Pandemic used as 'pretext' to crush dissent: UN

Nina LARSON
·3-min read
Sri Lanka's opposition party has protested against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the suppression of dissent during the pandemic

The United Nations on Monday harshly criticised countries that are using the pandemic to justify cracking down on dissent and suppressing criticism.

Speaking at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council's main annual session, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres charged that authorities in a number of nations were using restrictions meant to halt the spread of Covid-19 to weaken their political opposition.

"Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations," he said, without naming the countries.

Speaking in a pre-recorded video message to the largely virtual meeting of the Geneva-based body, the UN chief lamented that "pandemic-related restrictions are being used to subvert electoral processes, weaken opposition voices and suppress criticism" in some countries.

At the same time, he said, "human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists, and even medical professionals are being detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticising government pandemic responses -- or the lack thereof."

- 'Illegitimate restrictions' -

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet also decried countries using Covid-19 as an excuse to impose "illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms... and unnecessary or excessive use of force."

"I think we all realise that the use of force will not end this pandemic. Sending critics to jail will not end this pandemic," she said in a video message to the council.

Covid-19 has already killed nearly 2.5 million people worldwide since the virus first surfaced in China in late 2019, and Bachelet warned that "the medical impact of the pandemic is far from over."

"And its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people have only just begun," she added.

Guterres also decried how the pandemic had "deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights."

"The disease has taken a disproportionate toll on women, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples."

As a result, he warned, "progress on gender equality has been set back years (and) extreme poverty is rising for the first time in decades."

In addition to inequalities within countries, the UN chief slammed inequalities between nations when it comes to accessing the Covid-19 vaccines coming to market as a "moral outrage".

A full 75 percent of all vaccine doses have been administered in just 10 countries, he pointed out, while more than 130 countries have yet to receive a single dose.

"Vaccine equity is ultimately about human rights," he said. "Vaccine nationalism denies it."

- 'Deadly misinformation' -

Guterres also voiced concern Monday at widespread misinformation around the world about the coronavirus and the pandemic.

In a number of cases, Guterres said, "access to life-saving Covid-19 information has been concealed, while deadly misinformation has been amplified, including by those in power."

Beyond the pandemic, Guterres highlighted the need for more action globally against systemic racism and ideas of white supremacy.

"The rot of racism eats away at institutions, social structures and everyday life, sometimes invisibly and insidiously," he said.

He welcomed the "new awakening in the global fight for racial justice."

"We must also step up the fight against resurgent neo-Nazism, white supremacy and racially- and ethnically-motivated terrorism," Guterres said.

"The danger of these hate-driven movements is growing by the day," he said, warning that they were "more than domestic terror threats."

"They are becoming a transnational threat."

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