In early 2020, as COVID began to spread globally, ICNL recognized the repercussions of states’ emergency responses on fundamental freedoms and civil society. In Sri Lanka, organizations faced harassment from intelligence agencies under the guise of contact tracing. In Bangladesh, ‘fake news’ laws led to arrests of doctors, activists, and students who criticized the government’s pandemic response. In Chile, pandemic regulations have been used to suppress demonstrations and justify police violence against peaceful protests.
In March 2020, we launched the ICNL-ECNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker to document this global trend. Our tracker shows that 175 countries have enacted emergency pandemic measures. As we saw after 9/11, these measures seep into legal frameworks and may remain in place even after the initial threat subsides.
To address this, ICNL partnered with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to convene a high-level meeting in May 2021 on protecting civic space and ending unnecessary emergency measures.
Panelists from international organizations, states, and civil society shared first-hand accounts of the impact of emergency responses on their work and communities. UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the moderator, remarked, “in some contexts, the measures taken are worse than the pandemic itself.”
The event’s takeaways have been reflected on international and regional stages. At the UN Human Rights Council, states, including Sweden, have spearheaded resolutions highlighting the impacts of emergency measures and their human rights obligations. UN Secretary-General António Guterres advised “safeguarding democracy means phasing out emergency powers and laws as the worst of the pandemic subsides.” Additionally, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights is developing a framework on government observance of human rights during emergencies.
While there is still a long way to go, this collective and high-level recognition will be key to developing actionable strategies for repealing emergency measures and protecting civic space in a post-pandemic world.