declared openly that asylum seekers are to be barred any opportunity to enter the country to seek sanctuary whatever the evidence of persecution. This runs totally counter to international law. China has taken the moment to tighten its grip on Hong Kong with 15 pro-democracy veteran activists arrested and charged with conspiring to create violent protests last year in contravention of banning orders, when in fact they are all dedicated to peaceful protest and the rule of law. The recent security legislation wholly undermines the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the rights of Hong Kong citizens and is a breach in international law.  

The list of egregious conduct is long and grotesqueCurrently our own preoccupation is with the many who are suffering here in the UK and dying of coronavirus We are also fearful for our economic future and that of the world. It would be all too easy to lay to one side the stealthy erosion of the rule of law and to think these abuses of human rights are not our problem. But this another kind of contagion and it seeps into people’s hearts and minds and eventually it feeds on the body politic.  

As efforts are made to save the economy of this country and secure postBrexit trade deals, these human rights abuses could easily be forgotten and buried with the hundreds of thousands of Covid19 deaths. We cannot let that happen.  

Photo credit: AK Rockefeller/Flickr

Helena Kennedy

Helena Kennedy QC is a human rights lawyer, director of the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights and a Labour member of the House of Lords.      


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