SEATTLE, Washington — The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, introduced in May by Democratic Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts, is meant to “encourage the protection and promotion of internationally recognized human rights during the novel coronavirus pandemic.”
The Pandemic’s Effects on Human Rights
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 80 countries, including the United States, have declared a state of emergency. As a result, many have restricted access to public areas, closed businesses and restricted movement. While these actions are often necessary, countries still must protect citizens’ human rights. However, many governments are not complying with this international legal principle.
Some countries’ governments, such as Hungary, are using the crisis to consolidate power and silence critics. For a short time, Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban was able to rule by decree due to COVID-19 emergency regulations. Moreover, many nations, including Turkey, South Africa and Cambodia, are restricting information distribution about COVID-19 by using criminal penalties. Many journalists in Turkey have been jailed for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and critiquing the government’s containment management, limiting critical access to information.
Other governments have used the pandemic response as a way to discriminate against vulnerable minorities. For example, authorities in the city of Guangzhou in China have engaged in large scale discrimination against Black residents. Landlords, businesses and other institutions have denied service to Black people in Guangzhou without repercussions, making day-to-day life difficult and dangerous for many.
Authoritarian behavior is a violation of international human rights law. Moreover, it puts the world’s economic recovery at risk during a global recession that the World Bank estimates will push 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. Additionally, authoritarian governments have shown to stifle economic growth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poverty contributes to a host of societal issues that exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, including crowded housing and limited financial access to healthcare.
The Protecting Human Rights During a Pandemic Act
The Protecting Human Rights Act funds programs that support freedom of the press, civil liberties, democratic institutions and human rights in nations where government measures to control the spread of COVID-19 have undermined human rights. Funding would cover the next five fiscal years. If this act is passed, the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will submit a plan outlining support for human rights programs to Congress.
In addition to providing financial assistance to programs that support human rights, the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act proposes that the Department of State and USAID use diplomacy and foreign assistance to further the cause of human rights. Foreign assistance would be denied to nations found to be using COVID-19 emergency orders as a way of violating peoples’ human rights.
The Secretary of State will also submit a report to Congress on how nations previously included in the Country Reports on Human Rights practices have or have not adhered to international human rights standards during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report will also outline the effects of non-compliant policies on the country’s health care, marginalized groups’ safety and the government’s ability to control the spread of Covid-19. If a nation did not follow the international human rights guidelines, the report will also include how the United States used diplomacy, foreign aid, sanctions and public health information campaigns to assist its citizens.
After this initial report, similar monthly reports will be created until two months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declares that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. These reports will cover updates from the initial report, including a list of nations that removed COVID-19 policies restricting citizens’ human rights, and under what circumstances these policies were removed. After the pandemic is done, a final report detailing the effect of human rights violations during the pandemic will be made by the Secretary of State.
Promoting Human Rights Amid the Pandemic
As stated in the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, the U.S. helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promoting the rights and values needed for people worldwide’s well-being and dignity. If human rights are violated abroad, the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act states that this would threaten the U.S.’s security interests, health care and economic needs. A global health emergency cannot be used as a cover to weaken the health of international democratic values and human rights.