UN warns coronavirus pandemic could become human rights crisis

UN chief warns of risks to asylum seekers from closed borders, and governments eroding freedoms under guise of virus.

    Policemen arrest doctors and medical staff during a protest against the non-provision of personal protective equipment for treating COVID-19 patients in Quetta [File: Jamal Taraqai/EPA]
    Policemen arrest doctors and medical staff during a protest against the non-provision of personal protective equipment for treating COVID-19 patients in Quetta [File: Jamal Taraqai/EPA]

    United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the novel coronavirus could give some countries an excuse to adopt repressive measures for reasons unrelated to the pandemic as he warned that the outbreak risks becoming a human rights crisis.

    Guterres released a UN report on Thursday highlighting how human rights should guide the response and recovery to the health, social and economic crisis affecting the world. He added that while the virus does not discriminate, its impacts do.

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    The new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, has so far infected more than 2.6 million people globally while more than 183,120 have died, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

    "We see the disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response," Guterres said.

    The UN report said migrants, refugees and internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable. It said more than 131 countries have closed their borders, with only 30 allowing exemptions for asylum-seekers.

    "Against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a pushback against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic," he said. "This is unacceptable."

    The UN did not give any specific examples of such measures.

    Reports of abuses

    In China, people who have spoken out on the outbreak, including doctors, have been questioned by police and arbitrarily detained.

    Cambodia's long-term leader Hun Sen has also been accused of exploiting the coronavirus to accumulate more power, cracking down further on dissent.

    Amnesty International released a report on Thursday saying the government in Thailand were prosecuting social media users criticising the government or monarchy to try and wipe out any form of dissent.

    "Through harassment and prosecution of its online detractors, Thailand's government has created a climate of fear designed to silence those with dissenting views," said Clare Algar, the organisation's senior director of research, advocacy and policy.

    "The government's attacks on freedom of expression online are a shameful attempt to escape scrutiny from those who dare to question them. And repression is escalating, with authorities seemingly using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further quash criticism and unlawfully restrict human rights."

    Questions have also been raised about whether police have been abusing their powers to enforce lockdowns in Europe.

    Guterres called on governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable and stressed that civic space and press freedom were "critical".

    He said: "The best response is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law."

    With businesses shut down and hundreds of millions of people told to stay home to avoid spreading the virus, the International Monetary Fund has predicted the world will suffer its steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

    The UN report said the pandemic was creating further hardship that "if not mitigated, will raise tension and could provoke civil unrest", adding that this could then lead to a heavy-handed security response.

    "In all we do, let's never forget: The threat is the virus, not people," Guterres said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies