Coronavirus diary – Part 14
Unarguably, the greatest of all rights is the right to life. It is the numerus unus, and a condition precedent to the enjoyment of other rights.
Globally, COVID-19 poses a threat to the lives of all, hence the global lockdown. The purpose of the lockdown is to save lives and not to take lives. But even the best of human intentions are often exploited by forces inimical to humanity. Illiberal regimes and latent authoritarians are in a race for power grab under the public-health emergency regulations. Therefore, it is logical to focus on the state.
The state which was willed into existence to prevent the war of all against all, taking a liberal view, is the guiltiest of human rights violations under the global pandemic. The state in its basest manifestation, to borrow the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, is the “coldest of all cold monsters”. It can turn a man into a woman and take life arbitrarily. The pandemic has given vent to its basest essentiality. Hence scholars have begun to scrutinise what Patrick Gaspard, a former US ambassador to South Africa, has called viral authoritarianism.
This installment takes a panoramic view of some human rights violations that have taken place since the advent of the global pandemic.
I begin with Nigeria. Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, the security forces saw a move to save lives as an opportunity to debase them. As Nzongola-Ntalaja once noted, the state in Africa, an extension of the bourgeois metropolitan state, is neocolonial and authoritarian in essence. The Nigerian state exemplifies this characterisation. Some government agencies, such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), know this for a fact that they issued warnings. NHRC reported that Security forces enforcing the lockdown in parts of Nigeria killed more people than coronavirus. At a point, while the COVID-19 death toll was 12, security forces killed 18 people extra-judicially.
Besides, NHRC received more than 100 complaints across 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states during the lockdown. Indeed, the Inspector General of Police warned against violation of human rights under any guise. It was no surprise that during the current lockdown, the police in Lagos arrested an officer who was seen in a video extorting about $110 from a motorist, and another was demoted in Akwa Ibom state for assaulting a medical doctor.
On June 11, in a twist to the authoritarian hue of the Nigerian state, Nigeria’s House of Representatives conducted a public hearing on the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020, plagiarism of Singapore’s.
The bill, sponsored by Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Honorable Femi Gbajabiamila, sought to strengthen the legal framework for disease surveillance and control was a piece of authoritarian diktat. Some of its discontents included power for law enforcement officers to apprehend people on the streets on suspicion of being carriers of an infectious disease; and arbitrary power to the head of the Nigerian Centre Disease Control (NCDC) to detain members of the public and minors, indefinitely, at a hospital or undisclosed locations on suspicion of being a carrier of an infectious disease. Most vile of its provisions are sections 47 and 48 that empowered the head of the NCDC to order the compulsory vaccination of members of the public to prevent or contain a ‘suspected’ outbreak of disease while silent on the need for consent before any vaccination or any health risks that may perhaps result from enforced vaccinations. The contents were so repugnant that even the incumbent Director-General of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, stated the bill invested too much power on the agency. Also, the bill divested the state of any role in health matters that falls under the current legislative list.
The South Africa Defence Force (SADF) somewhat immune from law enforcement role was like a fish out of the water. Mr. Collins Khosa allegedly died at the hands of the army and police during a COVID-19 lockdown patrol. Experts attributed this incident to a mismatch between defence policy and practice on the part of the SA defence establishment. In Liberia the National Commission of “Catholic Justice, Peace and Caritas (NCJPC) noted the “torturing, flogging and using sticks” on a 33-year-old Mohammed Komara, on grounds that he breached security at the President’s house by officers of the Liberian National Police (LNP) and Executive Protective Services (EPS).
Equally, a pregnant woman in labour was also subjected to torture and traumatic condition for ostensibly violating the afternoon curfew. The pregnant woman, who fell from the bike, sustained bodily harm. In Mathare, a slum settlement in Nairobi, residents with little or no information about the lockdown were tear-gassed and beaten with canes and rubber hoses. A resident, Nyambura, who was hit, broke coffee flasks, her means of livelihood. Also, in the informal settlement of Kiamaiko, in Nairobi, a 13-year-old boy was killed by officers out to clear street vendors, eliciting an open apology from the President, Uhuru Kenyatta. Even before the lockdown, residents of the coastal city of Mombasa witnessed harassment. Officers assaulted people waiting for a passenger ferry and journalists covering the lockdown. In the wake of the curfew, a motorbike taxi driver who dropped off a pregnant woman at a hospital was killed by the police, which defended the use of force acting to instruction.
On April 22, 2020, the Egyptian parliament swiftly approved government-proposed amendments to the 1958 Emergency Law which gave additional sweeping powers to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and security agencies. The Law 162 of 1958 gives security forces sweeping powers to detain indefinitely and interrogate suspects, authorizes mass surveillance and censorship, seizure of property, and forcible evictions with little regard to judicial review. The amendment is ramifying to the extent that it has transformed the Egyptian state into a national security doctrine state. Under COVID-19, Egyptian doctors, who protested the poor official handling of the pandemic, were detained.
In late March, the Hungarian Parliament passed an emergency law that allows the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule, in effect, by decree.
The piece of emergency law, ostensibly to combat COVID-19 has no terminal or review nodes, a reality that has attracted criticism from concerned human rights and individuals including Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. An aspect of the law allows a five-year jail term for individuals found to have intentionally spread false information about the virus. According to The IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) the provision is in breach of the rule of law and international standards.
On its part, the Spanish state issued Royal Decree 463/2020, declaring a state of alarm to manage the health crisis caused by COVID-19,” Although not indefinite, limits the freedom of movement, the right to property, access to certain essential activities such as procurement of food or medication with indirect impact on “the rights to family life, peaceful assembly, access to culture and recreation have also been affected”. In the wake of the lockdown, Spanish security forces were seen snatching up old people in the streets and taking them to isolation centres. In Russia, there are complaints of excessive monitoring using cybertech, otherwise called “cybergulag”, perhaps inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Under the COVID-19 regime, the government deployed over 100, 000 CCTV cameras with facial recognition software installed in key cities of the country.
In Asia, it is the same story abuses. China’s legendary massive lockdown saw “censorship on and offline, intimidation, arrest and apparent detention of dissenting voices such as doctors, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)”. Despite India’s massive distribution of palliatives; its migrant workers were unfairly treated. They were ordered back home without money or means of transportation. The injustice of the process was accentuated by India’s Supreme Court that instructed that “the migrants be treated in a humane manner, including by providing them with enough food, water, beds and supplies as well as psychosocial counseling in shelters that are run by volunteers and not security forces”.
In the Philippines, President Duterte’s April 1st order, “If they become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead”, set the tone for violation in the South-east Asian country. A 63-year-old farmer was shot dead in Mindanao after reportedly refusing to wear a face mask. Protesters demanding relief aid from the government were arrested. According to Carlos Conde, a researcher at Human Rights Watch the Philippines said “The most worrisome aspect of tens of thousands of arrests is that they are thrown into crowded jails and holding areas” that eliminates the opportunity for social distancing.
In Central America, Honduras displayed the notoriety of Latino ‘gorillas’ in its authoritarian streak. On March 16, the government declared a state of emergency and suspended a range of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression.
By contrast, in liberal democratic states, for example, United States, citizens are participating in a public hearing concerning their right to wear or not a mask that resides in the realm of their natural and personal liberty. This was the case of Orange County, in California where citizens chorused, “let us breathe”.
The World Health organisation has advised that measures to curb COVID-19 must comply with “Article 3 of the International Health Regulations (2005), whose intendment is respect for “the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons”. In April, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned governments against human rights violations under the guise of emergency measures. In her statement, “Emergency powers should not be a weapon government can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power…They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.” Lately, the United States is considering a global response to the power grab. The “Protecting Human Rights during Pandemic Act”, which is to guide the US response to these power-grabs. By now, it ought to be clear that we must roll back all forms of authoritarianism under any costume.
Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.
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