Coronavirus cannot be used as excuse to curb human rights, nations told

"We are ... concerned by the growing practice of monitoring and closely controlling people’s movements, even at the cost of their privacy."

National struggle to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Israel (photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
National struggle to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Israel
(photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Israel's government has been strongly criticized by a coalition of more than 600 civil society groups across 70 countries for expanding invasive digital surveillance of its citizens at the cost of their privacy, as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The criticism comes in an open letter by CIVICUS, a global civic society alliance of more than 600 organizations, which urged administrations around the globe not to violate human rights when dealing with COVID-19.
"We are ... concerned by the growing practice of monitoring and closely controlling people’s movements, even at the cost of their privacy," the letter reads.
"Efforts to contain the virus must not be used to expand systems of invasive digital surveillance. Israel and Taiwan are notable examples of how technological surveillance is being used in this context, and how disproportionate the impact of such measures may be when they are not strictly defined and limited."
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the head of the institute’s Media Reform Program and Democracy in the Information Age Program warned earlier this month that Israelis seemed to be underestimating the gravity of the surveillance system being used by the government to monitor those with COVID-19.
In March the government decided to allow Shin Bet to track citizens' phones without their knowledge, using a system designed for counter-terrorism work, to monitor the movements of people carrying the coronavirus infection.
“I believe there is not enough understanding of the level of control and power that someone who can create this massive surveillance and the AI-based analysis of all this big data can have in their hands, and this bothers me,” she said.
Israel was also urged, along with a number of other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Iran and Turkey, to free "human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and prisoners of conscience" who are currently jailed, as part of moves to free prisoners who might be at risk from COVID-19 in prison.
Globally, the letter raised a number of concerns over various potential human rights abuses taking place as governments move to deal with the pandemic.
The internet restrictions and shutdowns instigated by India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh prevented people from accessing information about how to protect themselves, as well as limiting opportunities to socially distance by working from home, the letter pointed out; while France was criticized for confining people with disabilities in institutions, contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and placing those with disabilities at higher risk of contriving COVID-19.
The co-signatories indicated that they were "particularly concerned by states that are abusing emergency powers to place restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and the right to access information," naming Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and China among states who are silencing journalists and human rights activists attempting to speak out. Hong Kong was singled out for using state power to suppress peaceful assemblies, while Hungary, Azerbaijan and the Philippines were criticized for adopting legislative powers to curtail freedoms.
"All responses to COVID-19 must be deeply rooted in these cross-cutting principles: respect of human dignity, independence and autonomy of the person, non-discrimination and equality, and respect of diversities and inclusion," the letter reads.
"Any response must comply with international standards on emergency legislation and respect human rights and the rule of law. Extraordinary measures are legitimate only under exceptional circumstances, such as when there is an immediate threat to public health. These measures should be used in a necessary and proportionate manner and should be aligned to international human rights law."

Rossella Tercatin
contributed to this report.