Opinion

Governments making power grabs, repressing dissent while world focuses on COVID-19

How far will the erosion of rights and freedoms be permitted to go in these strange new times, writes Hadani Ditmars.

How far will the erosion of rights and freedoms be permitted to go in these strange new times?

Members of China's security forces stand guard at the Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, on April 8. (Aly Song/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by Hadani Ditmars, the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist and past contributor to CBC's Dispatches, she has been reporting from the Middle East for more than two decades. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As governments around the world use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to crack down on human rights and civil liberties, a statement condemning state repression issued recently by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Karina Gould, minister of International Development, is a welcome one.

The statement said, "We are concerned about the risk of discrimination, excessive use of force and violations of fundamental rights and freedoms that have already occurred in some countries during the implementation of lockdowns and mandatory isolation. While the need to protect public health is vital, it is imperative to ensure that these measures are not used to undermine the fundamental civil liberties and human rights of all people."

Evidence of state repression and egregious examples of abuse abound.

In Turkmenistan, it is illegal to even mention the virus and the government has insisted it has no infections, despite hundreds of cases in surrounding nations.

The long-suffering Uyghurs, trapped in high-contagion internment camps, are facing increased abuse at the hands of Chinese authorities during the COVID crisis, reportedly being starved and forced to work in factories without proper medical protocols. Chinese authorities are also using the virus as an excuse to crack down on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Fadi al-Hadami was arrested recently by Israeli police for the "crime" of acting on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in helping to co-ordinate its coronavirus response. Meanwhile, Indian police have been brutally enforcing the lockdown, and to our immediate south, President Trump's administration is firing whistleblowers under the cover of the crisis.

Then there are issues around freedom of the press, helpfully catalogued by Reporters Without Borders in their new Tracker 19 initiative to monitor and evaluate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on journalism, and to offer recommendations on how to defend the public's right to information. (The group launches its 2020 Press Freedom Index on April 21.)

These range from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ultra-nationalist excesses and lack of an independent press, to the fining of Reuters by the Iraqi state for publishing an article suggesting that corona cases are under-reported.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech about the state of the coronavirus outbreak in Budapest. Hungary's parliament passed a law giving the government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency is in effect. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via The Associated Press)

Here at home things may look rosier, but we must remain vigilant.

The government has already attempted a naked power grab via an economic aid bill — thankfully thwarted by a united opposition — that would have granted it unlimited discretion to spend and tax for two years, and very likely bail out oil and airline industries without parliamentary approval.

Civil liberties groups across the country are also concerned about arbitrary enforcement of physical distancing fines and threats to vulnerable communities. The Ottawa Citizen recently reported that a man was ticketed $2,000 for refusing to identify himself to police, and another fined $880 for walking his dog in a closed park.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association remains concerned about the rights of prisoners, migrants, refugees, and police accountability in First Nations communities.

With reports of the homeless being issued $750 social distancing fines in Hamilton, it's reassuring to know that Champagne and Gould's statement also referred to protection for marginalized communities: "Over the course of this crisis, the Government of Canada will work to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized communities, including refugees, internally displaced people and migrants, indigenous, LGBTQ2I+, and religious and ethnic minority communities, are not victimized under the cover of public health."

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne speaks with the media following caucus on Parliament Hill on March 11. He recently issued a statement that said, 'We are concerned about the risk of discrimination, excessive use of force and violations of fundamental rights and freedoms that have already occurred in some countries during the implementation of lockdowns and mandatory isolation.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

For the time being, Canada seems to be more in danger of becoming a self-policing rather than a police state per se, with snitch lines reportedly receiving hundreds of calls every week from "concerned citizens."

But we would do well to remember the dangers of the creeping surveillance state, as discussed recently by the likes of Edward Snowden, who compared this moment to the Sept. 11 attacks that ushered in an era of clampdowns on civil liberties in the name of public safety.

In spite of calls by Rona Ambrose and others for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to implement the Emergencies Act, it is unlikely that he will, with the ghost of his father's political denouement (ushered in by Pierre Elliott Trudeau's enactment of the previously named War Measures Act) hovering close by.

But how far will the erosion of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms go in these strange new times? Will the government ever enact section 33, the Notwithstanding Clause?

Sources tell CBC News that the federal government has sent a letter to provinces and territories as part of the consultation period — a required step before triggering a public welfare emergency. 6:21

While it seems unlikely now, it's a slippery slope. The U.K.'s current predictive policing policies and extensive surveillance originated in their own "war measures" experience with the IRA. Now they are almost taken for granted.

Meanwhile, in Canada our already fragile media industry is under further threat due to falling advertising revenue from businesses that are failing or have been forced to suspend operations by COVID-19. And while tyrants restrict freedom of the press around the world, these same financial pressures are forcing international papers to close down.

The question is, if our rights and freedoms are slowly eroded in the name of public health and safety, will anyone notice? And who will be there to report it?


About the Author

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist and past contributor to CBC’s Dispatches, she has been reporting from the Middle East for over two decades. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

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