The COVID-19 has infected millions of people around the world and has compelled governments to take extraordinary measures to combat its spread across the population. However, these actions pose a risk of infringing upon international human rights law standards, even if COVID-19 poses a significant threat to public health.
Declaring a state of emergency can be one method in which governments can quickly respond to the immediate crisis. This is where state constitutions allow for the executive power to take extraordinary measures in exceptional situations much more quickly, such as in the current health crisis, without having to go through all the stages that make up the normal decision-making process. Although declaring a state of emergency is not inherently illegal, it is evident that a number of governments around the world are using this constitutional tool to severely restrict fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of information, expression, assembly and association. In reality, many measures that were imposed with the pretext of combatting COVID-19 are in fact being used as an excuse to oppress government opposition.
Furthermore, there has been an increase in the use of surveillance technology as an underhanded way as a means to track the spread of the virus. On the one hand, this practice has an advantage in that people who have come into contact with an infected person are immediately informed so that they can be tested and remain in self-quarantine. However, it can also encroach on the privacy of citizens as authorities are able to monitor specific individuals and their precise movements. These measures can result in the government knowing when a particular citizen is in a particular place and even what that citizen might think about particular issues. This can be extremely dangerous for those living in countries where their government does not accept different ideas and ways of thinking. Therefore, not only could this crisis become extremely dangerous for public health and the economy, but it could also lead to severe and permanent restrictions in the general public’s daily lives as imposed by their governments.
According to the worldometer report, by 12 May 2020, 41,014 COVID-19 cases were reported in Saudi Arabia, 23,623 in Qatar, 5,236 in Bahrain, 9,286 in Kuwait, 3,721 in Oman, and 19,661 in the UAE. Much like the rest of the world, the Gulf states are facing an “abrupt reduction in business activities” and subsequent economic difficulties. In addition, the sudden plunge of oil prices has hit these countries particularly hard, since the gas and oil sector accounts for a significant majority portion of their economies.
A State of Surveillance
The Gulf states are using the virus as a reason to strengthen their state surveillance mechanisms. This is not new; since the Arab spring protest movement in 2011, authorities have used reforms to legitimize a new determined shift towards authoritarianism. This has manifested itself in an increased repression of the civil society and the arbitrary arrest of human right defenders, lawyers, religious leaders, and opposition figures. These same Gulf states are using the current health crisis as a cover to introduce more surveillance technology to track citizens in their daily lives, further restrict general society, limit political and civil liberties, and extend their control over the public sphere.
The UAE has introduced a temporary law that allows the authorities to access individuals’ WhatsApp calls and conversations, as well as their Skype and Google accounts. In addition, people residing in the UAE must complete an online form explaining a valid reason for their trip when leaving their homes, so as to show the authorities if questioned on the street. This measure poses much more risk as it provides the authorities with more information that they could later use against you. The authorities now have access to linked biometric identifications, the individual’s phone, and even the license plate of their car. This allows the government to monitor an individual’s movements in more scrupulous detail; CCTV has been used in tandem with the new tracking technology to identify people who violate imposed social distancing measures leading directly to fines. Moreover, the surveillance technology is also employed to track down individuals who allegedly spread “false information” about COVID-19. This new measure was introduced in April and is being used to arbitrarily punish individuals, who may consequently face up to one year in prison if the authorities consider their public statements about the virus to be misleading. As a result, this also has a restricting effect on freedom of opinion, expression, and information since it is up to the UAE government’s discretion to what constitutes false information.
The control of movement is even more extensive in Bahrain. People are forced to wear an “electronic tag” linked to the individual’s phone, from which they are prohibited from straying further than fifteen meters. The situation in Saudi Arabia is even more severe, where in April, a woman was arrested after uploading a video of herself driving despite the curfew. Much more punitive prison sentences for breaking the social distancing measures have been introduced, including for some crimes it could mean the supposed culprit could face up to twenty years in prison. With the measures currently being introduced in Gulf states to “combat COVID-19”, the line between criminal and victim is wearing extremely thin. It is also doubtful whether these newly introduced measures will be loosened after the end of the pandemic.
COVID-19’s Effect on Immigration Policy
Governments are also responding to the COVID-19 pandemic fallout by introducing more prohibitive immigration policies. For instance, Saudi Arabia has expelled thousands of undocumented workers to back to their home country of Ethiopia, on the pretext that these workers could infect Saudi citizens. However, the majority of these people had yet to be even tested for the virus. On 14 April, the Ethiopian Health Minister, Lia Tadesse, announced that 2,870 Ethiopians have already been deported and at least another 3,000 are also expected. In addition, the UAE and Kuwait have likewise deported thousands of migrant workers to their country of origin, which in turn caused a multitude of logistical issues that further exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.
Even before the pandemic, human rights organizations such as ADHRB and Amnesty International had been monitoring the situation of foreign workers in the Gulf states closely, and had expressed their concerns about their living conditions. Due to COVID-19, the unhygienic conditions of the overcrowded labor camps has been further highlighted; main complaints detail a lack of access to clean running water and restricted access to basic medical care. Furthermore, social distancing measures are out of the question due to the already cramped conditions as tiny cells and shared spaces do allow for any privacy.
Moreover, the enforced quarantine makes low-income migrants entirely dependent on charities for their basic needs. Transparent health and financial information had already been severely lacking for migrant workers in countries such as the UAE and Qatar since before the crisis. Their precarious socio-economic position is further strained by the outbreak of COVID-19, as migrant workers are often victims of withheld salaries, low payments, and lack of insurance; individuals are now even more exposed to such abuses and health risks in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
Although access to adequate health care is a basic human right, many individuals, including political prisoners and detained human right defenders, are currently held in prisons where they are exposed to unhealthy and unsanitary conditions and are at risk of catching COVID-19.
Access to adequate health care whilst incarcerated is regarded by the UN as a basic service that the state ought to provide for. The government of Bahrain has so far taken no measures to prevent prisoners from becoming ill by implementing social distancing measures or providing key healthcare provisions. This is in spite of the fact that the Bahraini authorities tried to spread false information to the international community by stating that Bahraini prisons have introduced specific measures to keep COVID-19 from entering the facilities. In reality, police officers, cooks, and other prison staff do not wear masks or gloves and do not pursue any other prevention strategy. Sick prisoners are routinely denied access to medical care. Although the government has released a selection of prisoners due to the COVID-19 health crisis, the majority of these detainees would have been released this year anyway.
Meanwhile, prominent human rights defenders remain incarcerated. Nabeel Rajab still remains incarcerated in Jau Prison, where he is at severe risk of contracting COVID-19 due to his declining health. Opposition leader Hussan Mushaima also remains under lock and key, whose old age places him at extreme risk of contracting the disease. The United Nations (UN) has brought attention to the risk of contagion in prisons and has called on states to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the virus, in particular by releasing political prisoners. The UN also stressed the fact that states have a duty to respect fundamental human rights and to not abuse the health emergency for their own purposes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article highlighting the release of a limited number of political prisoners in Bahrain, but emphasized that these releases were too few in respect to the continuing growing number of new political detainees. NGOs around the world, including ADHRB and Amnesty International, have similarly called for the immediate release of political prisoners.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has been ratified by Bahrain, making its obligations legally binding upon the nation state. Under the convention, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Therefore, all governments that have ratified the convention are obliged to take effective steps toward the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which monitors state compliance with the covenant, has similarly noted that “the right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights” which are currently being abused by the governments of Gulf states in order to suppress and control civil society. Clear and defined steps must be taken by these governments to protect their citizens, migrant workers, and political prisoners. Although COVID-19 has provoked an unprecedented crisis that has put untold pressures on national governments, it is even more important now more than ever that human rights such as the right to privacy, access to medical care and the right to live and work with dignity are protected and upheld.