Promoting international human rights in a time of pandemic

By Jonathan Liljeblad|27 May 2020
Jonathan Liljeblad

On March 16 2020, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a press release urging states against the abuse of their emergency powers in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Jonathan Liljeblad.

The OHCHR concerns come at a time of accusations from news media and human rights monitors that governments were using the COVID-19 crisis to justify an expansion in authoritarian control, with the imposition of indefinite restrictions on civil liberties out of proportion to the time and scope of policies necessary to address the public health dangers of the virus. Reports across regimes such as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cambodia, Egypt, Hungary, Philippines, Russia, Uganda, and Venezuela present examples of increased powers for censorship, surveillance, and constraints on free speech and assembly which were ostensibly adopted to facilitate public health measures but which are instead being used to suppress political dissent.

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The rise of authoritarianism under COVID-19, however, should not be construed as predestined nor inevitable. As a virus, COVID-19 is apolitical: it does not care about the ideologies of its victims. As a result, as much as COVID-19 may provide opportunities to constrict liberal values, it should also be seen as offering opportunities to promote them. For actors committed to liberal ideals, COVID-19 provides avenues for international action to counter the current authoritarian wave.

A prevalent logic among authoritarian states is that control is required to serve a paramount need for domestic stability and order, with societal safety coming through state-imposed centralised security. The attendant tendency is for the state, in construing itself as the supreme guardian of societal safety, to concern itself with throttling ideas and activities – either domestic or foreign – that it deems as threatening state security. In the case of a pandemic, however, such logic struggles because the threat to public safety comes from a disease rather than from the ideas or activities of dissidents. Even within the confines of authoritarian logic, the rise of a pandemic into an existential threat suggests that it would serve state interests to prioritise solutions to contain or cure the pandemic as a way of serving state concerns for stability and order.

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The pursuit of solutions to a pandemic entails a reliance upon medical science. While the preoccupation of medical science is more about diseases than politics, its method of analysis adheres to scientific principles that are sympathetic to elements of liberal values. In particular, the scientific method seeks data-driven reasoning subject to evaluation by peer review, a process which is predicated on transparency in terms of access and sharing of information; freedom to collect and evaluate data; integrity of that data; and critical study in open discourse to discern causes and consequences of a pandemic to identify appropriate treatment.

These requirements parallel liberal values, in that transparency relates to a right to information, data collection requires the rights of assembly and communication, data integrity implies independence from state manipulation, critical study involves the freedom of thought, and open discourse requires the freedom of expression. Further, there are underlying implied rights to life and security in setting conditions that allow researchers to further public health studies in safety. In essence, medical science requires basic elements of civil liberties in order to enable the full functioning of the scientific method in finding medical solutions. Science is about the spirit of inquiry, and human rights protect the spaces of inquiry. As a result, to the extent that addressing a disease like COVID-19 is a priority in preserving stability and order, it is counterproductive for states to constrain civil liberties and it is within state interests to support some measure of liberal values to improve the prospects for a medical solution.

Not all states have a domestic medical capacity sufficient to deal with a pandemic. In which case, there is a potential for engagement by the international community to render the necessary medical assistance. States which turn towards international medical aid open access for relationships with a global community of medical science, facilitating exposure to its exercise of scientific principles and their overlap with liberal values. In such scenarios, liberal states with superior medical capacity have an opportunity to advance their ideals, in that they are in a position to deliver medical expertise in combination with liberalisation on the argument that a liberal environment is necessary to maximise the prospects for a solution to a pandemic.

Such opportunities may be less available in situations involving developed states, which are more likely to have sufficient public health expertise and infrastructure to deal with infectious diseases like COVID-19. But they are more probable for situations involving underdeveloped states, which are more likely to suffer from a lack of public health expertise and infrastructure that render them vulnerable to the impacts of pandemics.

The continuing proportion of underdeveloped states in the world offers ample possibilities for transnational action by more developed partners. As a result, for liberal states with more advanced medical capacities – such as Australia – COVID-19 provides opportunities for international action in support of liberal ideals against current global authoritarian trends.

Jonathan Liljeblad is a senior lecturer at ANU’s College of Law.

Promoting international human rights in a time of pandemic
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