Human rights during the coronavirus pandemic

During a virtual event at Perry World House, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, spoke to PWH interim director Michael Horowitz about the importance of centering human rights and about holding governments accountable in a time of pandemic.

Person praying in front of a crowd in China with mask down around their chin, people wearing masks walk around them, outside a temple.

As nations like China use biometric surveillance to track citizens’ movements and Hungary gives its prime minister sweeping powers, it’s important to be vigilant about human rights, according to Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, as these emergency procedures enacted during the coronavirus pandemic bring concerns of power grabs and privacy infringement.

Al Hussein, Perry World House Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights, spoke with Michael Horowitz, PWH interim director and professor of political science, about the importance of centering human rights during this pandemic and about the continuing need for accountability from governments worldwide. 

“We see the enactment of emergency provisions, which is to be expected, which are enforcing and provide the grounds for lockdowns for restrictions on movement. That is all normal,” Al Hussein said. “What seems to be happening is in those countries that are already on a trajectory toward a greater authoritarianism; there we see things happening that make us feel nervous.”

Michael Horowitz and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Michael Horowitz and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Perry World House.

The talk was the first in what will be a weekly series of virtual events hosted by Perry World House as stay-at-home orders continue in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. About 200 people logged onto the event from all over the world, submitting questions via chat about topics from the fragility of the global economy to the effect of the crisis on refugees and prisoners to how the pandemic might affect responses to climate change.

China has been using biometric surveillance during the pandemic to track people’s contacts and movement, particularly through the use of a mandatory health app and by insisting all citizens keep their phones’ GPS on.

In Hungary, far-right nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was handed near-dictatorial powers in the name of keeping the citizens safe from the virus. The new legislation suspends elections and allows him to rule by decree.

To hold governments accountable and ensure that public health restrictions are rolled back when the crisis ends, Al Hussein says much will rely on civil society being active, with the international and local press and those in academia highlighting that the conditions for enacting these policies have lapsed so they can be dismantled. Individual citizens as well need to know their rights and to use their voices to speak out.

“We’ve seen from the way in which the international community approached the scourge of terrorism that, similarly, these rather dramatic counterterrorist emergency measures were put in place, but they seemed to last much longer than what was initially envisaged, and one has to hope that this is not the case,” he said.

Now is a time for strong, coordinated global leadership and for investing in organizations like the World Health Organization, he said. He lamented that the United Nations general secretariat hasn’t had a more visible role in managing the crisis.

“The U.N. needs to be right in the middle of this, coordinating the response and not fearful of the major powers, which is what it seems to be suffering from at the moment, and I wish it were not the case,” he said.

Al Hussein also cautioned that the virus has yet to play out in the global south, where countries lack the fiscal support for economic stimulus packages.

“What I think this has all shown us is how fragile the global economy is. It’s almost a wooden structure ridden by termites that have sort of emerged over the last two months and now is very rickety,” he said. “This is seemingly a dry run for the next sizable global threat, which is already in being and will only be more dramatic and more acute if we don’t take decisive action, and that is climate change.”

But he said he’s optimistic that after this crisis nations will better understand the importance of creating a sustainable, resilient global economy.

“One is hopeful when one realizes what a global threat really means--not a threat to one country but a threat to humanity more generally--that one will learn from this and understand that climate change is probably more unforgiving than this particular crisis. It won’t give us a second chance.”

The next event, on Tuesday, April 7, will feature Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Penn’s vice provost for global initiatives and an oncologist and bioethicist. On March 23, Emanuel outlined in a New York Times op-ed the five actions the United States needs to take against COVID-19 in the next 14 days. He will provide a status report on the fight against COVID-19 and put forward suggestions for next steps.

PWH is co-hosting the event with a transatlantic partner, The German-Marshall Fund of the United States, which has offices all over Europe.  

Anyone interested in attending the April 7 event can register here.

A recording of the March 31 virtual event is available here.