Activist countries

Human rights have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, in countries from Angola to the United States to New Zealand

Human rights activists and international leaders first warned in April 2020 that countries could use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to suppress human rights.

Human rights refer to a wide range of political and social rights recognized by international law. This includes everything from people’s right to work and education to people’s right to freely express their opinions and participate in politics.

Human rights experts and I show in new research that human rights violations finally happened in 2020. Each of the 39 countries we analyzed – including Saudi Arabia, Nepal , Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States – saw an overall decrease in human rights in 2020. 2020.

There is emerging evidence that some countries continue to use the pandemic as a reason to curtail human rights by muzzling dissent, and specifically by limiting the rights of people to gather or protest with others.

Our analysis of human rights in 2020 offers a window into the beginning of this downward trend.

Protesters march in New York during a Black Lives Matter protest in August 2020.
Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

No overall improvement

More than two years after the World Health Organization first declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, some human rights analyzes show continued human rights regression.

Emergency declarations, for example, gave the police significant power to quell political demonstrations.

Cambodia passed a law in April 2021, for example, in response to COVID-19, which grants the government the power to prevent any gathering or demonstration. Offenders can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Hundreds of individuals have been arrested for violating this law in 2021.

In March 2022, Thailand again extended a state of emergency, originally established in April 2020, until May, giving authorities broad power to impose public curfews and restrict assembly. Thai authorities charged at least 900 anti-government protesters under this emergency decree between May 2020 and August 31, 2021.

Results 2020

The Human Rights Measurement Initiative, a research group headquartered in New Zealand, and other human rights monitoring organizations continue to collect comprehensive global data for 2021 and 2022.

The initiative last reported human rights data in June 2021, informing our research.

But there are other sources of evidence that the pandemic’s damage to human rights will not be reversed quickly, even if COVID-19 cases decline around the world.

Some positive changes during the pandemic, such as the more serious consideration of homelessness, have been “overwhelmed by the many other negative impacts of government responses to COVID-19,” according to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative.

The initiative interviewed human rights experts, journalists and lawyers in 2020 and 2021. It found that government protection of civil and political rights and economic and social rights declined from 2019 to 2020.

This group produces human rights data because governments themselves are often reluctant to share accurate information about human rights violations.

Findings from the Human Rights Measurement Initiative are widely used by academics, nonprofits, and journalists.

The United States and Hong Kong are two examples of places where the pandemic has led to a decline in respect for human rights.

United States

The United States is one of many countries that performed worse on human rights in 2020 than in 2019, according to the initiative’s 2021 survey.

In the United States in 2020, public health restrictions, such as limits on public gatherings, also led to human rights abuses and excessive use of force by police, respondents told investigation.

Why people were protesting seemed to have determined whether police were targeting and arresting protesters, respondents to the survey reported. People who protested social justice issues, such as racial justice and gun violence, were particularly vulnerable to arrest.

Those arrested for alleged offenses during lawful protests during the pandemic were also put at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to cramped detention spaces where people could not socially distance.

New York police officers wear masks and carry a young black man through his limbs on a street
New York police officers arrest a protester on May 29, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

hong kong

China passed new Hong Kong security laws in June 2020 allowing it to crack down on opposition speech and arrest journalists and pro-democracy activists.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – a special administrative region of China – intensified in 2020. In 2021, the democracy movement in Hong Kong collapsed with the arrest of more than 100 pro-democracy leaders.

China’s government and police reportedly enforced pandemic regulations unevenly in 2020, says Human Rights Measurement Initiative – pro-democracy and government opposition protesters were more likely to face restrictions .

Respondents in Hong Kong said they believed the government was using the pandemic as a cover to restrict rights for other reasons.

Hong Kong officials have delayed general elections scheduled for July 2020 by five months, citing COVID-19 concerns.

In February 2022, Hong Kong again postponed elections for its next political leader, allegedly due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

Police wearing face masks stand above a row of young people sitting against a wall in Hong Kong.
Riot police arrest pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on May 27, 2020.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Lasting trends

The pandemic has sparked growing awareness of structural inequalities based on wealth, ethnicity, gender and race, giving some reason for hope.

In many places, governments are lifting COVID-19 restrictions, which could allow more people to return to work and school and to gather or travel more freely.

However, human rights continue to decline in most countries, according to the global alliance CIVICUS.

The pandemic also continues to divert public attention from some human rights abuses occurring in ongoing wars, such as in Yemen and Ethiopia.

Our analysis indicates that countries that had more human rights protections before the pandemic saw, on average, smaller decreases in rights violations in 2020 than countries that did not have as many protections. We believe that adopting policies and practices that protect human rights in times of calm seems to help countries weather the storm during crises such as a global health pandemic.

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