Ken Roth: Smart Public Health Strategies Require Protection of Human Rights

"Nobody wants interference in their personal lives from governments." - Kenneth Roth

Since the early days of the pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued tireless reminders of a single axiom: Protecting human rights will make the battle against SARS-CoV2 more successful. Blatant violations will create openings for the virus to thrive. Under lockdown now himself in Geneva since the early days, Executive Director Kenneth Roth, reviewed some of the key principles at stake, and why they need to be protected now, more than ever, in the COVID-19 era.

What human rights issues has HRW been addressing from Geneva since the start of the pandemic?

Most of our refugee work operates from here. Our team of analysts who document human rights violations with Planet (an Earth- imaging company based in San Francisco) is also based in Geneva… but we don’t use it for the pandemic. We have various researchers here as well. Our role globally with COVID-19, which I am directing from Geneva at this point, is to highlight how smart public health strategy requires attention to human rights.

Can you give us a few examples?

One of our big concerns is that when governments respond to the pandemic, they tend to worry about their mainstream population, but ignore marginalized people. What the epidemic is showing us is that germs do not respect social barriers. If there is a group of vulnerable people in prison, in a migrant camp, disabled people in institutions, the virus will treat those places as an incubator and then spread. So, we have been trying to show that an effective public health response requires ensuring that everybody has their rights to access health care respected. That’s the only way to defeat the disease.

Restricting access to information can also have devastating consequences?

We have been focusing on censorship. We have seen that public health requires free access to information in a timely manner. In Wuhan, in the first three weeks of the outbreak, it censored the doctors who were trying to warn us, rather than hearing their call. That enabled the virus to go global. A study by the University of Southampton showed that if China had listened to those doctors rather than censored them, the virus would have had 95% less prevalence by the end of February. This is a powerful example of how censorship kills. When governments censor information because they think that it’s embarrassing or they don’t want to hear criticism of their response, that is a victory for the coronavirus.

What are the main issues of concern, as witnessed from HRW Geneva? You have issued alerts about lockdown arrests, surges in domestic abuse and rape, for instance…

A number of governments are using the epidemic as an opportunity to consolidate power. The best illustration is Viktor Orban in Hungary who is creating a dictatorship under the disguise of fighting the epidemic. Sadly, the European Union has responded in a very weak way, continuing to subsidize this authoritarian trend rather than putting pressure on him to respect the basic democratic values of the EU. You see parallels of Orban in many other societies where governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to suppress opposition.

Digital tools to monitor our daily movements, even after the lockdown eases, are another worry, aren’t they?

We are very focused on the rights of privacy. There has been much focus including in Switzerland on creating new Apps to facilitate contact tracing. It’s an interesting idea but it’s clear that for people to download it and use it, they have to have confidence that governments are respecting their privacy. We are deeply involved in debates about how to maximize respect for privacy while pursuing contact tracing. There are a number of Apps being developed, one by EPFL in Lausanne, one involving Google and Apple. People recognize that the location data is highly intrusive. If governments can collect the data about where we go in our daily lives, it’s a huge evasion of our privacy. So, the new Apps are designed not to use our location data but rather Bluetooth technology to simply determine who has been near you, and was somebody infected. The idea is to notify you without revealing who infected you, where you were, and without giving the government the information and keeping it for more than two weeks. These are steps, that if implemented, would be more respectful for privacy and frankly, would be essential for people willing to use these Apps. Nobody wants interference in their personal lives from governments.

But if well implemented, these could also be great tools to guarantee freedom of movement before a vaccine is available?

Yes, it’s another example of how respect of human rights facilitates public health because if you respect the right to privacy, people will use the App, and contact tracing will be better [achieved]. But if you ignore the right to privacy, people will not use the App and this method of contact tracing will not succeed.

Kenneth Roth, a US-trained attorney, has been executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993. He previously served as a federal prosecutor in the state of New York. He usually divides his time between Geneva and HRW’s New York City headquarters.