Human Rights Council: Covid-19 pandemic has become a pretext for repression for some states

“During the pandemic, state emergency measures sometimes went beyond what was necessary and proportionate to protecting public health,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.

Civic space has been restricted due to the suppression of peaceful assembly and expression, as well as threats against dissidents, including through digital surveillance, she added during a Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting on good governance in advancing human rights during and post-COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifty elections hit by internet restrictions in five years

Equally worrisome is the scale of internet outages during the pandemic. In 2020, there were at least 155 reported cases of disconnection or deliberate slowdown of Internet access in 29 countries. Between 2016 and 2021, 52 elections were affected by power outages and limited internet access.

An OHCHR report on the subject, presented at this session of the HRC, highlights that Internet restrictions during a global health emergency are undermining one of the few remaining channels for education, work and free speech. This puts countless lives and livelihoods at risk.

In addition, the global health crisis has shown that the privacy protections associated with “mass collection of personal data” are weak or even non-existent.

“In some cases, the data collected has been used in criminal investigations (for example, in Germany and Singapore), undermining public confidence in government efforts to combat the pandemic,” Ms Al-Nashif said.

Social media has accelerated the spread of hate speech and disinformation

More broadly, the introduction of “highly invasive surveillance systems”, such as the use of facial recognition technology to enforce quarantine measures, has raised concerns, especially about “racial profiling”.

According to the Deputy High Commissioner, there is also a risk that “exceptional measures, once adopted, will not be lifted, even if they are no longer justified on public health grounds.”

In addition, social media has accelerated the “spread of hate speech and the rapid spread of misinformation and fake news”, especially in relation to Covid-19, “causing fear, mistrust and sometimes violence.”

On the other hand, digital transformation has left many people behind. The unconnected population – almost half of the world – remains “disproportionately poor, rural, elderly and female”.

Most of the 3.7 billion unconnected people are women and girls, according to the UN. However, “it has become clear that, given the physical distancing caused by the pandemic, digital will be a key part of our new normal,” she said.

© UNICEF/Elias

In the digital age, governments are increasingly using digital surveillance technologies for national security.

Gradual lifting of intrusive sanitation measures once the crisis is over

Looking ahead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet notes, however, that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of human rights “at the heart of technology governance.” This should guide government regulation of new technologies and the behavior of the private sector.

In its recommendations, the Office of the High Commissioner considers that the requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality must be applied consistently. Governments and businesses must systematically exercise digital human rights due diligence to prevent and mitigate adverse impacts.

Any infringing measure must be based on clear and public privacy and data protection law.

According to the UN, exceptional measures, such as intrusive health surveillance measures, should be phased out after the crisis ends. “Victims of human rights violations and abuses must have access to effective judicial and non-judicial remedies,” concluded the Deputy High Commissioner.