Are autocrats using the coronavirus pandemic to usher in a new age of authoritarianism?
Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, has warned some measures touted as necessary to fight the pandemic not only undermine basic freedoms – they can pose a danger to health as well.
"When autocrats censor or grab power or take various other steps that are antithetical to human rights, it actually puts us in a worse place in public health terms," he said.
Speaking to DW’s Sarah Kelly for Conflict Zone, the head of HRW said people recognize that the world is in an unprecedented situation: "Human rights allow certain extraordinary governmental powers in time of a genuine public emergency or crisis like we're facing now."
But he said such action needs to be "proportionate to our public health needs."
Roth compared the current situation to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US: "People called on their governments to protect them. And what we saw then is, you know, many governments overreached in the name of protection."
Roth said the Chinese government had censored doctors who were striking the alarm about the virus. He said time had been wasted that could have been used to save lives.
"What the Chinese authorities did is, you know, rather than listen to them, rather than act, they suppressed them, because this was the kind of bad news that Beijing doesn't like to hear."
"Censorship kills. It literally is antithetical to public health," he added.
Roth said China routinely uses its economic might to influence how their actions are portrayed, including in the pandemic.
"There was a lot of media attention just recently to African immigrants in China who were facing persecution. And Chinese diplomats in Africa were running around telling governments, you either stop criticizing us or we're going to stop giving you aid. And that's classic behavior by Beijing."
Kelly noted that the EU had watered down a report on Chinese disinformation about the pandemic in response to pressure from Beijing.
"The European Union allowed the Chinese censors to tell European leaders what they could say. I mean, that's ridiculous," Roth said. The HRW head said the EU should have been asking why China has refused to allow any independent inquiry into the origins of the virus.
Dictatorship in the EU
In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament in response to the pandemic. The measures have no clear time limit and include jail terms for spreading misinformation. Critics, including Roth, call it a power grab.
"What Victor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has done is use this coronavirus to create the European Union's first dictatorship."
Kelly noted that polls show Hungarians support their government.
Roth said support was for public health mesures: "The public overwhelmingly supports social distancing, restrictions on travel. I mean, every democracy in the world is doing that. Of course, that's appropriate. What they don't support is power grabs and censorship and self-serving steps of the sort that Orbán did."
Roth called EU political leaders "timid" in their response to Orbán’s rule by decree because they had continued to provide subsidies to Hungary.
Efforts to combat the pandemic have led some governments to use mobile phone data to automatically track the movements of those infected.
This has raised concerns about excessive surveillance, but Kelly noted polling support for this approach in countries such as South Korea and the UK.
Roth stressed the importance of protecting people’s privacy:
"Respect for privacy is the best way to protect people's health, because that's how you get the cooperation with public health initiatives that's required."
Future of multilateralism
Looking at the global nature of the challenge from the Coronavirus, Kelly asked whether US President Donald Trump’s mistrust of multilateral institutions is hindering the response.
"Trump is a disaster on every front when it comes to enforcing international standards or or commitment to international cooperation," Roth said.
Under the Trump administration, Washington has quit the Paris Climate Accord, left the UN Human Rights Council and most recently halted funding for the World Health Organization.
"Trump is in the process of attacking the WHO as a way of diverting attention from his own mismanagement of the crisis," Roth said.
But he added other countries are stepping up to support human rights.
"There's recognition that everybody needs human rights. You can't just trust the United States to do it, especially under Trump."
Kelly pressed Roth on HRW’s recent return of a donation of nearly half a million dollars from a Saudi businessman. The 2009 donation came with a restriction that it could not be used to research and support LGBT rights in the Middle East.
The incident was roundly criticised by groups which have called the HRW biased as hypocritical.
Roth said it had been a mistake to agree to such a restriction: "As far as we know this was the only time we ever did that and we will never do it again."
"We will not, as a matter of principle anymore, accept any gift that is limited," he added.
Kelly asked how Human Rights Watch could accomplish its mission in countries which accuse the organization of bias and keep HRW staff out.
"Governments, by their nature are tempted to violate human rights ... Our job at Human Rights Watch is to raise the cost of that happening … If we can raise the cost enough on by shining a spotlight of stigma on what they're doing, by enlisting the support of sympathetic governments, we can tip that balance and make it just not worth it to violate human rights," Roth said.
--Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading rights NGOs, carrying out research and advocacy in countries across the globe. Roth joined HRW in 1987 and has been its executive director since 1993.-