Countries using Covid as an excuse to ‘crush dissent’, UN chief warns

Secretary general Antonio Guterres delivers his statement to the Human Rights Council by video at the United Nations in Geneva on 22 February. (Keystone/ Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The UN secretary general used his opening statement to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council to warn against countries using the pandemic to justify a crackdown on human rights and silence dissent.

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres has accused some countries of using the pandemic as a pretext to deploy “heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent”, weaken opposition voices and subvert electoral processes.

Addressing member states at the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, Gueterres warned that authorities have used Covid-19 to criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations.

“Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists — and even medical professionals — are being detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticising government pandemic responses — or the lack thereof,” he said. “At times, access to life-saving Covid-19 information has been concealed — while deadly misinformation has been amplified — including by those in power.”

Without naming countries, the secretary general accused some states of using Covid-19 restrictions to subvert electoral processes and weaken opposition voices. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is due to report to the council later this week on the human rights situation in Belarus in the run up to the 2020 elections and its aftermath, with a recent crackdown on opposition figures causing concern.

Gueterres also used his opening remarks to urge the military in Myanmar to release hundreds of people detained since the coup three weeks ago,  after the council adopted a resolution calling for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month.

“We see the undermining of democracy, the use of brutal force, arbitrary arrests, repression in all its manifestations. Restrictions of civic space. Attacks on civil society. Serious violations against minorities with no accountability, including what has rightly been called ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population. The list goes on,” he said.

“Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately. Release the prisoners. End the violence. Respect human rights, and the will of the people expressed in recent elections.”

The secretary general also warned against the “transnational threat” of white supremacy movements, saying groups are exploiting the pandemic to “boost their ranks” and gain supporters.

“The rot of racism eats away at institutions, social structures and everyday life - sometimes invisibly and insidiously,” he told the Geneva forum. “White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats. They are becoming a transnational threat. ”

“Today, these extremist movements represent the number one internal security threat in several countries. Individuals and groups are engaged in a feeding frenzy of hate - fundraising, recruiting and communicating online both at home and overseas, traveling internationally to train together and network their hateful ideologies. ”

The council will hear in March from Michelle Bachelet on systemic racism against people of African descent, following an urgent inquiry after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

Gueterres also drew attention to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and gender equality, citing higher job losses, skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, trafficking and child marriage, and an increase in burden of care responsibilities and frontline health work.

“No human rights scourge is more prevalent than gender inequality,” he said. “The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated entrenched discrimination against women and girls.”

Echoing the secretary general's remarks in her address to the council during the opening session, Bachelet said: “The global rise of extreme poverty, accelerating inequalities, setbacks to women's rights and equality, to education and opportunities for children and young people, and to the Sustainable Development Agenda are shocks that could shake the foundations of society. ”

“The pandemic ripped the mask off the deadly realities of discrimination, deep inequalities and chronic underfunding for essential services and rights,” she added.