Human rights activists and international leaders first warned in April 2020 that countries could use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on human rights.
Human rights refers to a wide range of political and social rights recognized by international law. It includes everything from people’s right to work and receive an education to people’s right to freely express their opinions and participate in politics.
Human rights scholars and I show in new research that human rights violations ultimately happened in 2020. Each of the 39 countries we analyzed – including Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States – saw an overall decrease in human rights in 2020.
There is new evidence that some countries continue to use the pandemic as a reason to restrict human rights by muzzling dissent, and specifically by limiting people’s rights to gather or demonstrate with others.
Our analysis of human rights in 2020 offers a window into the start of this downward trend.
No overall improvement
More than two years after the World Health Organization first declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, some human rights analyses show a continued regression of human rights.
Declarations of emergency, for example, gave police significant power to crack down on political protests.
Cambodia passed a law in April 2021, for example, in response to COVID-19 that grants the government authority to prevent any gatherings or protests. Violators can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Hundreds of individuals were arrested for violating this law in 2021.
In March 2022, Thailand again extended a state of emergency, originally established in April 2020, through May, giving authorities broad power to set public curfews and restrict meetings. Thai authorities charged at least 900 anti-government protesters under this emergency decree between May 2020 and Aug. 31, 2021.
The Human Rights Measurement Initiative, a research group headquartered in New Zealand, and other human rights monitoring organizations are still collecting comprehensive global data for 2021 and 2022.
The initiative last reported on human rights data in June 2021, informing our research.
But there are other sources of evidence that the pandemic’s damage to human rights will not quickly lift, even as COVID-19 cases decline globally.
Some positive changes during the pandemic, like addressing homelessness more seriously, were “swamped by the many more negative impacts of government responses to COVID-19,” according to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative.
The initiative surveyed human rights experts, journalists and lawyers in 2020 and 2021. It found that government protection of civil and political rights and economic and social rights declined from 2019 to 2020.
This group produces human rights data because governments themselves are often unwilling to share accurate information about human rights violations.
The Human Rights Measurement Initiative’s findings are widely used by scholars, nonprofits and journalists.
The United States and Hong Kong serve as two examples of places where the pandemic led to a decline in respect for human rights.
The United States
The United States is one of many countries that scored worse on human rights in 2020 than in 2019, according to the initiative’s 2021 survey.
In the US in 2020, public health restrictions, like limits on public gatherings, also led to human rights abuses and the use of excessive force by police, survey respondents said.
The reason people were protesting appeared to have influenced whether police targeted and arrested demonstrators, survey respondents reported. People protesting social justice issues, like racial justice and gun violence, were especially likely to be arrested.
People arrested for alleged infractions during lawful demonstrations during the pandemic were also put at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of cramped detention spaces where people could not socially distance.
China passed new security laws in Hong Kong in June 2020, allowing it to crack down on opposition speech and arrest journalists and pro-democracy activists.
Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – a special administrative region of China – intensified in 2020. In 2021, the democracy movement in Hong Kong broke down with the arrest of more than 100 pro-democracy leaders.
The Chinese government and police reportedly enforced pandemic regulations unevenly in 2020, according to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative – pro-democracy and government opposition protesters were more likely to experience restrictions.
Survey respondents in Hong Kong said they believe the government used the pandemic as a cover for restricting rights for other reasons.
Officials in Hong Kong delayed general elections set for July 2020 by five months, citing COVID-19 concerns.
In February 2022, Hong Kong again postponed elections of its next political leader allegedly because of a COVID-19 surge.
The pandemic has prompted growing awareness of structural inequalities based on wealth, ethnicity, gender and race, giving some reasons for hope.
In many places, governments are lifting COVID-19 restrictions, which could allow more individuals to return to work and school and gather or travel more freely.
Human rights continue to decline in most countries, though, according to the global alliance CIVICUS.
The pandemic also continues to draw public attention away from some human rights violations that are happening in ongoing wars, as in Yemen and Ethiopia.
Our analysis indicates that countries that had more human rights protections in place before the pandemic saw, on average, smaller decreases in rights violations in 2020 than countries that did not have as many protections. We believe adopting policies and practices that protect human rights during calmer times appears to help countries weather the storm during crises like a global health pandemic.
Stephen Bagwell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.