The Impact of COVID-19 on Human Rights: Recommendations to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Committee
The outbreak of the corona pandemic has worsened the crisis for democracy around the world. It has provided governments with a cover to shrink the civic space for pluralism and to curb fundamental human rights. In light of the impact of COVID-19 on human rights and the persistent oppression of human rights since the pandemic, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, together with Cordaid, Free Press Unlimited, Civic Engagement Alliance, Hivos, PAX and Amnesty International, formulated recommendations for the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Dutch Parliament prior to their review of the 2021 budget for Foreign Affairs.
Fundamental human rights under pressure
The protection of fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of association, freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press is of great importance, and is high on the priority list of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, since the pandemic broke out, democracy and pluralism are under pressure, and civil liberties and human rights have worsened. Freedom House has reported that since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries.
“Our data indicate that 40% of the world’s population in 2019 lived in a repressive country. The year before that number was only 19%.” – Marianna Belabla Barreto, Civicus
Authoritarian leaders use the combat of COVID-19 to shrink the civic space for pluralism. This trend is spreading fast, and not only in authoritarian regimes, but also in democracies. The global democratic space has been steadily decreasing over the past years, but 2020 is a new low.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom.” – Freedom House
The absence of international organizations, foreign journalists and the limited capacities of diplomats due to the corona-crisis result in grave human rights abuses and insufficient noting and documentation of the curtailing of fundamental human rights that is taking place.
Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director of the NHC, underlines the urgency of implementing control mechanisms to ensure the protection of democracy and the civic space for pluralism:
“Around the world, COVID-19 has put fundamental human rights under pressure. It is important to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while at the same time ensuring there is no lasting damage to our fundamental human rights that are to be universally protected.”
During the roundtable discussion, the speakers made the following recommendations for the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NL Parliament prior to their review of the 2021 budget for Foreign Affairs:
- Acknowledge that, especially during the COVID-19-crisis, a diverse, lively and resilient civil society is necessary to ensure that emergency measures pass the test of proportionality, necessity and temporality.
- Create wider mechanisms to sustain and strengthen civil society and including medium- to long term financing for networks of umbrella organizations, so they can be actively involved in drafting government policy in their specific contexts.
- Invest in the cooperation with (local) religious actors and acknowledge their role in reaching difficult to reach areas and marginalized groups.
- Support and sustain local independent journalism – as part of civil society – and human rights organizations so they can continue their vital work. This ensures they can continue providing the public with reliable information that helps the public survive, develop themselves and enables the public to check governments.
- Insist on the adoption of laws and rules that can strengthen civil society. Point to the existing legal and constitutional frameworks that ensure the rights and freedoms of civil society organizations, both regionally and nationally. Condemn legislation that is in conflict with international human rights. Restrictive measures are possibly temporarily necessary to combat the spread of corona, but these measures must at all times remain proportional and temporary.
- Intensify the execution of human rights policy at embassies, specifically the diplomatic support for human rights defenders. Embassies should implement EU-guidelines for human rights defenders
- Encourage governments to develop a more inclusive and human rights oriented response to the COVID-19-crisis. This response should acknowledge the circumstances of women and the youth, and gives them a voice. These groups are disproportionately affected by the (in)-direct consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, and often have little to no say in the policy creation process.
Why the Netherlands?
The Netherlands is one of few countries worldwide that has enshrined the furthering of the international legal order in its constitution. Article 90 of the Dutch constitution, loosely translated, states that the government furthers the development of the international legal order.
“In numerous countries across Europe and further, the rule of law is under pressure. Thus, it is both fitting and necessary that the Netherlands takes the initiative to win back the public space for democratic opposing forces.” – Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director NHC
To realize the aforementioned recommendations it is important that the government focuses on increasing capacities at embassies; thereby investing in the relations with the local civil society. It is also of great importance that additional financing is made available for the human rights fund, as this kind of financing enables local organizations to increase the space for civil society in their specific contexts.
The Netherlands Helsinki Committee hopes the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue its longstanding support for both civil society organizations’ initiatives that promote democracy and for democratization initiatives worldwide by local organizations via the Dutch embassies.