SPACES FOR CHANGE joined other civic space experts from around the world at the United States Congressional Briefing on Pandemic and Power Grabs: Protecting Human Rights During COVID-19 held on June 18, 2020, to discuss the parallel pandemic of governments seeking to use COVID 19 as an opportunity to limit civic freedoms. Organized by a consortium of international human rights organizations, the briefing was held against the backdrop of the US Congress considering a new legislation—Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act—that would respond to these autocratic strategies. It featured remarks from the sponsors of the bill, Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts, Senator Marsha Blackburn in the Senate and Representative Jim McGovern in the House.
While the world is witnessing the disease pandemic of COVID 19, another pandemic is raging by the side, primarily manifesting in the form of increased spread of attacks on democratic institutions: from fake news legislation used to arrest and prosecute journalists and doctors for speaking the truth about what is happening in their countries, to the legislative grant of excessive authority to the executive under emergency powers laws. Whether it is the Chinese government’s National Security Law aimed at limiting foreign funding for civil society in Hong Kong, or the Hungarian government’s emergency power laws awarding the Prime Minister the power to rule by decree during a public health emergency, or doctors targeted by the Egyptian government for protesting the poor official handling of the pandemic, or Nigeria’s overly restrictive legislative proposals designed to enlarge governmental powers to contain and respond to the outbreak of infectious diseases, all of these point to power grabs and rollbacks of individual freedoms using COVID-19 as an excuse.
The US law under consideration, Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act, is laying the legal foundation that can guide the US response to these power-grabs. SPACES FOR CHANGE’s Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri and frontline activists from Hong Kong, Hungary, Venezuala and Egypt shared thoughts on how the US can be supportive. In this regard, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri recommended a shift from sanctions regime on countries to technical cooperation between parliaments in the global north and the global south. For instance, peer-to-peer exchanges between Nigerian legislators and US congress on the development of human rights-centred policy responses will contribute to deepening technical cooperation and bilateral relations between both countries, allowing both sides to learn from each other and develop shared policy priorities anchored on human rights principles, with particular regards to COVID-19. This approach proceeds upon the premise that the transmission and reception of the right information between lawmakers across jurisdictions, as well as interpersonal influences and peer interactions may be as strong or stronger than sanctions in generating patterns of positive legislative behavior.
The congressional briefing, moderated by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Axios, was organised by Human Rights First, ICNL, Freedom House, Amnesty International USA, Tahir Institute for Middle-East Policy, Project on Middle East Democracy, Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas and the Committee to Protect Journalists.