Testimony and remarks

COVID-19 and the Erosion of Human Rights

Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House’s director for special research, discussed with the US Senate Human Rights Caucus the indivisibility of human rights, the opportunities the COVID-19 pandemic poses for authoritarian leaders, and the risk to democracies.

Thank you so much for having me, thank you to the Senate Human Rights Caucus for organizing this event, and thank you to Senators Coons and Tillis for their interest and support on these issues.

I will need to speak in some broad strokes for two reasons: first, the pandemic is a truly global event, so there is not a country or a community on earth that has not been affected by it. The human rights impact of the event is truly global.

Second, the pandemic is still going on: its health impacts are still evolving, as we are seeing unfortunately in the United States, and the measures needed to contain its spread are still evolving. So we can only speak about what we see so far, and venture some prognoses about what could be coming.

So with those caveats, let me speak about what we are seeing. I will divide this into three major categories: the indivisibility of human rights, the opportunity of the pandemic for authoritarian leaders, and the risk to democracies.

First, the crisis of the pandemic underscores again how human rights are indivisible and interdependent.

We cannot impose a hierarchy and protect only some rights—for instance, as in parts of the American tradition, civil and political rights. In this emergency, we see that marginalized communities are the most vulnerable because their rights are already less protected. The right to housing affects the ability to shelter in place. The right to decent working conditions, and to organize for those working conditions, will affect whether you can do your job safely in pandemic conditions. The ability to access the internet affects the right to education. The right to be free of discrimination on the basis of your gender or your sexual identity or your religion or your ethnicity affects your ability to be free from state or community violence when a quarantine is imposed. And of course the right to medical care, including ability to access it without undue cost, is critical. Even the right to vote can come down to how well your other rights are protected in society before voting day.

So this pandemic is a wake-up call and a reminder about the ways in which we must improve basic protections so that they are available to everyone in our societies. We must protect rights when there is no emergency in order to protect rights during an emergency. In the United States and in many other countries, resources are not the issue: we have enough to make it possible for society to function while still keeping people safe. So our failure to do protect comes down to our lack of respect for the indivisibility of human rights, and we must correct that.

Second, the pandemic is a crisis, and a crisis is an opportunity if you are in power.

Eighty-eight countries all over the world have been forced to declare states of emergency or emergency measures, according to tracking by the ICNL [the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law]. In countries where there was already a trend toward consolidation of power in a single politician or party, as in Hungary, Turkey, or the Philippines, the crisis has provided an opportunity to take further steps toward that consolidation, whether it is further eroding media independence as in Hungary and the Philippines or censoring social media through new legislation.

As a subnote to this, I should also add that we must be concerned about situations where the crisis is strengthening militaries or militarized law enforcement at the expense of civilian government or outside the normal checks and balances of constitutional democracy. We must resist attempts to securitize the pandemic response.

Third, as a crisis the pandemic also threatens democracies, which must be careful to resist measures that could become instituted without consideration for their effects, or without adequate oversight.

A particular area of concern in this regard are new surveillance technologies, whether these are in the form of biometric surveillance like facial recognition, or apps such as those for enforcing quarantine that collect personal information and geolocate the user. There have been considerable issues with such apps. Of course there are problems in undemocratic settings, but even in democratic contexts these raise serious issues, as seen in the reporting yesterday that South Korea’s quarantine app had exposed the private information of people in quarantine through poor design and hasty implementation. We should resist allowing hasty measures which could create precedents for monitoring and surveillance that outlive the pandemic.

Let me conclude with some recommendations for Congress and the United States.

First let me blunt: we have to get it right here in the United States. If we continue to struggle with our response to the pandemic, if we continue to allow the virus to rip through our most vulnerable communities, first of all, tens of thousands more Americans are going to die and our economy is going to be crippled—but we will also undermine the credibility of democracy as a system of government, with long-term consequences around the world. We are in a competition of ideas, and democracy has to prove itself, right here and right now.

Second, it’s important to speak out on specific countries: the voice of Congress and the voice of the United States is necessary and important. We need to hear the voices of Congress when there are threats to human rights. It is so important especially when journalists, activists, or members of the opposition are being arrested or face imprisonment, given the risk of the disease for those in detention. A few countries I would highlight in this respect right now: Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Turkey.

I want to applaud members of Congress who continue to speak out violations in the name of fighting the pandemic both in the United States and overseas.

Third, if your boss has not already done so, I urge them to support the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (PHRDPA), which has been included in the House NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act]. There’s a lot in this measure, but the best part of it is that it provides for the conditioning of security-sector assistance based on violations under emergency rule. We hope this will be retained in the final conferenced NDAA, and also fully utilized once it is passed.

Thank you for having me, and I look forward to the discussion.