The COVID-19 pandemic and states’ response to it have presented an array of new challenges and threats for those who defend human rights. In April 2020, Amnesty International urged states to ensure that human rights defenders are included in their responses to address the pandemic, as they are key actors to guarantee that any measures implemented respect human rights and do not leave anyone behind. The organization also called on all states not to use pandemic-related restrictions as a pretext to further shrink civic space and crackdown on dissent and those who defend human rights, or to suppress relevant information deemed uncomfortable to the government.

Despite these warnings, and notwithstanding the commitments from the international community over two decades ago to protect and recognize the right to defend human rights, Amnesty International has documented with alarm the continued threats and attacks against human rights defenders in the context of the pandemic.

In these unprecedented times, human rights defenders around the world have stepped up and have played different roles in their own communities

In these unprecedented times, human rights defenders around the world have stepped up and have played different roles in their own communities, including by providing information on how to protect ourselves from COVID-19, particularly when information is lacking or contradictory; by denouncing the lack of adequate prevention measures and health services, or deficient testing and protective equipment; by providing humanitarian aid for groups that are marginalized and discriminated against; by denouncing the pushback on human rights under the cover of emergency legislation; and by continuing with their long standing human rights work, showing resilience, adaptability and determination.

Despite the important and necessary work human rights defenders do all over the world, Amnesty International has documented scores of different attacks on those who defend human rights since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. Many states around the world, including those who have long advocated for the protection of human rights, have targeted human rights defenders and other critical voices who have spoken up against their handling of the public health crisis. As a result, in many parts of the world authorities have lashed out against those who have dared to expose and criticize inadequate government responses to the pandemic, or used COVID-19 related measures and other existing legislation to silence those who defend human rights.

Where states were already pushing back on human rights long before the pandemic, this crisis has provided a new pretext to continue violating human rights, shrinking civic space, and attacking human rights defenders and perceived opponents. In the case of those human rights defenders unjustly imprisoned before the pandemic, the political nature of their detention has been further exposed. Indeed, while thousands of prisoners worldwide have been granted early, conditional or temporary release due to the risks posed by COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons, numerous human rights defenders were excluded from these programs and unjustly remain in prison facing an additional punishment for their activism.

Human rights defenders who live in countries where physical attacks and killings are frequent have been left unprotected and exposed.

Human rights defenders who live in countries where physical attacks and killings are frequent have been left unprotected and exposed. Despite states’ obligations to provide protection to human rights defenders at risk, lockdowns and other human rights restrictions appear to have led to reduced protection measures and increased opportunities for those willing to silence human rights defenders.

At the same time, those defenders who are marginalized and highly discriminated against have often been excluded and forgotten in the responses to the pandemic. Hard-won rights are being lost in the process as marginalized groups lose their livelihoods, Indigenous lands are further encroached, and women lose their bodily autonomy and face increased gender-based violence.

The briefing ‘Daring to Stand Up for Human Rights in a Pandemic‘ brings together examples of these attacks, documented by Amnesty International, on those who have defended human rights since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has presented an array of new challenges which cannot be solely addressed with top-down approaches. States need to learn quickly from mistakes, adapt, innovate, and provide flexible and differentiated responses to the vast problems arising from the pandemic. This can only be achieved when criticism, scrutiny and debate are allowed, and different sectors of society are consulted, listened to and encouraged to participate. This is why human rights defenders are important actors in the fight against the pandemic and they should be seen as allies, not as enemies. States must recognize that without all the individuals and collectives who defend human rights worldwide, it will be almost impossible to tackle COVID-19 and save as many lives and livelihoods as possible. It is therefore not just states’ obligation, but it is in the interest of states and society at large to recognize, protect and enable human rights defenders to carry out their crucial work so that the harshest impact of the crisis can be mitigated and those most at risk are not left out in the process.

The report ends with a series of recommendations to States:

  • Enable and support human rights defenders and civil society organizations to contribute to the efforts to protect public health and tackle the pandemic, and to continue with their human rights work more generally.
  • Publicly recognize the crucial role played by all human rights defenders, including journalists. health care and essential workers, in providing information and addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic and its multiple and differentiated impacts, particularly on the most marginalized.
  • Provide human rights defenders on the frontline of the pandemic with the necessary information, tools and protective equipment they need to carry out their human rights activities in safety.
  • Ensure that any measure restricting the right to defend human rights, including those imposing limitations on the rights to freedom of movement, expression, association and peaceful assembly, are strictly necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health or in the pursuance of another legitimate purpose under international human rights law.
  • Ensure that any measures taken in the context of COVID-19 do not discriminate against, penalize or endanger human rights defenders, in particular those from marginalized communities.
  • Ensure that the operation of media outlets, journalists and human rights defenders is not unduly restricted and allow them to continue their work despite the restrictions on movement. Journalists and human rights defenders must not be penalized or otherwise sanctioned for carrying out their legitimate activities, or face measures that unduly limit the right to freedom of expression in the name of countering COVID-19.
  • Refrain from imposing blanket bans on the dissemination of information, including those based on vague and ambiguous concepts such as “false news” or “spreading misinformation”, and repeal or amend legislation that impose criminal penalties simply for sharing or distributing information.
  • Ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work free from reprisals, intimidation or threats, and provide effective measures of protection to guarantee that those seeking to hinder their work do not take advantage of the crisis.
  • Provide women human rights defenders with the specific protection they may need against gender-based violence they face due to their work, recognizing the particular challenges and risks they face. during the pandemic.
  • Effectively address threats, attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, including by, where applicable, launching prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations and bring the suspected perpetrators to justice in fair trials.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all those who remain in detention solely for their human rights work and ensure that they are not excluded from prison release programs.