The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic provided an opportunity for authoritarian governments around the world to erode human rights under the pretext of protecting their populations’ health, says the World Report 2021 from international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW).
From Central Asia to Russia to Hungary, unscrupulous leaders used emergency powers to pursue their own agendas, clamping down on their opponents and forcing through legislation that restricted the rights of sections of their populations, encouraged by the failure of the US to call out abuses and President Donald Trump's open admiration of autocrats.
According to the NGO, the pandemic “provided a pretext for Russian authorities to restrict human rights in many areas, and to introduce new restrictions, especially over privacy rights”.
The July referendum on constitutional amendments – widely seen as rigged – led to several abusive laws becoming legally entrenched as well as making it possible for President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036. Following the referendum, according to the report, the “authorities launched a crackdown on dissenting voices, with new, politically motivated prosecutions and raids on the homes and offices of political and civic activists and organisations”. The year also saw the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny with Russian nerve agent Novichok.
In Hungary, “The government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to continue its attacks on rule of law and democratic institutions,” said the report. “The government declared a state of emergency in March, seizing unlimited power to rule by decree without parliamentary and judicial review. Before the state of emergency was revoked in mid-June, the government had issued hundreds of decrees, including on issues unrelated to public health,” it added.
Hungary wasn’t alone in its blatant abuse of the situation. HRW highlighted a speech by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev about challenges posed by the pandemic, in which he “implied he would use measures introduced to slow the spread of the coronavirus to crack down on political opponents, whom he described as traitors, enemies, and a fifth column.”
Just days later, the authorities arrested dozens of activists and bloggers, most of whom had criticised conditions in government-run quarantine centres or the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the pandemic’s fallout.
Turkmenistan – which continues to deny it has any COVID-19 cases at all despite strong evidence to the contrary – was a particularly extreme example. The country “experienced cascading social and economic crises as the government recklessly denied and mismanaged the COVID-19 epidemic within the country”, said the report. This came on top of existing problems, including food shortages, punitive restrictions on media and religious freedoms and the imprisonment of opposition activists.
“The government’s failure to address the ongoing economic crisis further aggravated the plight of the population. Severe shortages of affordable food and cash deepened social tension, resulting in unprecedented country protests.”
Central Asian offenders
Not only Turkmenistan, but all five Central Asian republics came in for heavy criticism in the report.
In Kyrgyzstan, HRW singled out the death in custody of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in July as “one of the low points of Kyrgyzstan’s rights record”. The country later descended into political turmoil in the second half of the year.
Tajikistan was criticised on numerous counts, including politically motivated jailings of opposition activists and journalists, harassment of relatives of peaceful dissidents abroad and restrictions on freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion.
In Uzbekistan there have been improvements, including in its human rights record, since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in 2016. However, according to HRW, “Uzbekistan’s political system remains largely authoritarian. Many reform promises remain unfulfilled.” It pointed to thousands of people, mainly peaceful religious believers, in prison on false charges, and reports of torture and ill-treatment in prisons.
Nor did the promises of reform from Kazakhstan’s new president, Kasym-Jomart Tokaev, result in meaningful improvements in the country’s human rights record. “Government critics faced harassment and prosecution, and free speech was suppressed, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the report, noting that the authorities continued to detain peaceful protesters.
Turkey is another long-time human rights offender, and Ankara was criticised for the “assault on human rights and the rule of law” under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"The president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an allied far-right party enjoy a parliamentary majority enabling them to consolidate authoritarian rule by passing rushed legislation that contravenes international human rights obligations,” the report said.
It also highlighted the long-standing problems of executive interference in the judiciary and prosecutorial decisions “reflected in the authorities’ systematic practice of detaining, prosecuting and convicting on bogus and overbroad terrorism and other charges, individuals the Erdogan government regards as critics or political opponents”.
And while the report called out Trump's hypocrisy by taking a hard line on Iran while ignoring other countries' abuses, as well as for the US sanctions’ impact on the Iranian economy and people’s access to essential medicines, the authorities in Teheran did not escape criticism as they “continued to repress their own people”. “The country’s security and intelligence apparatus, in partnership with Iran’s judiciary, harshly cracked down on dissent, including through excessive and lethal force against protesters and reported abuse and torture in detention. President Rouhani and his administration have shown little inclination to curb or confront these serious rights violations perpetrated by Iran’s security agencies, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei continues to greenlight these rampant abuses,” said the report.
Armed conflicts threaten rights
In several countries the pandemic came on top of armed conflicts, a combination that was doubly harmful for human rights.
HRW identified numerous violations of international humanitarian law during the six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, with both sides using banned cluster munitions. “All parties to the conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law,” said the report.
In Ukraine, the armed conflict in the east of the country "continued to take a high toll on civilians during 2020, from threatening their physical safety to limiting access to food, medicines, adequate housing and schools.” This included arbitrary detentions and ill-treatment and torture of detainees. Journalists faced harassment and threats.
The situation was worsened by the pandemic, as travel restrictions imposed by Russia-backed armed groups in parts of eastern Ukraine and by the Ukrainian authorities “had a devastating impact on economic and social rights, exacerbating hardship for civilians and driving them deeper into poverty. Older people, women, children and people with disabilities were hit the hardest.”
Those fleeing war or economic hardship were also the victim of abuse in parts of the region. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, there were “serious human rights concerns” over ethnic divisions, discrimination, and the rights of minorities and asylum seekers, as well as pressure on media professionals. Moreover, HRW warned over the fate of the 3,500 refugees and migrants in the north-western Una-Sana Canton, many of them sleeping rough. They include numerous unaccompanied or separated children.
On a more positive note, 2020 also saw a “renewed outpouring of popular support for human rights … In country after country, often at great risk, people took to the streets in large numbers to press abusive and corrupt governments to be more democratic and accountable,” HRW said.
Most notable were the mass protests that erupted in Belarus over the rigged presidential election in August. The protesters were largely peaceful but were met with a harsh reaction from the authorities. Those around election day were violently dispersed, with police “using excessive force and resorting to rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas,” said the report.
“Belarusian security forces arbitrarily detained thousands of people and subjected hundreds to torture and other ill-treatment in an attempt to stifle the protests. However, the abuse only served to increase public outrage.”
In addition, the authorities launched hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases against political opposition members, protesters and their supporters, and detained, beat, fined or deported journalists who covered the protests and stripped them of their accreditation. At least three protesters have died as a result of police actions.
“Former detainees described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and in at least one case, rape. Some had serious injuries, including broken bones, skin wounds, electrical burns or mild traumatic brain injuries. Detainees said that police, riot police and special forces picked them up off the streets, in some cases using extreme violence, then beat them in dangerously confined spaces in vehicles where they struggled to breathe,” according to HRW.
Another backlash erupted against the authorities in Poland, where a constitutional court decision banned abortion in almost all cases. The new rules were “imposed by a constitutional court whose membership had been manipulated by the ruling Law and Justice Party”.
There were also protests in Russia over the constitutional reforms as well as the removal and arrest of the governor of Khabarovsk in the Far East.
Hope for 2021?
Assaults on human rights were facilitated by the pandemic in 2020, but the year also followed several years of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US, during which time the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies gave tacit – and at times active – encouragement to authoritarian leaders around the world.
“Trump’s flouting of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad severely eroded US credibility abroad. US condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel,” wrote Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
In its foreword to the report, HRW was therefore hopeful about the end of Trump’s term, which is due to expire on January 20 – if he isn’t removed from office in the coming days – followed by the inauguration of his successor Joe Biden. HRW urged Biden to break decisively with Trump and work with global leaders who have sought to bolster the defence of human rights.
Roth wrote: “After four years of Trump’s indifference and often hostility to human rights, including his provoking a mob assault on democratic processes in the Capitol, the Biden presidency provides an opportunity for fundamental change.”