Human Rights Experts Assess Threats to Justice During the Pandemic

As Columbia and other universities in the U.S. shifted to online instruction in the spring semester, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute (HRI) and Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, joined by the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke Law School and Just Security, organized a virtual event series titled “COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice During a Pandemic,” bringing together scholars and practitioners to discuss threats to justice because of the pandemic, as well as strategies to respond. Covered topics ranged from government powers and immigration policies, to socio-economic and information rights, to the rights of marginalized groups.

States of Emergency and Government Powers 

The series was launched on March 31, with a panel on governmental responses to the novel coronavirus, which included declaring states of emergency and the expansion of executive powers. Moderated by NYU Law Professor Ryan Goodman, speakers Isabel Linzer, research analyst at the Freedom House; Fionnuala Ni Aolain, law professor and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism; and Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch warned of increased information censorship, population surveillance and detention of critics.

Ni Aolain called for an end date when emergency powers seized by governments in the name of the crisis will expire, cautioning, “If we were to wake up in a post pandemic world in which the rule of law is weaker, authoritarians are stronger and democracies are more fragile as a result of the exceptional expansion of emergency powers, we may have beaten the health pandemic, but we will be facing a crisis of law, a crisis of legitimacy and a crisis of rights.”

COVID-19: States of Emergency and Government Powers

The Rights of Marginalized Groups

A number of panels in the series explored deepened inequality because of COVID-19, including exacerbated discrimination against, and challenges faced by, persons with physical and mental disabilities, and how the rights of LGBTI people are increasingly threatened. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, U.N. Independent Expert on protection against gender-based violence and discrimination, advocated that the design of any response to COVID-19 should be participatory and empowering, and should ensure non-discrimination and accountability.

On April 2, Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch; Charanya Krishnaswami, director of Advocacy Americas at Amnesty USA; and Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights joined Jayne Huckerby, law professor and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University for a discussion on how policy responses could potentially worsen existing discrimination against marginalized groups: women, children, the elderly, the homeless, detainees, refugees, migrants and others. Warren warned that “what we’re seeing, and will continue to see, is a tension between public health and criminalization initiatives,” recalling the mass panic that swirled around the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and parallel xenophobic policies against immigrants and Haitians.

Another discussion held in May, moderated by Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke, elaborated on the deployment of the pandemic to undermine sexual and reproductive health.

“Quickly after the [U.S.] States started implementing and issuing executive orders that restricted certain medical procedures due to COVID-19, there were States that seized on those executive orders to say that abortion should be banned,” Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said.

NYU Law Professor Melissa Murray further probed the issue: “What if we required more of the State? What if we required providing the conditions that make it easier for families and individuals to live? The pandemic has made clear is that we don’t have those kinds of expectations of the State and of State actors.”

COVID-19 and the Human Rights of LGBTI People

Conflict, Asylum and Immigration

The event on COVID-19 and conflict on April 21, after the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, highlighted how the consequences of the pandemic will be likely more devastating in conflict-affected countries.

“It is not surprising in situations of conflict, where you have extremely vulnerable populations, that the impact of the pandemic is exacerbated, because not only are people defenseless, but infrastructure has eroded over years of conflict,” said Cordula Droege, the chief legal officer and head of the legal division at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

She and panelists Farea Al-Muslimi, chairman of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, Kate Kizer, executive director of Win Without War, and Azadeh Moaveni, project director at the International Crisis Group, in a conversation moderated by Priyanka Motaparthy, director of HRI’s project on counterterrorism, armed conflict and human rights, discussed the responsibilities of warring parties under international humanitarian law during the pandemic and how advocates are working to promote both peace and health.

Another event held in April focused on risks to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. Sana Mustafa, associate director of partnership and engagement at Asylum Access, called for increased support to local and refugee-led organizations, seeing an opportunity in international mobility.

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