US Report Highlights COVID-19 Effects on Human Rights in Region

John Bechtel
US Report Highlights COVID-19 Effects on Human Rights in Region U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, at the State Department in Washington, March 30, 2021.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has complicated concerns about governments’ treatment of citizens in Asian countries and beyond, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday as it released its annual report on human rights across the globe.

The governments in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand last year used existing laws to crack down on complaints or criticism over national efforts in response to the pandemic, the 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices noted.

It also reported on Malaysia seeing an increase in COVID-19 infections among immigrants and inmates while in the Philippines, the war on drugs went on.

“The 2020 report reflects the unique challenges that nations had to confront as the COVID-19 virus spread throughout the world. The pandemic impacted not only individuals’ health, but their abilities to safely enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement accompanying the report.

“Some governments used the crisis as a pretext to restrict rights and consolidate authoritarian rule.”

Human rights trends are moving in the wrong direction because of the global outbreak, Blinken noted as he spoke to reporters at the State Department.

“All of these alarming trend lines are being worsened by COVID-19,” he said.

According to the report, the police, military and intelligence services in Bangladesh last year “employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.”

“Between March and September, the government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in order to scan public discussions on COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the virus,” the State Department reported.

“In March, the Information Ministry announced the formation of a unit to monitor social media and television outlets for ‘rumors’ related to COVID-19.”

Bangladeshi authorities used the 2018 Digital Security Act against journalists and others questioning its handling of COVID-19, charging at least 19 journalists in May, the department said, citing local reports.

“They have been arrested on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” Police Sub-Inspector Jamshedul Alam told BenarNews at the time.

Digital attacks

In Indonesia, at least four Indonesian media organizations reported facing digital attacks following negative reporting on the pandemic, the State Department said, citing a group called the Independent Journalist Alliance.

“An August attack against after publishing articles critical of the State Intelligence Agency and the armed forces’ involvement in formulating a COVID-19 treatment led to the sudden disappearance of articles from the website,” the State Department said.

And as in other countries in the region, authorities in Thailand monitored commentary on social media.

“The government continued to restrict internet access and penalize those who criticized the monarchy or shared unverified information about the spread of COVID-19,” the report said.

“Authorities targeted for prosecution individuals posting a range of social-media commentary, from discussion of COVID-19 dispersion to Lese-Majeste, criticism of the government’s operations, reporting on government scandals and warning of government surveillance.”

The report was referring to Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s harsh law that guards against royal defamation.

Meanwhile, Thai immigration detention centers, which are not subject to the same regulations as the nation’s prisons, faced overcrowding issues, according to the report which noted that 60 detainees at a center in southern Songkhla province had tested positive for COVID-19.

A health worker sprays disinfectant at migrant workers who arrived from Malaysia before entering a quarantine center at in North Sumatra, Indonesia, April 9, 2020. [AP]

In Malaysia, authorities placed immigrants, particularly Rohingya, in detention centers to “quarantine.” By May, human rights groups reported a rising number of COVID-19 infections, the report said.

By October, 8 percent of the nation’s coronavirus cases were attributable to prison inmates and staff.

“Former deputy defense minister Liew Chin Tong stated that the COVID-19 outbreak was turning prisons into ‘death traps’ exacerbated by overcrowding problems. A Sabah state prison recorded more than 60 percent of inmates testing positive for COVID-19,” it said.

BenarNews reported last October that Prisons Department director-general Zulkifli Omar had announced the implementation of “drastic” measures, including sending light-drug offenders to national service camps and releasing prisoners with short sentences, subject to conditions.

“Inmates who have been sentenced to less than one year in prison and have less than three months to be served will be released,” the statement said, noting they must pass certain criteria including testing negative for the coronavirus.

Philippine drug war

The report noted that the pandemic did not slow killings tied to President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines.

Human Rights Watch, citing Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency figures, reported 155 deaths between April and July 2020 – “a 50 percent increase from the number of suspects killed from December to March before the COVID-19 community quarantine,” the report said.

Police at the time did not respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

In addition, rights organizations accused police with tampering with crime scenes tied to drug deaths.

“In June the National Bureau of Investigation charged two PNP members with planting evidence in the shooting of Winston Ragos, a former armed forces member suffering from mental illness, over an alleged COVID-19 quarantine violation,” the report said, using an acronym for Philippine National Police.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Blinken said that human rights would be at the center of the new Biden administration’s foreign policy.

“Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests,” Blinken told reporters, according to a transcript.

“And the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.”


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