The coronavirus pandemic must not be used as a pretext for authoritarian states to trample over individual human rights, or repress the free flow of information, the UN secretary general António Guterres warned today in a fresh attempt to bring the UN’s influence to bear on the crisis. He said what had started as a public health emergency was rapidly turning into a human rights crisis.
Government responses to the crisis have been regarded as disproportionate in countries including China, India, Hungary, Turkey and South Africa.
Guterres has already called for a global ceasefire, and has warned of a growth in domestic violence as a result of the virus, but the UN collectively has been criticised for failing to have an impact in the crisis.
In his latest intervention, he warned “the virus is having a disproportionate impact on certain communities through the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups and the risks of heavy handed security responses undermining the health response”.
In its new report on Covid-19 and human rights, the UN highlighted the use of phrases such as “foreigner’s disease” to describe the virus, saying such remarks can lead to discrimination, xenophobia, racism and attacks.
Releasing the report, Guterres called for any states of emergency to be proportionate and time-limited, with a specific focus and duration.
Freedom of movement needed to be curtailed, he accepted, but he said the scale of such restrictions can be reduced by effective testing and targeted quarantine measures. He reported over 131 countries have closed their borders, with only 30 allowing exemptions for asylum seekers.
Thousands, the UN said in its briefing paper, “have been pushed back or deported to dangerous environments since the crisis began. Refugees, IDPs [internally displaced persons] and migrants live in overcrowded conditions with unlimited access to sanitation and healthcare”.
The UN pointed out that sometimes under the pretext of fake news, journalists, doctors, healthcare workers and activists or political opposition were being arrested. Online surveillance and aggressive cyber policy were on the increase. “Sweeping efforts to eliminate misinformation or disinformation can result in purposeful or unintentional censorship which underpins trust,” it said.
The best solution, Guterres said, was for governments to be open and transparent about their efforts to constrain the virus, including by allowing their opposition or civil society groups to scrutinise the executive online.
Although the UN acknowledged new technologies can help the fight against the virus, including by analysing its spread, “the use of artificial intelligence and big data to enforce emergency measures or to track impacted populations raise concerns,” he warned.
The UN’s report further notes that “the potential for abuse is high: what is justified during an emergency now may become normalised once the crisis has passed.
“Without adequate safeguards, these powerful technologies may cause discrimination, be intrusive and infringe on privacy, or may be deployed against people or groups for purposes going far beyond the pandemic response.”