The state of human rights in Africa amid COVID-19
June 22, 2020
Susan Muriungi, the Nairobi-based Africa Regional Director for Protection International, speaks to the ALC Pan-African Radio
ALC Pan-African Radio: Human rights questions have been raised about how governments around the world have been using emergency powers to tackle COVID-19. Are such rights in Africa more threatened now as a result of alleged abuses of power by the various security services?
Susan Muriungi: In the first half of 2020, we witnessed the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups and the risks of heavy-handed security responses across the globe. These events have had the effect of undermining the health response to COVID 19, as witnessed through injustices and the number of injuries and deaths that have occurred during the purported implementation of COVID-19 emergency powers.
In some countries in Africa, this has been made worse by rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a pushback against human rights. During the pandemic, such regimes have tended to disregard the rights of citizens, which should address the needs of groups most at risk, such as people living in poverty, ethnic and religious minorities, women, people with disabilities, older people, LGBT people, migrants, refugees, and children.
ALC Radio: If there has been an increase in human rights violations, how have African human rights defenders been able to deal with these, given the COVID-19 lockdown and closures of borders?
SM: African women and men human rights defenders have been adversely affected by the directives issued by most governments to tackle COVID 19. We have experienced an increase in the suppression of freedom of expression and limited access to information, particularly for journalists.
In spite of the fact that there should be a free flow of information in the midst of this global health issue, it has become increasingly difficult for HRDs in Africa to obtain and share such information. For example, this has had a direct bearing on efforts to ensure that governments are transparent and accountable when it comes to allocation of resources. Consequently, funds received by African governments for combating COVID are not applied efficiently.
Limits to gatherings and restriction of movement resulting from lockdowns and containment measures can be a double-edged sword for HRDs. For instance, the right of HRDs to assemble has been curtailed by restrictions from having gatherings. Collection of evidence for cases of police brutality has also been made difficult by lockdowns, which tend to take place during evening hours.
Furthermore, the same measures have also meant that many HRDs have limited access to justice, as courts have been suspended or working online, thus reducing the capacity of cases they can handle. Obviously, these limitations not only make it difficult to speak out against violations by the security forces but also embolden them to continue acting with impunity.
The mental health of HRDs has also become a cause for concern, given that a considerable number of them live in deprived conditions, sometimes in rural areas and informal settlements within urban centres. Job losses and income reduction resulting from the pandemic have affected HRDs socially, economically and psychologically.
This applies quite particularly to women human rights defenders who are faced with specific vulnerabilities characterised by patriarchal norms and attitudes. While working from home, they are hindered by the amount of household responsibilities they have to undertake at the same time.
Also, many have suffered increased domestic abuse as a result of confinement with their abusers. Attempts to work online for those who run local organisations are also limited by reduced resources to connect to the internet.
It is due to these overwhelming challenges that Protection International (PI) started a campaign highlighting the importance of continued support and recognition of the work of HRDs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The online campaign, dubbed ‘#StayWithDefenders in times of COVD 19,’ emphasises the Right to Defend Human Rights (RDHR) in these difficult times. The campaign’s ultimate goal is to support specifically vulnerable and marginalised women HRDs so that they can fully enjoy their Right to Defend Human Rights.
This social media campaign calls for a show of solidarity with women and men human rights defenders by posting photos and messages of solidarity. [More details on how to participate in the campaign can be found here.]
ALC Radio: Have African governments used the emergency powers as an excuse to suppress press freedom?
SM: The application of emergency powers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has created widespread challenges resulting in suppression of press freedom. In Ethiopia, a journalist, Yayesew Shimelis, was harassed and detained by the police for allegedly publishing information that took the Ethiopian government to task for failing to reveal the true extent of the spread of COVID-19 and related fatalities in the country.
The threat of criminalisation of HRDs has reached a new reality as journalists are accused of failure to adhere to government directives to curb the spread of the disease while reporting on the pandemic. In Kenya a journalist was severely beaten up by the police in the coastal region while covering protests by residents complaining of police harassment for being outside even before curfew hours. This was despite journalists’ services being categorised as ‘essential.’
Similar patterns have been experienced in other African countries, including Tanzania where some journalists received heavy fines for questioning the extent of the spread of the virus in the country. Tanzania has not shared any data on the COVID-19 situation since April.
ALC Radio: How do you see the work of African human rights defenders, post-coronavirus and what have been the human rights lessons learned during the pandemic?
SM: The work of HRDs in Africa and around the world remains relevant now and after the pandemic in more ways than it had been appreciated a few years ago. They must continue to focus on the push for states to respect human rights and they in turn must continue to receive support and be protected from the risks they face in their work.
Despite the public health challenges, COVID-19 presents opportunities for states to address human rights concerns. Responses to the pandemic should be cognizant of the need to mitigate the harms associated with lockdowns, containments and distancing measures, as well as address economic problems arising for those whose livelihoods and survival have been gravely affected.
In countries like Burundi, the late President Pierre Nkurunziza officially and publicly refused to acknowledge the presence of the health pandemic. In addition, the government has failed to heed incessant calls by human rights groups to release prisoners who in their thousands have been subjected to overcrowding and appalling conditions.
As a result, prisoners of conscience such as Germain Rukuki and the Iwacu 4 journalists risk contracting COVID-19 and needlessly dying from it. Protection International has and continues to call for the government of Burundi to release all prisoners currently serving unjust sentences. It is deeply troubling that the new regime under President Evariste Ndayishimiye has shown no remorse for the crimes and inhumanity displayed by the previous regime and has vowed to maintain the status quo.
Susan Muriungi is an alumna of the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London where she was awarded an MA in Conflict, Security and Development (2011-2012