Gianluca Costantini
Political Comics

Human rights defenders and Covid-19

The impact of the pandemic on human rights defenders and their work

Paris-Geneva, September 22, 2022 – As governments around the world have taken extraordinary measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, some have misused them to undermine human rights work and fundamental freedoms. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – a partnership between the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) – documents and analyses in a new report the numerous impacts of those measures on human rights defenders and their essential work.

As Covid-19 hit the world in early 2020, many observers had hoped that governments would have responded to this global health crisis by fostering togetherness and solidarity, protecting the most vulnerable groups within their societies, and engaging a meaningful dialogue with independent civil society in order to create a more peaceful, just, and inclusive future. However, the Covid-19 crisis has only worsened existing challenges faced by human rights defenders and has created new challenges as well. The global health crisis has in many ways paralysed the human rights movement and deprived it of many of its traditional monitoring and fact-checking tools. It has also led to an almost universal breakdown of protection systems, both at the domestic and international levels. This situation has not only led to a rise in serious human rights violations, but also to a sharp increase in attacks against defenders. Moreover, in many countries around the world, governments have seized the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext for imposing unprecedented restrictions on civic space and further silence critical voices.

In the totally unpredictable context triggered by the spread of Covid-19, many governments deployed more efforts to protect themselves from criticism than seek to inform, empower and listen to communities. This resulted in an increase of attacks against human rights defenders, including journalists, sharing information on the mismanagement of the crisis – or simply continuing their offline and online human rights work. Besides, the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and the impact of discrimination against human rights defenders across societies: in many places, imprisoned HRDs continued to be detained in unsanitary prisons while other prisoners were released; defenders from indigenous isolated communities and other defenders already at risk such as land and environmental rights defenders were even more subject to attacks – especially in contexts of isolation triggered by lockdowns and curfews, or in reprisals of their online activism; and women human rights defenders and LGBTQI+ activists also faced increased gender-based violence and discrimination. In many parts of the world, the Covid-19-related preventive measures were more generally instrumentalised to restrict the right to freedom of assembly beyond what is permissible under international law, and peaceful protests and gatherings were often faced with excessive use of force by the police.

The present report aims at outlining how the situation of human rights defenders deteriorated in direct relation with the Covid-19 context, and at formulating recommendations to State and nonState actors on how to restore and guarantee civic space, protect human rights defenders, provide a more enabling environment for their work, and prevent similar violations to occur in case of future pandemics or world crises. Continue

In China, in early 2020 the authorities launched a global disinformation campaign, and media censorship allowed the virus to spread without public knowledge for weeks. Numerous articles, social media posts or hashtags were censored, and whistle-blowers, healthcare workers and journalists were silenced.

For instance, Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who turned journalist, was arrested in Wuhan on May 15, 2020 after she commented on Twitter on the authorities’ countermeasures to contain the virus. She was sentenced on December 28, 2020, in a two-hour trial, to four years detention by the Shanghai Pudong People’s Court, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (Article 293 of China’s Criminal Law). The court rejected the application filed by Zhang Zhan’s lawyers for bail, live streaming of the trial, and a time extension of the proceedings, as well as their requests to have the defence witnesses appear in court to present exculpatory evidence. Her health deteriorated due to a hunger strike started in June 2020, and the subsequent forced-feeding she endured32. Between July 31 and August 11, 2021, she was sent to the hospital for medical treatment due to her deteriorating health as a result of her ongoing hunger strike. According to the journalist’s relatives, she at some point weighed only 40kg33. The authorities have repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to deny Zhang Zhan visits from, or contacts with, family. In October 2021, her mother was allowed to have a video call with her and later conveyed her great concern, fearing for her daughter’s life34. In March 2022 Ms. Zhang announced to her mother by video call that she had broken her partial hunger strike so that the authorities would stop force-feeding her. At the time of publication of this report, Zhang Zhan remains detained in Shanghai.

OMCT / China

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