Curbing Fake News: A tool in the hand of an Orwellian state?

Fake news legislation and their implications in digital space: Human Rights-based analysis

by Bodhisattwa Majumder

The outbreak of COVID-19 has witnessed an unprecedented sharing of false information ranging from discovery of vaccines to false outbreaks, which has caused chaos, hatred and fear among people. With the advent of technology, a legislatory framework to have a cyberspace regulated by a governmental authority to recognise, authenticate, and regulate online activities is essential. However, the drafting of such a legal framework poses a magnitude of problems which can encroach upon the human rights of the individuals. It must be ensured that while dealing with such laws, the legislation must strike a balance between protection of cyber space and ensuring freedom of expression . Cyber laws should exist for the protection of the citizens and not as a tool of government to monitor the actions of citizens and restrict the dissent.  In the age of cyber protests, where dissent can be expressed by online solidarity, using governmental machinery to curb dissent by placing them under the bracket of fake news could be anti-democratic as well as anti-human rights.

The objective of cyber laws

Under the United Nations Human Rights Council, the right to freedom of expression and information also extends to cyberspace, which includes the freedom to receive and communicate information, ideas and opinions through the internet. The objective of the Cyber laws should be limited to providing cyberspace as a safe haven for citizens to store, transmit, share and access information without the fear of interference. However, these rights are not absolute and can be lawfully restricted in pursuance of a legitimate objective such as providing security in terms of economic, health, moral and national interest. Curbing misinformation in the cyberspace has a legitimate objective as misinformation in recent times of outbreak has caused health hazards, communal hatred and frauds. However, the veracity of the news cannot be verified in every case unambiguously, especially in cases of opinion and statements. This ambiguity provides a leeway to an authoritarian state which can exploit the grey area and define it according to its need to supress dissent, which is the root cause of legitimising the human rights violations.

Fake news laws and human rights violations

The news’ spread through the various social media and instant messaging apps has been exponential and convenient as it lacks the regulatory framework of the print or broadcast media. In recent years, several states have adopted laws which criminalise the spreading of false information, which have been protested and held as violative of human rights. The laws provide a leeway to the government to define ‘what is false/fake news; which forms the base to control online platforms. Also, the definition of ‘fake’ is vague, and can be moulded according to the will of the ruling government. This tool of curbing fake news can be used by the ruling government in restricting freedom of expression, identifying whistle-blowers, suppressing dissent and raising propaganda. Anything could potentially be characterised as fake news by vague terms such as ‘disrespect towards the state’, ‘in the interest of public order’ and ‘anti-national sentiments’.

Global scenario

Several countries including Germany, Malaysia, France, Russia and Singapore have enacted laws to restrict spreading of false information. Singaporean law provides powers to government ministers to define what is fake news and the authority to remove content from online platforms if they deem it ‘against the public interest’. This also enables the government to exercise control over information shared by dissenting population, which has been heavily criticised by the Human Rights Groups. The Malaysian government has criminalised the spreading of fake news and imposed penalties up to five hundred thousand ringgit (93,112.52 £) or six years of imprisonment. The Russian government has placed a blanket ban on fake news and has defined it as ‘blatant disrespect for the state’ which can invite a sentence of fifteen days. This terminology blatantly lays down a tool against dissent, which can be used to curb any activity ranging from posting a disagreement towards state action to whistleblowing as ‘disrespect’. Germany’s legislation against fake news places every social media handle under its jurisdiction and with a sky-high fine of Fifty Million Euros.

The governments of these states have also expressed the inability to control the implications of such legislation and provided assurances to review it. While the German government has admitted that too much information is blocked unnecessarily, and the Malaysian government had promised to repeal it, however any step is yet to be taken.

Striking the balance

While the legislation curbing fake news are prima facie appear benevolent, the major problem in their implementation lies threefold. Firstly, what can be deemed as fake; Secondly, who can determine the fake information; and Thirdly, which areas can be subject to these laws without compromising the objectives.

Addressing the first question, the problem can be sufficiently curbed by having clear, unambiguous and specific legislation. Use of ambiguous terms provides leeway to the ruling party to use the law to their advantage and curb any dissent or disagreement towards its actions. Now, the third question is pertinent in this situation and the priorities of the legislation keeping in mind its objective needs to be specified in black letters of the law. Various areas which deal with objective ‘factual data’, such as statistics, medicine, physics, economics et al. which can be classified into water-tight compartments of right and wrong can be regulated by these legislations without raising any ambiguities. However, subjective areas such as politics, public policy or legal opinion which deal with an opinion which is based on experience, theory, or the ideology of the person which cannot be segregated into true or false are not suitable for fake news legislations. Lastly to answer the second question, it is probably in the best interests of the public that this power of defining a ‘fake-news’ is regulated by bodies which are apolitical in nature. A balance between serving the interests of the public by curbing false information and providing the freedom of free online speech is the need of the hour.

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Human rights and democracy: A relationship in trouble?

BY DR. ANDREW FAGAN, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX, HUMAN RIGHTS CENTRE

Last Wednesday’s RightOn webinar consisted of an expert analysis of democracy and the rule of law amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Towards the very end of a highly engaging discussion, the audience were invited to participate in a poll. Introduced as a ‘devil’s advocate’ question, they were asked: are authoritarian or democratic regimes best placed to respond to the pandemic? Given that the question was asked of what one can reasonably assume to be a human rights-friendly global audience, one could be forgiven for assuming that the answer would be as one-sided and obvious as asking a restaurant full of vegetarians if they would like roast beef or Tofu burgers for lunch?

The eye-catching and blog-inspiring response from the 120 (or so) sample was a dead heat: 50/50. To the obvious surprise of a number of the contributors and the co-host who introduced the poll, half of the audience appeared to be expressing a level of support for, or at least confidence in, the very ‘demon’ that much of the global human rights community has been condemning in recent weeks: the increasingly authoritarian approaches being adopted by a growing number of democratic States in their response to the pandemic.

Does this suggest that human rights and democracy is a relationship in trouble?

One might immediately respond to my question by pointing to a number of important factors, which seek to restore faith in the oft-proclaimed interdependency and mutual compatibility of human rights and democracy. Let us be clear, the audience were not asked if they generally preferred authoritarian rule to democratic governance. Nor was the answer half of them gave (depending on how one understands ‘authoritarian’ rule) manifestly at odds with a human rights-based approach to a global public health crisis. I suspect that the vast majority of people who support human rights would accept the principle that difficult balances have to be struck between ostensibly competing rights in times of acute crisis and emergency. As many readers will know, public health emergencies are precisely one of the select grounds upon which States may legitimately enact emergency legislation and temporarily suspend or limit their legally derogable human rights commitments and obligations, even if the current practices of many States’ implementation of emergency measures are not procedurally or substantively compliant with international law. Despite these important considerations, I personally think that the discernible disquiet caused by the poll cannot be so easily assuaged or dismissed.

Within human rights circles generally, the belief in the interdependency and mutual compatibility of human rights and democracy has been largely unquestioned and rests upon a number of familiar claims and phenomena. These include the essential interdependency of many civil and political rights, in particular, and any recognisably democratic system. It is also a commonplace to claim that liberal democracies are characterised, as such, by their avowed support for human rights. Others will cite the example of many human rights campaigns which have been successfully waged in support of oppressed peoples’ struggles to secure the benefits of democracy. Finally, there exists an extensive body of legally-binding and non-binding proclamations, UN declarations and Treaty Body general comments, which boldly and confidently affirm the interdependency of human rights and democracy. Given all of this, it is easy to understand why so few have questioned the health of the relationship between human rights and democracy in recent years. However, and I make no apologies for doing so now, I think there is a great need for the human rights community to do just that, and that some part of that need was revealed by the result of the webinar’s poll and the reaction it elicited.

Lest I be accused of seeking to build a mountain of intellectual and moral anxiety from the molehill of one brief moment from a mere webinar, I shall briefly refer the sceptical reader to a select sample of issues and challenges the human rights community currently faces and some which pre-date the pandemic.

As was demonstrated by the first RightOn webinar, broadcast in early April, human rights experts, including myself, take different views on where the limits of legitimate free speech may be located in the face of the pandemic. It is far from clear what a mutually supportive commitment to human rights and democracy requires of us in such instances. Consider also the growing number of US and European protests against States’ lockdown measures. Are these democratically legitimate expressions of some peoples’ opposition to what they perceive to be excessive State power, or dangerously selfish and irresponsible actions by groups of people who refuse to acknowledge the duties entailed by public health emergencies? Can one answer this question without taking sides in favour of human rights or democracy? Looking back before the onset of the pandemic, how should the human rights community most effectively respond to the so-called ‘populist’ challenge, in which growing numbers of voters in established democracies have turned against liberal democratic norms and commitments? Should we simply dismiss such manifestations of political and ideological preferences as manifestly illegitimate, as some prominent human rights defenders have argued? If we do, how can we do so without succumbing to the charge that we are (undemocratically?) seeking to impose our own, increasingly unpopular and partial ideals upon a growing number of voters who oppose us? When does a people’s human right to self-determination come into irreconcilable conflict with prevailing human rights understandings of democracy?

COVID-19 raises a vast range of questions for the human rights community. There is an urgent need to provide answers to these questions. However, before we rush to do so, we must first consider whether the answers we offer to the many challenges we face are themselves sound and secure. I hope that this brief intervention encourages some of you to revisit what many human rights defenders assumed was a relatively settled and unproblematic aspect of the theory and practice of human rights. What should the relationship between human rights and democracy genuinely be based upon and consist of? Discuss.


Dr. Andrew Fagan is the Director of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex

Disenfranchisement of Prisoners in India: A Critique Through the Lense of International Law

By Rongeet Poddar 23 April 2020

Introduction

On 11th February, 2020, the Delhi High Court upheld the validity of Section 62 (5) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 in India. Section 62 (5) of the Act disenfranchises all persons if they are confined to prison, “whether under a sentence of imprisonment or transportation or otherwise, or is in the lawful custody of the police” except for those under preventive detention.

Article 325 of the Constitution of India recognizes universal adult suffrage by prohibiting non-inclusion in the electoral roll on the grounds of religion, race, caste or sex. The Representation of People’s Act, however, creates the statutory exception for prisoners under Section 62(5).

Rationale of the Delhi High Court: Criminalization of politics

The Delhi High Court relied on the Supreme Court precedent of Anukul Chandra Pradhan v. Union of India. The Supreme Court of India had reasoned that the object of Section 62(5) was to prevent the criminalization of politics. Therefore, it had a subversive effect on Indian democracy by negating free and fair elections. Section 62(5) thus did not violate the right to equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution as it permitted reasonable classification for achieving an avowed object. Furthermore, the apex court held that the restriction could not be subjected to a fundamental rights challenge as the right to vote is subject to an inherent limitation that was imposed by statute.

The Delhi High Court affirmed the rationale of the Supreme Court. It further added that the conduct of elections in the prison required an intensive deployment of police force in prisons which was not feasible in India due to “resource crunch”. In its overt preoccupation with sanitizing the democratic process, the court conflated a restriction on personal liberty with the right to vote in elections. Surprisingly, it failed to adequately demonstrate a reasonable nexus between prisoners’ electoral participation and the question of defiling of the political spectrum.

Disempowerment of vulnerable communities: Constitutional safeguards

The inequitable criminal justice system has resulted in an over-representation of Muslims, Dalits and tribal communities in prisons. The data of the National Crime Records Bureau reveals how the share of these groups among undertrials is disproportionate to their representation in India’s population. Educational attainments of undertrials are also poor. Furthermore, a majority of prisoners are undertrials who continue to bear the brunt of a sluggish justice delivery. A disproportionately high number of undertrials belong to socio-economically weaker sections of the society. As a consequence, the systemic disenfranchisement of prisoners results in the alienation of India’s most vulnerable communities.

The Constitution of India concedes that economic disparities have often resulted in the exclusion of disempowered sections of the society from effectively accessing justice. Article 39A was inserted to ensure that the state should endeavour to provide free legal aid such that citizens are not deprived of accessing justice due to economic or other disabilities. The Supreme Court has subsequently elevated the constitutional directive as a constitutional mandate under Articles 14 and 21. The court held that the deprivation of legal aid compromises the right to life and personal liberty. Recently, the Supreme Court has also opined that manifest arbitrariness is antithetical to the right to equality.

International law standards

Rule 88 of United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, 2015 (“Nelson Mandela Rules”) lays down that “the treatment of prisoners should emphasize not their exclusion from the community but their continuing part in it.” It urges states to safeguard the prisoners’ rights relating to “civil interests, social security rights and other social benefits of prisoners.” The archaic provision of disenfranchisement in the Indian election law therefore contravenes the Nelson Mandela Rules and excludes prisoners from the democratic polity.

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) recognizes the freedom of everyone to choose representatives and take part in the government. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(“ICCPR”), an instrument ratified by India, also endorses the right of every citizen to vote at genuine periodic elections “by universal and equal suffrage”.

General Comment No. 25 of the Human Rights Committee puts the onus on state parties to explain that legislative provisions which deprive citizens of their right to vote are reasonable and based on objective criteria. The Committee observed that “persons who are deprived of liberty but who have not been convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.” The principle of non-discrimination constitutes a customary norm of international law. The Human Rights Committee has also held that non-discrimination “can also result from the discriminatory effect of a rule or measure that is neutral at face value or without intent to discriminate.” The European Court of Human Rights has previously held in more than one instance that blanket restrictions on the voting rights of convicted prisioners are arbitrary in nature and contrary to the mandate of Article 3 of Protocol No.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conclusion

The unintended impact of a lopsided criminal justice system is accurately demonstrated by how religion, caste and class have collectively become insidious forces of social exclusion in India. The avowed object of “criminalization of politics”is thus unconscionable in light of India’s international obligations. The strength of a civilized democratic order lies in the pervasive entrenchment of universal adult franchise. However, the judiciary continues to weaken the foundations of democracy by making participatory rights the exclusive abode of the privileged. It thereby eliminates the possibility of prison reforms or the question of prisoners’ welfare from finding a place in electoral manifestos. The judgement of the Delhi High Court thus plants the seeds of further marginalization of India’s prisoners by denying them a voice in the world’s largest democracy.

Rongeet Poddar is a final year undergraduate law student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata, India. He has previously contributed to the Oxford Human Rights Hub and the International Association of Constitutional Law Blogs.

A Public Health Crisis and a Crisis of Rights

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Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty

20 April 2020

The coronavirus has created a public health crisis of a previously unimaginable scale – and we have all had to adapt. Across the country community groups have banded together to look after those at greatest risk, and people have shown they are willing to change the way they live in order to protect each other.

In the face of such an unprecedented challenge it is right for the Government to take appropriate action to protect lives. But history tells us that too often in times of national upheaval the go-to response is to water down our hard-won rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, our Government has upheld this legacy in recent months.

The UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak can be split into two parts. The first is the emergency Coronavirus legislation, which contains the most significant changes outlined so far and was first debated in Parliament on 23 March to pass into law three days later. The second part came on 27 March, with the Health Protection Regulationswhich grant the police extraordinary new powers to ensure the public comply with Government guidance to stay at home.

Combined, these responses have significant implications for the way we are policed, the surveillance we are subjected to, and the way we are cared for – among many other things. And while some of the moves taken by the Government are completely reasonable and constructive, the overall approach has been to meet a public health crisis with a criminal justice response.

The emergency coronavirus legislation gives the police and other state officials sweeping new powers to detain any one of us they think may be infectious – even without a judge’s authorisation – and subject us to enforced medical testing. These powers were then bolstered by the Health Protection Regulations, meaning police can fine us and use force if we don’t comply.

Affording the authorities such power to interfere in our lives is concerning for all of us. But police powers in the UK are not applied evenly – meaning communities already over-policed are likely to bear the brunt of these new measures. We’ve already seen police going further than the broad scope of these new powers, and beyond their lawful remit. This, combined with a counter-productive lack of clarity from the Government, makes it impossible for us to know how to comply with the new rules – or stand up to abuse of power.

As well as ushering in greater powers of police detention for all of us, the emergency coronavirus legislation also lowers standards and strips out vital safeguards for anyone with health issues or people who rely on social care.

Recent years have seen a steep rise in the detention of people under the Mental Health Act. The emergency coronavirus legislation is set to make this bad situation worse by removing essential safeguards, like requiring the sign-off of two doctors before detaining someone and limiting access to detention reviews. Meanwhile vital social care safeguards have also become casualties to the emergency legislation. This means that some of the most marginalised in society will be left without support at the very moment their needs are greatest.

And while the Government’s new laws have stripped protections from some, it has missed others almost entirely. Our Government has long operated what’s known as the hostile environment, a scheme which means that if you’re a migrant you may be reluctant to access essential services like healthcare for fear your details could be handed to immigration enforcement. During a pandemic the implications of this become even more acute: leaving whole sections of society afraid to seek healthcare not only puts them at greater risk – it jeopardises the public health and safety of us all.

Ministers say everyone is entitled to free coronavirus healthcare, but while data-sharing between the Home Office and NHS Trusts continues people will remain scared to access treatment. And there’s no adequate plan for immigrants held in detention centres.

The Government has taken a punitive approach rather an inclusive, public health approach. And there’s no evidence that its wide-ranging coercive new penalties are justified to enforce public compliance. In fact, the reality that’s unfolded in the face of this crisis is that local support groups have sprouted up across UK, thousands have volunteered for NHS England, grassroots groups are rallying like never before and there’s overwhelming public support for staying at home to stay safe. What we need from the Government right now is a nurturing and protective approach – more focus on PPE for frontline workers and healthcare for marginalised communities, less on policing and surveillance.

What’s worrying is that although the new measures will be reviewed by MPs every six months, parts of the laws could remain well beyond the expected lifetime of this crisis, for two years or more. There are also questions as to why we need the new laws at all when emergency measures could have been introduced under legislation that already existed. Those measures would have been subject to greater scrutiny by Parliament and the courts, and they would have been strictly time limited.

What we do know is that overbearing measures risk undermining the public trust in frontline services which is so essential during this crisis. In such a fast-paced, pressured situation the human rights of everyone – particularly those most at risk from abuse – are too easily missed. Instead of focusing on penalising those who fail to obey, the Government should be looking to extend protections for those in greatest need.

Such enormous and overbearing legislation is a reminder of why organisations like Liberty exist. These wholesale changes to the balance of power underline the need for robust scrutiny, review, and if necessary – resistance. Now more than ever we must be vigilant to ensure human rights sit at the heart of the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Our rights are hard won but they are easily lost.

We will make it through this crisis – but we must do so with our rights intact.

Proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act to disadvantage UK war crimes victims

by Alexandra Fowler (first published on Oxford Human Rights Hub)

On 18 March 2020, the UK Minister for Defence introduced into the UK Parliament his promised package of new legislation designed to ‘protect veterans’. Entitled the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, the proposed laws would amend the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) in ways that impact on its human rights obligations, including under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Civil Claims by Victims in UK Courts

Civil claims for compensation in UK courts for death, abuse and other mistreatment amounting to war crimes can be brought in two ways; the first is an action in UK common law for the tort of assault and/or battery.  The second avenue is that under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was enacted to give effect to the UK’s obligations under the ECHR. Importantly for victims, Article 13 of the ECHR (see HRA ss6-8) requires a member State to grant an effective remedy (often monetary compensation) for violations of protected rights. The HRA/ECHR regime applies in whichever territory the UK exercises sufficient authority and control (jurisdiction), and this can occur outside EU territory (Al-Skeini). While time limitations may operate to refuse civil redress in tort, an HRA claim can still be upheld, such as in Alseran (2017).

Against this background, the Bill’s Section 11 proposes to insert a new provision (s7A) in the HRA which imposes a maximum of six years’ time limit (or 12 months from the date that the victim knew or ought to have known that the alleged violation was committed by UK troops) for bringing civil claims under the HRA in connection with overseas operations. Although this appears to bring things in line with the time period for personal injury claims under the Limitation Act 1980, the provision is troublesome because in recent conflicts in which the UK has been involved war crimes victims already face substantial difficulties in making claims. As in Alseran, many if not most victims have been prevented by both the local law and by logistics from making claims until long after the alleged abuse took place, often significantly more than six years. The existing HRA requires courts to take such factors into account in deciding whether the claim has been improperly delayed.  The new Bill will take this discretion away, resulting in most, if not all, of the remaining claims from Iraq and Afghanistan being time barred, and future claims running the risk of being so too.

US_Troops_Afghanistan

Is a Time Bar consistent with UK Obligations under the ECHR?

Is the time bar restriction in the new Bill consistent with the right to a remedy stipulated in Article 13 of the ECHR? Much of the European Court’s caseload deals with unreasonable delays in obtaining a remedy, and the Committee of Ministers has accepted that deadlines within national systems to accelerate or conclude investigations and/or the judicial process are legitimate (see Rec(2004)6 on the improvement of domestic remedies). Given the provisions in the Bill, many alleged victims will probably find that a judicial remedy is not available by the time they finally lodge a claim, but it is true that on the face of the law an opportunity has been given for a remedy in the courts.

Of course, remedies need not be judicial. The UK operated an extensive system of administrative remedies over the years of its involvement in Iraq, and its Ministry of Defence paid nearly 1500 claims totalling almost £22 million in compensation for war crimes over the period 2003/4 – 2016/7.  In addition, over 4500 claims from Afghan civilians had been made, up until 2015, resulting in out-of-court payments of estimated £5.3 million.

If this Bill is enacted, the operation of a credible administrative compensation mechanism will be essential to avoid potential liability for breaches of ECHR Article 13. Even so, it sends a very detrimental signal to the world about the UK’s commitment to justice and human rights.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra_fowlerDr Alexandra Fowler is a specialist in public international law at the University of Westminster, London. She holds a Doctor of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney, and has taught international law and constitutional law at a number of Australian universities.  Her research interests include victim compensation in international humanitarian law, international human rights and international criminal law, and transitional justice;

International Human Rights News: A focus on some positive stories amid the coronavirus crisis

by Pauline Canham, Bethany Webb-Strong, Julia Kedziorek, Lauren Ng, Amita Dhiman, Alana Meier

Covid-19 has swept across nations, emptying cities and transforming life as we know it. Although its impact has been devastating, coronavirus has also provoked a community response which has seen even the most unlikely of allies join together in solidarity.  This week, we bring you a collection of positive stories across the globe to celebrate individual kindnesses, community projects, and the generosity of government support provided in certain countries. These are the silver linings that give us all hope during these challenging times.

 

Europe

Nurse_mosaicThe isolation of government lockdowns has caused people to join together to connect in new and creative ways. A five-year-old girl in England has found a pen pal in her elderly neighbour, writing to remind him he is not alone during the lockdown.

In the UK, the NHS is experiencing overwhelming support, with a volunteer army 750 000 strong preparing to provide vital services.  Those at home are filling the streets with applause across Europe with the ‘clap for carers’ and a BAFTA winning film maker who came to the UK from Syria has signed up as an NHS cleaner.  Hasan Akkad said he was “honoured to join an army of cleaners disinfecting Covid wards [at] our local hospital after receiving training”.

Charities are also finding innovative ways to support those in isolation: Goodgym, a UK charity which facilitates runners completing ‘fix-it’ jobs in the community have employed their volunteers for food and pharmacy deliveries. The restaurant industry has come together to raise over £1000 as part of a FeedNHS campaign to provide healthy meals to NHS workers on the front line.  Barikama, a farming cooperative run by African migrants in Italy have started a drive to feed isolated families.

This Easter weekend, with places of worship closed to stop the spread of the virus, the portable priest has been travelling the streets of London to bring his sermons to the community of Notting Hill.  For those unable to get outdoors, nature and mental health organisations have joined together to launch #Vitamin N campaign to inspire new ways to connect with nature from home, including garden scavenger hunts and nature yoga.

Despite the great suffering caused by the pandemic, the world is fighting back and rediscovering community, solidarity and generosity: ‘a world recast through virtual networks’.

 

Australasia

LufthansaAn Australian charity, ‘Where There’s A Will’, began an initiative called “adopt an oldie” that connects people with the elderly, single mothers and other vulnerable individuals to help them get essentials like medications or groceries.

Facebook groups have proved a useful platform for communities wishing to help neighbours and frontline workers.  One Facebook group joined by thousands of Australians called “Adopt A Healthcare Worker” offers practical help and emotional support to key workers who do not have enough time or energy to get essential shopping.   Another Facebook group called ‘4069 Helping Hands’ supports people in Queensland.  For elderly residents without social media, they drop leaflets in letterboxes offering contact details for help with emergency supplies and medication.  Meanwhile, in Sydney’s Newtown, a community created a cupboard filled with food saying “Take what you need, leave what you can”.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern added the Easter Bunny to the list of essential workers last weekend and encouraged children to draw eggs and tape them to their front windows in order to respect social distancing while spreading some happiness to the lives of the little ones.  The Easter Bunny was also the only passenger on a Lufthansa rescue flight from Germany to New Zealand, sent to bring Germans stuck in New Zealand back home.

Meanwhile couples around the world who had planned to celebrate their happiest day with family and friends are having to re-think after gatherings including wedding parties are restricted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.   One couple from Indonesia live streamed their wedding for 500 guests who watched the ceremony from their living rooms , with the bride’s cousin holding up a sign saying “STAY HOME”.

 

Africa

Shofco_AfricaAt  the end of March, when Africa had only 640 cases, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Ghebreyesus, warned Africa to wake up to the threat of the virus that has the potential to overwhelm the continent.  Sadly, the number of cases of Coronavirus has now risen to over 15,000 and currently affects 52 countries in Africa, with only two remaining with no reported cases.  Different organisations and policies have been mobilised to minimise the impact of coronavirus in Africa.

In Kenya, a grassroots organisation, ‘Shining Hope for Communities’ (SHOFCO), has started initiatives to bring the community together in the face of the pandemic.  The organisation was established in 2004 by Kennedy Odede, at the age of 15, who had grown up in the slum of Kiberia, to empower urban communities faced with poverty.  Through Shofco, community leaders have set up handwashing stations, arranged door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness, and distributed essentials supplies, such as handmade soap, hand sanitizer and bleach.  These community-led initiatives are believed to increase the compliance of the local population, as compared to top-down government messages.

In South Africa, the number of daily cases had been increasing up to the end of March when the number of cases suddenly dropped, prompting thoughts that the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa’s, rapid response might have averted a worse crisis.  It is too early to read anything into the apparent lull in daily figures but it appears that a three-week lockdown, along with 5,000 coronavirus tests a day may be seeing results.  So far, around 60,000 tests have been conducted and they continue to ramp up efforts to improve this number.

 

North America

America_positiveDespite the very different approaches of regional neighbours to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in both Canada and the United States have implemented coronavirus relief bills that address the heightened needs at this time.

Aided by social media, exceptional acts of kindness and care are being shown within communities. Movements like Hearts in the Window and A World of Hearts are encouraging people to spread love instead of fear during the pandemic. ‘Caremongering’ is another organised movement that has spread across Canada. With altruism being arranged online using the hashtags #iso (in search of) and #offer, founder Valentina Harper says the goal is to create ‘a contagion of kindness’ that fights anxiety, isolation and lack of hope.  Last weekend, a mom in Atlanta, Georgia used Facebook to launch a creative window Easter egg hunt in her neighbourhood.

Companies are also doing their share to help where they can. Canada’s auto parts manufacturers announced their goal to help make 10,000 ventilators, the hockey equipment producer, Bauer, is using its expertise to produce medical face shields, companies in the marijuana industry have donated their protective equipment, and alcohol distilleries across the United States have started making hand sanitizers amidst the national shortage.

Another silver lining is that, like in China and Italy, as American cities close-up and promote social isolation, they are also seeing pollution plummet.  Environmental scientists estimate the improved air quality could prevent a collective 75,000 people from dying prematurely.

 

Asia

Coronavirus_AsiaIn India, while the government is working towards implementing new measures, the acts of ordinary citizens have brightened these dark and desolate times.  In Karnataka, Mahita Nagaraj,  is helping the elderly, disabled and chronically ill by leading the initiative ‘Caremongers India’ which was initially a Canadian trend.  Elsewhere, the Delhi Sikh management committee has made one of its Gurudwara (place of worship) a quarantine facility for people and is also providing free meals to the poor and destitute at this hour of need.

In Mumbai, an animal rights activist, Lynette D’Souza, has come forward to help the daily wage earners by providing them with free groceries. Meanwhile, in the north-eastern state of Mizoram, seven-year-old Rommel Lalmuansanga has given his entire pocket money, a total of 333 rupees ($5 approx.), to the COVID-19 task force in his village.  Also, in India, the world’s largest postal service is stepping in to help deliver lifesaving medicines during a countrywide lockdown.

In China, with the government easing restrictions due to a fall in positive coronavirus cases, people have shown kindness towards each other in different ways and Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, donated millions of face masks and test kits to 54 countries in Africa to combat the outbreak.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

East Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia & Oceania

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

 

Social Care Crisis & COVID-19

Peter Beresford

This post was originally posted in Class 30/3/20

The Coronavirus pandemic in the UK looks like putting off all bets on the future of social care. If we could have almost taken it for granted that the Johnson government would do little or nothing to challenge the long term crisis in English social care, its confused and confusing response to the outbreak now means few predictions are safe for social care’s post-pandemic future. It might be even more precarious – or there may be an opportunity for positive change.

While countries like South Korea has approached the virus and public health with a good sense born of preparation, good organization and infrastructure and a sense of public and social responsibility, here it’s been the opposite story. A tradition of politicizing everything, small state thinking and damaged infrastructure, means government response has oscillated between meaningless mantras like ‘herd immunity’ to arbitrary lock-downs that mean unsupported older people are threatened with being isolated for four months, while Amazon etc go on delivering non-essentials.

Meanwhile calls for myriad ‘volunteers’ without serious thought of their use or the consequences, and photo opportunities of happy clapping for the NHS and the letting off of fireworks (purchased where?) are reminiscent of the mindless enthusiasm that greeted the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This was the war you may remember described by the poet Siegfried Sassoon as ‘beginning with the ringing of bells and ending with wringing of hands’. We have to hope the present policy won’t be a tragi-comic rerun.

So let’s remind ourselves of some of the known realities. This is a pandemic which affects different groups very differently. For those not in the medical front line or without compromised health/immunity, it seems to be a relatively minor issue. We know that it can kill those whose health is compromised and this particularly relates to older and disabled people and people with some long term conditions – yes the client group for social care. Thus from the start, it was the latter who should have been given particular priority attention and support in the pandemic. The opposite has happened.

Generalised policies have been adopted and little specific attention has been paid to vulnerable groups except where they are already in health or institutional settings. No policy was in place for rapid large scale testing, provision of effective face masks or ventilators. So we start with a confused and negative response to the groups most at risk. Nothing was done either in the spring budget to strengthen social care. Amazingly the emergency pandemic legislation introduced further restricts access to social care, the rights of mental health service users and disabled children to education. In a widely-praised speech, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson told fellow peers during the bill’s second reading in the Lords on Tuesday that the measures outlined were ‘draconian’ and ‘life-changing for disabled people.

We don’t know what other restrictions are now being imposed on people seen as having ‘non-urgent’ long term conditions as the emphasis is placed instead on Covid-19. Certainly, we are hearing about delayed operations and halted chemotherapy sessions which can only be damaging for particularly at-risk groups. There has so far been a complete failure to consult with or additionally resource the disabled people’s and user-led organisations (DPULOs) which could and should play a key role in these difficult and disturbing times.

Currently, the headlines are about further extending the current lockdown and emergency measures – both in severity and length of time. This is the same press that set off the panic buying only quelled by the responsible behaviour of supermarket chains.

All this is raising enormous questions far bigger than the impact on social care however important that is. How long will the present draconian measures be seen as politically viable? They aren’t economically viable. Is there some hidden political agenda at work unrelated to safeguarding our health?

So at present, the future looks frightening for social care, older and disabled people. But Johnson’s throwing all the balls into the air with his inconsistent and arbitrary response to the Covid-19 crisis may also be the spark that sets of a serious political rethink of social care in England, something none of the three major political parties has so far attempted – including Corbyn’s Labour at the last general election. And it is this hope for long term change we must all put our shoulders behind.

We already have the blueprint for such change and how to achieve it. This is provided by the Care Act, now abrogated by the government, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the pioneering thinking of the disabled people’s movement. These move us from the present broken model of social care based on poor law principles of impoverishment and a residual service to the NHS’s founding principles of a universal service free at the point of delivery paid through a progressive system of taxation.

The Care Act is based on a positive concept of ‘wellbeing’. The UNCRPD on the notion of ‘independent living’ developed by disabled people; that is ensuring them the support to live their lives on as equal terms as possible with non-disabled people. And finally, the UNCRPD acknowledging political and economic realities recognizes that such reform will need to be introduced gradually. This can be done on a rolling programme basis, gaining an accurate idea of the cost of recording unmet need for the first time, in order to get a realistic idea of the funding gap. Adopting such a vision and strategy could be the silver lining of the current Covid-19 health and policy tragedy.

International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

women_health_workers

Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

Indigenous land battles in Nicaragua’s UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve

Indigenous tribes and their land are under threat across the South American continent.  Brazil, in particular hit the headlines in recent months as President Bolsonaro announced plans to legalise the commercial exploitation of natural resources in Indigenous territories.  But the countries of Central America too are facing similar struggles with attacks on Indigenous communities and pressure from farmers and loggers.  The following article by Karthik Subramaniam looks at the escalation of attacks on indigenous groups and their lands in Nicaragua.

On 30th January 2020, six indigenous people belonging to the indigenous Mayagna tribe were killed and ten others were kidnapped in a reported attack by armed men.  This incident occurred in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in the northern part of Nicaragua.  The attack on this indigenous tribe is not an isolated one.  There have been heightened conflicts in the region between the indigenous tribes and the new settlers over forest land that is the territory of the indigenous tribes.  On 5th January 2020, Mark Rivas, an indigenous leader who had publicly denounced the grabbing of land by the logging industry, was shot to death.

The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, along with three other neighbouring protected areas, forms the “Heart of the Mesoamerican Biocorridor”.  Declared by the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997, it serves as the home for around 22 different indigenous communities who contribute to its protection.  The tribes that live in these areas depend on the forests for their subsistence.  However, over the last few years, there has been what some indigenous tribes have termed an “invasion” by “colonists,” that has led to the massive deforestation of these forests.  The invasion of these settlers, lured in by the promise of gold, the abundance of timber, and the plentiful maritime assets of the reserve, has led to them grabbing the ancestral lands of the indigenous population.  These settlers include peasants, small- and large-scale farmers, wood smugglers, loggers, and ranchers.

The International Labour Organisation’s “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (N. 169)” (ILO 169) adopted in 1989 (which has been ratified by Nicaragua) was followed by up with the near unanimous adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  Together, they greatly improved the rights of property of indigenous population, while also protecting them from the interference of the state.  For instance, Article 8.2(b) of the UNDRIP mentions that States shall provide indigenous populations with effective mechanisms for the prevention of, and redress for, “Any action that has the aim of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”

nicaragua-80756_1280

Article 89 of the Constitution of Nicaragua describes that the State recognises the communal forms of land ownership among the ethnic population and provides recognition to the use and enjoyment of the waters and forests on these communal lands.  Article 180 guarantees these communities the benefits of their natural resources, the effectiveness of their forms of communal property and the free election of their authorities and representatives.  Law No. 14 amended the Agrarian Reform Law in 1986, which established in Article 31 that the state would provide the ethnic communities of Nicaragua with necessary lands so as to improve their standard of living.

The presence of these laws in Nicaragua that aim at protecting the property rights of the native population of the country clearly show that there exist intentions of the government to protect the rights of the ethnic population of the country.  However, the mere intention of protecting the rights of these people is not enough.

 

In 2001, in a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, the government was found to be guilty of violating the right to property of the indigenous Awas Tingni population over their customary land by giving concessions to loggers within the traditional lands of these tribes.   The legally binding nature of the decision bestowed on it by Article 68 of the American Convention of Human Rights (ACHR), of which the Republic of Nicaragua is a party to, implied that the government had to comply with the decision.  Following this, it was only in 2008 that the government of Nicaragua granted the Tingi people title to around 74,000 hectares of forested land. Based on the 2001 decision, Law 445, or the Communal Land Law, was passed in 2003 which formally recognised the rights of the indigenous populations and ethnic communities to their historic territories and set up an institutional framework for the demarcation and titling of territories either as a single community or as a group of communities.

However, out of the 1,604,683 hectares of broadleaf forest the Bosawas Reserve had in 1987, only 1,039,945 were left by 2010.  This implies that more than around 564,000 hectares of pristine forest were lost due to deforestation for the purposes of ranching and agriculture.  The intense internal migration of people from the coastal and the central regions of the country looking for fertile land have been identified to be one of the primary contributors to this deforestation.  While the human conflict is definitely problematic with respect to the rights of the indigenous population, many scientists are also concerned about the detrimental effect this is having on the region’s biodiversity.

For the preservation of the territories of the indigenous population that depend on these forests for sustenance, as well as for the conservation of the delicate ecosystem of the reserve, the government needs to take necessary steps.  It is crucial for the authorities to take immediate action to prevent further violence and protect the land and resources of the indigenous population of Nicaragua.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KarthikKarthik Subramaniam is an undergraduate student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His main research interests lie in areas of alternate dispute redressal, including mediation and negotiation. He also dabbles in areas of international human rights and sports law.