EU launches another tool on pandemic's threat to human rights

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People walk along a busy street in Karachi, Pakistan, amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by: Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

BRUSSELS — As governments claim exceptional powers to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission is spending €350,000 ($400,000) on a new platform to monitor the consequences for democracy and human rights.

The online tool, prepared by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance — or International IDEA — is intended as a one-stop shop to allow policymakers, journalists, civil society groups, and the public to track the impact of the pandemic.

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Government measures to curb the virus, protect the public, and save economies are “pertinent and legitimate, up to a point,” Kevin Casas-Zamora, the institute’s secretary-general, said Tuesday in a webinar to launch the Global Monitor of COVID-19’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights. However, authoritarian regimes are using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their grip on power, he added.

“Even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers in ways that go beyond what’s healthy for democracy and human rights,” Casas-Zamora said.

Examples documented in the Global Monitor include journalists being arrested in Algeria for reporting on the pandemic, references to “the Shia virus” in Pakistan, and a decree in Bolivia that makes “generating uncertainty” among the population punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The tool will be updated twice a month with information on 162 countries, including all 27 members of the European Union. According to an online methodology, the platform will be sourced from analysis and data produced by International IDEA, a pro-democracy intergovernmental organization, as well as other organizations and media outlets.

Annika Silva-Leander, head of democracy assessment and political analysis at International IDEA, told Devex by email Tuesday that the information is compiled manually from internationally recognized sources and “all information is fact checked by International IDEA prior to publication.”

If the idea sounds familiar, the organization says on its website that the Global Monitor “builds on and brings into one place information from a number of different sources of partner organizations.”

“Even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers in ways that go beyond what’s healthy for democracy and human rights.”

— Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary-general, International IDEA

During Tuesday’s webinar, Elisenda Ballesté Buxó, an associate program officer at International IDEA, referred to numerous existing initiatives. These include the Pandemic Democratic Violations Index from the V-Dem research institute at the University of Gothenburg, the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the Centre for Civil and Political Rights’ tracking of policies implemented to combat the spread of the virus, and INTER PARES — also funded by the EU and implemented by International IDEA — which predates the pandemic but is tracking measures taken in response to COVID-19 by most parliaments worldwide.

But Ballesté Buxó said the latest Global Monitor is different. “We can find trackers that cover different topics,” she said. “But overall, what was currently missing was an easily accessible online platform that was independent, reliable, and that provides a succinct overview of COVID-19-related measures on country developments affecting key aspects of democracy and human rights.”

International IDEA said the tool is co-financed by the European Commission via a €350,000 grant for 10 months, through to the end of March next year. International IDEA is providing in-kind staff costs to the project paid through the organization’s core funds.

NGOs are encouraged to contact International IDEA to report cases of human rights violations related to the pandemic to ensure the monitor is up to date.

Asked which countries the EU is most concerned about, a commission official told Devex by email Wednesday that “the Global Monitor is an independent tool, it is not a Commission assessment. It is therefore not about our concerns related to any country.”

The official wrote that “the EU’s own monitoring and evaluation of its development assistance, which already takes into account human rights and democracy issues, remains in place as before.”

“The tool can, however, help to ensure more public accountability,” the official added, “allowing civil society organisations, governments and other stakeholders to follow the evolution of COVID related measures in respect to human rights and democratic standards.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.