Human rights activists are allies in fighting COVID-19 – why are they under attack?

By Lisa Maracani, Amnesty International's Researcher on Human Rights Defenders

COVID-19 has presented a set of huge new challenges which require governments to listen to advice, be open to criticism and scrutiny from experts, and consult those most affected in order to find solutions that minimize harm. States need to learn quickly from mistakes, adapt, innovate, and provide flexible and differentiated responses to the vast problems arising from the pandemic. This can only be achieved when diverse opinions and debate are allowed, and when different sectors of society are listened to and encouraged to participate. As the , a crucial way to fight COVID-19, is to “inform, empower and listen to communities”.

At a time of great crisis, what we would expect to see is governments bringing people together, fostering solidarity, and striving to protect those most at risk. Indeed, amid the shock of the first few weeks of the pandemic, many of us dared to hope that this huge upheaval might be an opportunity to create a more just, inclusive and caring world, and an environmentally friendly future.

What we have seen instead is many states lashing out at those whom they perceive as critics. Instead of unifying society, thin-skinned authorities in places like Nicaragua, Poland, or Tunisia, have ignored, criminalized, or suppressed information and critical voices. Other leaders have used this calamity to further their power and crack down on civic space, including in Hungary, the Philippines, Thailand, Azerbaijan or Zimbabwe. As the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression :

“People have suffered because some governments would rather protect themselves from criticism than allow people to share information, learn about the outbreak, know what officials are or are not doing to protect them.”

This is reflected in the abundant documentation of abuses against human rights defenders that we have seen and denounced in the last few months. In our briefing  we have put together dozens and dozens of individual cases - likely to be just the tip of the iceberg - of people paying a high price for their work defending human rights.

They include whistleblowers in the health sector, community activists, and journalists and bloggers sharing information and raising questions about the handling of the pandemic. Indigenous communities have been left without adequate health care and under siege from those encroaching on their lands; and at-risk activists have been left without protection and made into easy targets for attackers.

Women and LGBTI activists have faced increased gender-based violence and discrimination, and imprisoned human rights defenders and dissidents suffer additional punishment as they continue to be held in overcrowded, unsanitary prisons where they are exposed to the virus.

There are so many individual stories of human rights defenders under attack. One that stands out for me as it epitomizes state contempt for them, is that of Atena Daemi, a woman human rights defender in Iran, imprisoned for her anti-death penalty activism. After four years in prison and being subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including the denial of medical care, in June, she was sentenced to two additional years and 74 lashes on trumped up charges designed to keep her in detention for her human rights activism.

The pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and poverty, humanitarian crises and the impact of discrimination and racism in every society. It is likely that this will encourage more people than ever to mobilize for their rights. And indeed we have seen movements coming together to defend human rights and protest peacefully, stepping up and playing different roles in their own communities.

This has included providing information on how to protect ourselves from COVID-19 when information is lacking or contradictory, and denouncing the lack of adequate prevention measures and health services. More and more human rights defenders are involved in delivering humanitarian aid and advocating for groups that are marginalized and discriminated against, fighting government pushbacks on human rights under the cover of emergency legislation, and continuing with their long standing human rights work. States could learn a great deal from their 

This is why human rights defenders are important actors in the fight against the pandemic, and why states should see them as allies, not enemies. Without all the individuals and collectives who defend human rights worldwide, it will be almost impossible to tackle COVID-19 and save as many lives and livelihoods as possible.

As well as being a state obligation, is in the interest of states and society at large to recognize, protect and enable human rights defenders to carry out their crucial work. Only then can we mitigate the harshest impacts of the crisis, and ensure those most at risk are not left behind in the process.