The onslaught of COVID-19 has brought with it a health emergency of global proportions. This has presented a huge challenge to national leaders, to health systems worldwide, and to citizens. Unfortunately, it also became an excuse for human rights violations that are showing few signs of diminishing.
We all understand that governments have needed to act swiftly to protect their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic. And we understand this may demand extraordinary measures. However, a state of emergency must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary. If law enforcement or the military are given additional powers, it must be clear why. If public gatherings are banned and citizens are forbidden to move freely, these rules must be applied to everyone and not just to the supporters of opposition parties, to people with a particular religion, or to those with a certain skin colour. Arrests and fines must be well-justified and never arbitrary.
All 57 countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have committed to upholding democracy and the rule of law, even during states of emergency. And let us be clear: there is no situation in which it can be necessary, legitimate or proportionate to dismantle the separation of powers that lies at the core of any democracy. On the contrary, it is the democratic checks and balances that ensure our governments work in our interest - and not the other way round. A strong state is one that speaks with its citizens and respects their rights.
We are not only facing the challenges the health emergency itself has thrown at us. Those challenges that are approaching in the aftermath are at least as great; the social, the economic, the generational, and the digital divide, as people who were previously in a precarious situation find themselves in ever greater danger of tipping into poverty and isolation. For women, too, whose jobs are often less secure and worse paid, the threat both of poverty and of exposure to violent partners during lockdown has brought suffering where it was supposed to bring safety.
In this situation, inclusiveness is not a luxury. It is a vital aspect of recovery – and of security. The current circumstances are proving once again the accuracy of the OSCE’s comprehensive security approach, which rests on the three pillars of the political and military, the economic and environmental, and the human dimension. Political leaders who tolerate human rights violations or exacerbate tensions between different communities for short-term (and short-sighted) political gain are therefore jeopardising social cohesion in the longer term. As we have recently seen, those who feel excluded may also have the sense that they have nothing to lose.
It is because democracy and human rights lie at the root of the solutions to the challenges we are facing, and also because they have been so massively affected by the events and decisions of recent months, that the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which I have the privilege to head, is monitoring them so closely.
We are calling out intolerance wherever we see it, and working towards a broader understanding that it is through the strength of our diversity that we will overcome this crisis. Having seen health workers and carers from such a multitude of backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions saving lives at the risk of losing their own, this is the time to appreciate their contribution and celebrate our common strength.
The pandemic has been a time of particular hardship for already marginalised communities. Take the Roma, for example, who are often squeezed into overcrowded housing in congested neighbourhoods. Or migrants and refugees across the OSCE region, living in overcrowded camps in unsanitary conditions, and lacking even minimal protection against infection.
But while intolerance and inequality are at the root of many of the difficulties we face, there are others. One of the key checks to prevent abuses of power are democratic elections, and election observation is one of ODIHR’s flagship activities. COVID-19 has made it temporarily impossible for us to deploy our traditional forms of observation mission, but we are using this time to further develop our observation methodology, which has evolved over many years in response to changing situations. The pandemic has also created immense challenges for the rule of law in many countries as the democratic balance of power has tilted towards the government. For democracy to function, the curfews and lockdowns cannot be allowed to prevent parliaments and courts from continuing their work.
For all the difficulties I have listed above, our recent monitoring has brought home to me the fact that the democratic architecture is still standing, and with some innovation, its doors remain open. In spite of the disruptions to parliaments across the region, many of them have demonstrated an admirable flexibility and commitment in adapting to the current circumstances. And although the situation of migrants in camps is dire in many places, the agreement by a number of EU countries to host unaccompanied children demonstrated that this crisis is also an opportunity to show solidarity.
Despite the many challenges, I therefore remain resolutely optimistic. I have other reasons for this, beside the pandemic and the opportunities it brings for a renewed commitment to our shared values. This month, we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Copenhagen Document, in which all states of the OSCE expressed “their conviction that the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is one of the basic purposes of government.”
This may appear self-evident today, but in 1990, it was dynamite. In this slim text of just 26 pages, nation states that had been declared enemies for decades on both sides of the Iron Curtain pledged to develop and strengthen democracy based on the rule of law, to hold free elections, and to guarantee the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion, as well as the freedom to gather and to protest, and explicitly recognised the importance of civil society for the protection of these rights.
The states that signed the agreements in Copenhagen, and in Paris later the same year, were both farsighted and courageous. They were not only laying out the basis for the development of the region’s fledgling democracies, but also looked beyond the immediate challenges to a time of peace and growing prosperity. In 1990, this was anything other than inevitable. The challenges of that time were colossal, and only appeared surmountable to many people because of the optimism that reigned at the time, the “we can do it” atmosphere.
30 years ago, democracy was not treated by leaders of long-established democracies as a zero-sum game. There was an understanding that democratic dialogue means to start at different standpoints and arrive at common solutions. Post-pandemic, we need to regain that sense of possibility, of the positive change that each individual can make and the enormous difference that these changes can make on societies collectively.
Respecting human rights is the response of humanity to the shared problems faced by humanity, now as it was 30 years ago.
- Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir is the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and former foreign minister of Iceland
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