This article was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent non-profit organization that promotes freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the Middle East and North Africa.
Cases of COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa have resulted in governments introducing containment and other measures to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.
These measures have been especially targeted at some of the most vulnerable groups such as human rights defenders in prison, migrant workers and the independent media.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights has followed up on how some of these measures have had serious impacts on the overall human rights situation in the region.
Several of these unjust measures violate international law. Migrant workers and prisoners, for example, who often live in poor conditions, are protected under article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (DUDDHH):
Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living that ensures him, as well as his family, health and well-being, especially food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services; You are also entitled to insurance in the event of unemployment, illness, disability, widowhood, old age or other cases of loss of your means of subsistence due to circumstances independent of your will.
The following is a brief summary of the GCHR on the impact of COVID-19 on human rights in the region:
1. Human rights defenders detained
The reality is that most human rights defenders are in prison in the region, at a time when governments, including those of Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have released some prisoners as part of preventive measures to contain the spread of the virus. With the broadcast of COVID-19, the lives of imprisoned human rights defenders are at imminent risk in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and other countries that have overcrowded prisons without considering the minimum sanitary requirements.
Those imprisoned include Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, founders of GCHR, who serve life in prison and five years in prison, respectively. In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor has been held in solitary confinement for three years and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his human rights activism, including for having expressed his views peacefully on social media. In Saudi Arabia, women's rights activist Lujain Al-Hathloul is also in prison.
2. Access to information and closure of newspapers
Most governments in the region do not report the actual number of cases of people infected with the virus, in addition to complicating access by journalists to credible information about the spread, treatment and victims of COVID-19. Also, journalists who provide factual information about the crisis to citizens are at risk.
For example, in Yemen, on March 23, 2020, Muammar Al-Aryani, the communications minister of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, issued decree number (6) of the year 2020, which in his first article states that: “The issuance of state newspapers and private newspapers in paper format is suspended, and only electronic copies will be issued. ” This measure is valid for the period between March 25 and April 12, 2020, according to article (2) of the decree, as part of the package of preventive and precautionary measures taken by the Government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19.
In Oman, on March 22, 2020, the Supreme Committee to deal with COVID-19 ordered all newspapers, magazines and other publications to cease printing and circulation, according to the Times of Oman, which published the committee's order. The order also prohibited the sale and circulation of newspapers, magazines and publications imported into the country.
In Morocco, that same day, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Hassan Abyaba, announced the suspension of the publication and distribution of printed newspapers until further notice.
Also, in Jordan, on March 17, 2020, the Jordanian Council of Ministers suspended the publication of all newspapers for two weeks, in accordance with an official statement by Jordanian Communications Minister Amjad Adaileh. The newspapers remained suspended due to quarantine and the government's call for citizens to remain in their homes.
3. Bill threatens freedom of expression in Tunisia
The draft law n ° 29/2020 amending the provisions of articles 245 and 247 of the Penal Code was sent to the Tunisian Parliament on March 29. The project, which was withdrawn a day later as a result of the outrage proclaimed by civil society groups and by citizens, aimed to penalize the “disclosure of false or questionable speeches among users of communication networks or social media platforms that are offensive to people, groups or institutions ”.
The bill was in flagrant contradiction with articles 31, 32 and 49 of the Tunisian Constitution, as well as with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by the Republic of Tunisia. If approved, it would have inevitably repealed several articles of Decree Law 2011-115 dated November 2, 2011 on freedom of the press, printing and publication, insofar as it includes comprehensive legal provisions regarding the crimes of publishing false news ( article 54) and slander (articles 55 and 56).
4. Interim prison for spreading rumors in the United Arab Emirates
On April 1, 2020, The Gulf News, an English newspaper in Dubai, published an article revealing that “people who spread rumors could be jailed for a year if they spread false information.” COVID-19 may now be used as a pretext to deprive some bloggers and internet activists who are targeted by the State Security Apparatus (SSA).
5. Location tracking applications
Some Gulf states like Bahrain are using location tracking technologies that will allow full detection of citizen movements. There are concerns that the use of these applications in countries widely known for serious and documented human rights violations will allow additional restrictions on individual freedoms to be implemented.
6. Xenophobia against migrant workers in the Gulf
In Kuwait, in an interview on March 31, 2020, actress Hayat al-Fahad called for migrant workers to leave the country while facing the COVID-19 crisis.
On March 10, 2020, after a picture of a Saudi Aramco migrant worker was released as a giant bottle of gel alcohol, the oil company has come under fire for its inhumane treatment of the worker, which could be classified as racist . The company then apologized.
Reports that the GCHR received from various Gulf countries confirmed that migrant workers do not receive equal access to health care and are currently facing difficulties, as many already live and work in poor conditions.
Authorities in the region could help curb the spread of COVID-19 by releasing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public, and on the contrary are at great risk themselves. While in custody, the authorities must respect the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in order to provide basic health care and hygiene measures for all. It is also important to allow visits by experts from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).