Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Asia Pacific
This brief was developed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Regional Office for South-East Asia. In addition to highlighting the challenges, this brief provides policy advice and recommendations to ensure a rights-based approach is adopted in response to all disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges to the protection of human rights around the world, including the Asia-Pacific region. Civil and political rights are being pushed aside and, in some cases, racism, xenophobia, hate speech are being allowed to flourish. These trends need to be countered with robust efforts to promote fundamental freedoms of expression and association, while providing targeted support to the most vulnerable groups.
Specifically, some of the challenges identified are:
Civic space and freedom of expression are being constrained
The scale of the COVID-19 crisis has required countries to adopt extraordinary emergency measures to contain the spread of the disease. In the midst of this, disproportionate use of executive power has been reported in many countries while the role of democratic institutions has been shrinking. Moreover, in the context of rising ethno-centred nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, the pandemic can provide some governments with a pretext for repressive measures unrelated to COVID-19 to silence critics and restrict political rights.
The less transparent authorities are in decisionmaking, the more likely they are to use censorship and repression. As highlighted in a recent report by Amnesty International, blanket prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous concepts, such as “false news” or “spreading misinformation” are sometimes not reasonable or proportionate to protect public health.
Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, has expressed concern over hundreds of accounts of official retaliation against journalists under the guise of spreading disinformation. This practice is especially prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region according to the International Press Institute which has been tracking pandemic-related violations of press freedoms. These punitive measures have also been used to silence any criticism from health workers, whistle-blowers and the general public. Internet restrictions, cyberpolicing and worrisome surveillance practices have also been reported across the region.
Hate speech, racism, xenophobia are increasing in the region
Discriminatory rhetoric against marginalized populations such as minorities, refugees and migrants has surged in the context of COVID-19. False stories accusing these vulnerable groups of being responsible for the transmission of the virus have resulted in a rise of discrimination and in some cases violence against the targeted group. While some of the rhetoric has been fueled by disinformation that spreads on social media and mobile messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, some populist politicians and ethno-nationalist groups have also exploited public fears to push their exclusionary agendas.
There has been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka and in India, where social media has been flooded by allegations that Muslims were conspiring to spread the virus. which resulted in acts of violence.10 Thailand has witnessed a rise in xenophobia, including anti-Chinese rhetoric online, while in New Zealand, the Human Rights Commission received 311 allegations of racism and harassment towards Chinese and Asian people between January and May of this year.
There have also been concerns that the pandemic amplifies the vulnerabilities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ+) groups, which are already discriminated against in many countries. The pandemics also risks creating a context conducive to increased persecution.
The rise in hate and racism in the region is rooted in structural failures to address inequalities and the erosion of democratic values and systems and it serves to further undermine social cohesion. Failure to hold accountable those who propagate hate speech can create a sense of impunity among their followers and allow racism and abuses against victims to become normalized.
In addition to creating an environment of fear, such hateful rhetoric risks compromising the effectiveness of public health measures as targeted communities might feel discouraged from seeking testing or treatment voluntarily.
Human rights of migrants are being denied
Migrants have been hit particularly hard by the travel restrictions and economic decline sparked by the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, migrants face unique challenges which include limited access to health care, exclusion from social protection systems and many are vulnerable to being subjected to arrest and administrative detention. Even if healthcare access and testing are provided to migrants, undocumented migrants may not seek those services for fear being detained or deported.
In India, following the announcement of the lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, millions of impoverished migrants were left without any income. Such migrant workers are at the highest risk of being forced into debt and predatory interest rates even to provide for their daily subsistence. This can trigger decades of intergenerational bondage, including the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of children.
In addition, migrants are falling victim to rising xenophobia and discrimination which has resulted in crackdowns in the region. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, recently raised his concerns over raids by Malaysian authorities to detain migrants in locked-down areas. These raids resulted in the detention of more than 350 migrants in overcrowded immigration detention facilities. In addition to the risk of infection in such overcrowded facilities, it remains unclear whether the migrants have access to lawyers and can challenge their detention and deportation.
Another vulnerable group which has been impacted by the wave of border closures are refugees and asylum seekers who are often fleeing conflict, disasters or persecution. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says that out of 167 countries that have fully or partially closed their borders, at least 57 countries are not making exceptions for people seeking asylum, which is a denial of their rights as persons in need of international protection.
UNCHR has called on countries in the Asia-Pacific region to do more to aid boats full of refugees and asylum seekers in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea that have been unable to come ashore. The agency has reminded countries that “rescue at sea and allowing the persecuted to seek asylum are fundamental tenets of customary international law, by which all states are bound.”
Persons deprived of liberty are vulnerable to infection
Prisoners, detainees and persons deprived of their liberty are vulnerable to COVID-19 infection due to prolonged confinement in often overcrowded and under-resourced detention facilities. According to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, prisons in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Bangladesh are at over 200 percent capacity, while the Philippines has a 464 percent overcapacity rate, making it the second most overcrowded prison system in the world.
The large percentage of pretrial detainees is a major factor in the overcrowding in Asia-Pacific. In the Philippines, for instance, 75 percent of detainees have not been convicted of any crime. In Bangladesh, pretrial detainees make up approximately 80 percent of detainees, while in India, the number is approximately 67 percent.18 In response to the pandemic, some countries have suspended visits to prisoners, restricted movement inside prisons or cancelled temporary release schemes. These actions have led to riots and aggravated the physical and psychological conditions of detainees.
Early releases, short-term amnesties, noncustodial sentences and other measures to improve conditions in some prisons in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Afghanistan are noted as positive trends to reduce overcrowding. However, the scale of those measures has been deemed insufficient to counter structural issues with prisons of Asia-Pacific which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.