Life is changing quickly, and it is incumbent upon us to find the place of human rights in this exceptional era in which our individual decisions can kill others.
What can human rights offer in this moment of crisis? As a starting point, let’s be humble. Human rights researchers and activists may have some ideas, but we don’t have all the answers, possibly we don’t even have the answers to the most important questions. Human rights policy analysis was not invented for policies that change radically in a matter of days or even hours.
With half of humanity on lockdown, it is clear to me that in many countries we have surpassed the threshold of the legitimate restriction of some of our individual rights. I don’t like seeing growing police presence in the streets around the world, less so the army. We all want to live in a free society. But we also want to live, and we want the most vulnerable among us to have a fair chance to get through this. To respond to this pandemic effectively it may be necessary to limit our right to individual liberty, digital privacy, freedom to gather in groups and freedom of movement.
At the same time, however, some will see this crisis as an opportunity to test new policies that would not be palatable in other circumstances. Illiberal rulers are already showing their intentions, and as we move forward, political leaders will be tempted to prolong some of the measures into a new state of being. They will call for the closure of borders, the geolocalization of everyone via mobile apps, and the restriction of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Human rights defenders should continue doing what they do best and resist governments’ instrumentalization of the pandemic applying a “shock doctrine”, whereby they use the opportunity the crisis presents to further curtail freedoms.
Limitations must be narrowly defined in the law, necessary and proportionate, and subject to democratic control. I don’t believe we need to formally derogate our civil and political rights, even temporarily, but restrictions are needed, and they must be enforced. In previous crises it was important to show terrorists that they were not going to intimidate us, that they were not going to make us relinquish our rights. This crisis is different: The virus is not listening, we have nothing to teach it.
While the virus and the lockdown are bringing challenges to everybody’s daily lives, many of us could and should accept the limitation of some of our rights as a matter of responsibility. However, this crisis is happening to all of us at the same time, but it is not affecting all of us the same way. I believe we need a new set of guidelines to refocus our attention on what states should be doing to protect and fulfil the rights of people in poverty and of those at greater risk of disadvantage, harm and discrimination. These could take the form of a sort of “Siracusa Principles”, which set out the detailed obligations on governments when they limit or derogate civil and political rights in exceptional circumstances. A new set of principles could define the particular and positive obligations on governments to protect and fulfil economic and social rights in times of emergency.
When people are required to stay away from each other, geographically and socially isolated, some individuals struggle more than others. Together with transport for essentials, healthcare and social services, public broadcasters are proving indispensable. Equally, social media and the online world are vital to keep people connected. Universal broadband and the right to internet access appear now more important than ever.
In those countries with sufficiently advanced economies, public authorities must ensure, among other things, an adequate income for those who lose their jobs, which might include an emergency basic income, and guaranteeing that people will return to work if they are temporarily laid off. Conditionality in social benefit payments must be lifted and delays shortened drastically. Gas and electricity supply ought to be secured unconditionally.
Governments are required to make use of the maximum of available resources to satisfy socio-economic rights. In a time of emergency, this must include privately owned goods and facilities, like hotels and private hospitals. Evictions should be suspended, and rent and mortgage payment deferment options introduced, with extra requirements for corporate landlords. Responding to this pandemic effectively and fairly requires limiting the right to private property for the general interest.
Neoliberal politicians look like hardcore socialists by last month’s standards. Governments around the world have pledged a collective investment of no less than $4.5trillion, equivalent to the whole of Japan’s economy, or the combined GDPs of France and Italy. On top of that, the UN is calling for a $2.5 trillion cooperation package for the global South, where the virus is heading. We need to make sure that the payment of the bill is not deferred in its entirety to future generations via public debt. Once the storm has passed, the wealthy will have to chip in and pay the taxes that they have avoided in the last four decades. Their patriotism and solidarity will be tested.
We know this level of sudden public expenditure is not going to be the new normal, neither should it be, because it would be frankly unsustainable. However, we should pay attention to the fact that the privileged are expecting the state to intervene now that they feel vulnerable. Society and the market appear willing to make a remarkable effort, but the truth remains that low pay and poor and insecure living conditions have been routine for many for a long time. Low and middle-income families’ savings buffers have been seriously eroded by the welfare cuts of the austerity decade.
We cannot return to business as usual when we go back to normal, whatever normal means after this epoch-defining experience. There will be other crises and more equal societies will be better equipped to weather them. This pandemic is also a wake-up call for us in the international human rights community. What can we do with our policy and advocacy tools to contribute to the reversal of 40 years of regressive taxation, privatisation of public services and diminishing protection of workers’ rights?
In the future, let us remember the Coronavirus pandemic as the time when we hunkered down, rediscovered kindness and responsibility, preserved what we valued the most, and became bolder about what needed to change.