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COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak: Human rights defenders & civic freedoms

Public health measures and expanded government powers amid global pandemic pose added threats to freedoms and rights of human rights defenders, including those focusing on business-related human rights impacts. Some governments, and other actors, are using this crisis to attack defenders in new ways, stifle civic freedoms, and push through restrictive measures. Defenders become easier to target, when they isolate, which is compounded by the loss of protective accompaniment and the lack of media attention to their situation. In several countries, rural and indigenous defenders have lost their livelihoods and are experiencing lock-downs - including those in conflict zones - and are less able to raise concerns about harmful business projects as a result. There are also reports of factories using the pandemic to justify dismissal of labour rights defenders. Tech companies may also violate the right to privacy of defenders, as they cooperate with governments to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Some companies are keeping their businesses active, for example in Peru and Colombia, despite the local opposition - and some sectors are likely to use the crisis to lobby for lower regulations, as we are already seeing in Indonesia and the United Stateswhich could lead to more tension and violence in the future. This crisis also underlines that businesses benefit from defenders being able to work freely: this is now more evident than ever, as silencing of health professionals that tried to raise alarm on COVID-19 early, helped turn this 'potentially containable threat into a global calamity', with enormous consequences for businesses and the economy.

This section will feature the latest news on how the pandemic and the response to it is affecting human rights defenders that raise concerns about businesses, and their impacts on the rights to food, access water, labour rights, environment, housing and health. We will also highlight impacts on fundamental freedoms, such as freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, that these defenders need to be able to organize and work. Finally, we will be tracking new ways of protesting and organizing by these defenders and groups amidst the pandemic, and new demands in response to it.

Related In-depth area: COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak: Surveillance, censorship & privacy

Frequently asked questions

  • + Who are human rights defenders, focusing on business, and why are they particularly vulnerable during the pandemic?

    Human rights defenders, focusing on business, are affected-community leaders and members, and members of human rights and environmental civil society organizations, protecting land, environment, culture and livelihoods, labour rights defenders and union leaders, protecting labour rights, anti-corruption activists that denounce corporate capture and business involvement in bribery and corruption, and other individuals and organizations, raising human rights-related concerns about business projects, promoting sustainable development, and experiencing attacks and abuse of rights for doing so.

    During COVID-19 crisis response, they have been affecting in these ways:

    1. Harassment, killings, death threats, and other attacks and intimidation of HRDs related to COVID-19, while media and governments are paying attention to the pandemic
    2. New types of attack and pressure on HRDs because of COVID-19, for example, alleged violations of the curfews, increased presence of the police and armies on the streets & loss of livelihoods of indigenous and rural land and environmental human rights defenders
    3. Increased violations of the right to privacy & increased mass surveillance
    4. Disproportionate restrictions of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association & suspension of key democratic institutions, in the name of dealing with the pandemic
    5. Violations of union rights & threats of dismissals for labour rights leaders organizing for better protection during the pandemic
    6. Increased likelihood of digital attacks as activism moves increasingly online
    7. Increased risk of attacks on HRDs after the pandemic ends as we may see an increase in rapid investment, neglecting opposition and lacking respect for the rule of law, as states and companies will try to recuperate their losses
    8. Impacts on defenders in detention are particularly severe because their cases are and will be delayed

  • + But aren't some limitations on fundamental freedoms necessary during this pandemic?

    Some limitations on fundamental freedoms may be necessary during public health crises, but this can result in human rights violations if states enact policies and measures that unjustly and disproportionately impact our rights and freedoms, extend emergency measures beyond a reasonable time period, or if they fail to adequately protect people against preventable harms related to the pandemic.

  • + Why is it important to support human rights defenders during the COVID-19 response, including those focusing on business?

    - Protecting and supporting defenders right now is crucial, as some governments and companies are using this crisis moment to further limit freedoms and silence them, paving way for irresponsible investment and business projects in the post-pandemic future;

    - This crisis shows the importance of human rights defenders, as they were the ones to first alert the states to the urgency of COVID-19 – and in many countries got silenced for it: if they were allowed to speak and do their work, this could possibly save companies and governments millions;

    - Particularly at risk – but also largely invisible in their suffering - are indigenous, land and environmental defenders, many of whom are self-sustaining agricultural workers: lockdowns are leaving them in a condition with no income, which immobilizes them and makes it impossible for them to continue their struggles against the projects that pose human rights risks. In many countries, they are denouncing they won't die of COVID-19, but rather of starvation;

    - Irresponsible companies may indirectly benefit from this weakening process of HRDs and their movements, further skewing the level playing field for those companies that are doing business in a rights-respecting manner. Financial institutions that rely on information from these stakeholders to make informed decisions about their investment cannot do so when defenders are unable to organize and speak out.

  • + Are you tracking impacts on all human rights defenders whose rights are affected by COVID-19 response?

    No, there are other great organizations and media outlets doing that, and keeping track of general limitations on civic freedoms, such as ICNL's COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker that monitors government responses that affect civic freedoms, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)'s Tracker-19 that monitors and evaluates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on journalism, Front Line Defenders' ongoing tracking of attacks on defenders, and CIVICUS tracking civil society's responses to COVID-19 (https://www.civicus.org/index.php/covid-19), among others. We only try to capture abuses of rights, and new ways of organizing, of those defenders and groups that focus on business-related human rights impacts - and those protests and clampdowns that have a clear business dimension or a particularly strong impact on or involvement of the business community.

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