TACOMA, Washington — The World Health Organization officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, over 83 countries have declared a state of emergency, and in turn, have started implementing policies intended to curb the spread of the virus. The protection of human rights during the pandemic has become a global concern.
Human Rights Violations During COVID-19
The World Health Organization has also specifically expressed that all stay-at-home measures related to COVID-19 should not encroach upon human rights. Unfortunately, in some countries, it appears that this has not been the case and that conversely, certain governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to continue histories of human rights violations and centralize power further.
In response to this global crisis, Senator Ed Markey [D-MA] introduced S. 3819: Protecting Human Rights During the Pandemic Act on May 21, 2020. This bill is assigned to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and currently has nine additional co-sponsors. It is still in the first stage of the legislative process.
The bill aims to protect internationally recognized human rights during the pandemic. It references how the United States was a leader in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document upheld by the United Nations that provides a foundational outline to human rights on a global level. These rights include freedom of movement, religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly and freedom from arbitrary discrimination, detention and invasion of privacy, among others.
Specific Human Rights Violations Outlined
The bill continues to outline the specific human rights violations that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic, which stand to weaken democratic institutions if not addressed on an international level. These include violations related to discrimination, privacy rights, freedom of movement, speech and the press.
Discrimination against vulnerable minority populations has been furthered under the guise of a COVID-19 response in multiple countries, including Uganda and India.
Privacy rights and freedom of movement have been compromised in several countries, including Russia and China, through the use of surveillance technologies such as facial recognition software and artificial intelligence.
Freedom of speech and the free press are also coming under attack in countries like Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Thailand and Zimbabwe, where governments have placed restrictions on the publication of information related to COVID-19.
Policy Outlined in the Bill
S. 3819 states that the United States should be aiming to lead the international community in response to COVID-19 efforts and in prioritizing the protection of internationally recognized human rights. This specifically includes efforts to oppose COVID-19 as a reason to justify suppressing human rights and supporting efforts to combat the virus on a global scale. Upholding rights for the freedom of the press is also paramount.
The bill also mandates that the Department of State and USAID should provide assistance that prioritizes internationally recognized human rights during the pandemic. This assistance can be either direct or through international organizations or NGOs. It also outlines policy, funding, reporting requirements and country reports on human rights practices.
Additional Support for the Bill
On June 8, 2020, multiple organizations and bodies such as Amnesty International USA, the American Jewish World Service, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Council for Global Equality, Freedom House, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch, all signed a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to express their bipartisan support for the Protecting Human Rights During the Pandemic Act.
“During this precarious moment, it is crucial that the U.S. government lead as a global defender of human rights,” the letter states. The Protecting Human Rights During the Pandemic Act is a means for the U.S. to show exactly this commitment.
– Katherine Musgrave