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How Leaders Weaponised COVID-19 To Perpetuate Human Rights Abuse

In a new report, Amnesty International details instances where leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa used COVID-19 as an excuse to carry out human rights abuse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the terrible legacy of deliberately divisive and destructive policies that have perpetuated inequality, discrimination, and oppression across Sub-Saharan Africa, Amnesty International (AI) said.

The observation was made on Wednesday, April 7, in AI’s Report 2020/2021 tagged ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights’ which covers 149 countries and delivers a comprehensive analysis of human rights trends globally in 2020.

It stated that across the region, the devastating impact of armed conflict in countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Nigeria, was compounded by the pandemic as a number of states weaponised it to crack down on human rights.

The crackdowns included killings of civilians, arrests of opposition politicians and supporters, human rights defenders, and activists, in countries such as Angola, Guinea, and Uganda.

The report also paints a dismal picture of the failures of global leaders whose handling of the pandemic has been marked by opportunism and total contempt for human rights.

“We have seen a spectrum of responses from our leaders; from the mediocre to mendacious, selfish to the fraudulent. Some have tried to normalise the overbearing emergency measures they’ve ushered in to combat COVID-19, whilst a particularly virulent strain of leader has gone a step further.”

“They have seen this as an opportunity to entrench their own power. Instead of supporting and protecting people, they have simply weaponized the pandemic to wreak havoc on people’s rights,” said Agnès Callamard, AI’s new Secretary-General.

Using force to ensure COVID-19 regulation compliance

From Togo to Kenya, Angola to South Africa, the annual report highlights governments using excessive force to enforce compliance with COVID-19 response measures.

“In many countries, authorities violated freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to silence critical voices leading to large numbers of arbitrary detentions and killings of demonstrators,” said Samira Daoud, ‎Regional Director – AI West and Central Africa.

According to AI, authorities using legislation criminalising commentary related to the pandemic has been a presiding pattern. They used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to continue suppressing the right to freedom of expression, including by prosecuting individuals who posted comments on social media about government responses to the pandemic, for spreading “false news.” There was also the use of excessive force led to several cases of multiple killings, including while enforcing COVID-19 measures.

In Nigeria, brutal policing has resulted in security forces killing people for protesting in the streets, demanding their rights, and calling for accountability.

In Zimbabwe, at least 10 people were killed, while thousands including protesters, were arbitrarily arrested and detained in the context of enforcing COVID-19 measures. In Guinea, seven people were killed during demonstrations against the security forces’ enforcement of COVID-19 movement restrictions.

Some leaders have gone a step further, using the distraction of the pandemic to clamp down on criticism –and critics– unrelated to the virus, and perpetrate other human rights violations. For example, in Tanzania, authorities further cracked down on civil society activists by restricting human rights ahead of the October election.

The crackdown on protests in Guinea resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, hundreds injured and more than 70 others arbitrarily detained. In Niger, human rights defenders calling for anti-corruption protests were arbitrarily arrested.

The report noted that dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested in August in Côte d’Ivoire for participating in demonstrations against President Ouattara’s third term run. A nationwide ban on demonstrations was issued in Cameroon after the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) called for the resignation of the president and hundreds of demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested.

“Regional institutions have failed to make respect by States their founding principles on human rights protection. Some States like Benin and Cote d’Ivoire have contributed to the fragility of regional institutions like the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights by preventing individuals and NGOs direct access to the court,” said Deprose Muchena, Regional Director – AI East and Southern Africa.

“The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the failure to cooperate effectively in times of dire global need. The only way out of this mess is through international cooperation.”

“States must ensure vaccines are quickly available to everyone, everywhere, and free at the point of use. Pharmaceutical companies must share their knowledge and technology so no one is left behind.  G20 members and international financial institutions must provide debt relief for the poorest 77 countries to respond and recover from the pandemic,” Muchena added.

Failed by their governments, protest movements the world over have stood up 

AI noted that regressive policies have inspired many people to join long-standing struggles as seen by the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States, the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, and new, creative forms of protests, such as virtual climate strikes.

The report details many important victories that human rights activists helped to secure in 2020, particularly on gender-based violence. These include new legislation to counter violence against women and girls in Kuwait, South Korea, and Sudan, and the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina, Northern Ireland, and South Korea.

“Leadership in 2020 came not from power, privilege, or profiteers. It came from the countless people marching to demand change. We saw an outpouring of support for #EndSARS, Black Lives Matter, as well as public protests against repression and inequality in places across the world including in Poland, Hong Kong, Iraq and Chile. Often risking their own safety, it was the leadership of ordinary people and human rights defenders the world over that urged us on. These are the people at the frontier of the struggle for a better, safer and more equal world,” said Callamard.

“We are at a crossroads. We must release the shackles that degrade human dignity. We must reset and reboot to build a world grounded in equality, human rights, and humanity. We must learn from the pandemic, and come together to work boldly and creatively so everyone is on an equal footing,” Callamard added.

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Anita Eboigbe

Anita Eboigbe is a journalist and data analyst with nearly a decade of media and communications experience in Nigeria. She has expertise in human interest reporting, data reporting, interactive content development and media business management. Anita has written for several national and international publications with a focus on communication for development. She holds an honours degree in Mass Communication and several certifications in data analysis and data journalism.

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