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23-07-21

Human rights in crisis?

Three defenders on defending human rights in the midst of the pandemic.

Written by Kay Hollanders

“Human rights seem to have moved back 30 years. It is not about freedom anymore, nor is it about human rights. It’s only about doing whatever they want”. Before sitting down at her temporary dining table in The Netherlands, Zara vents her frustrations about the decline of human rights back home. “It’s like we’re not in 2021 anymore, but back in the 80’s”.

As part of my – independent – search to find how the current COVID-19 pandemic obstructs our routes to advance human rights, I present the stories of three human rights defenders. Zara*, Anna*, and Guliaim reflect on how their work and lives were changed this past year.

In their respective former-Soviet homelands, civil society has gained much ground advancing human rights in the last decades.[1] Anyone who has been following the news this year, however, cannot help but notice there is still a long way ahead. How did the pandemic impact human rights in their region? Did their governments play the COVID-card to get their way? And, how were these human rights defenders able to continue their work?

Zara – COVID-19 only meant more work

Growing up in a minority community trapped in conflict in Russia’s North-Caucasus region, Zara witnessed many injustices. Her response was making it her life’s work to fight these injustices. As a human rights lawyer, she looks back at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

After first denying the virus in April 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin extended his ‘forced holidays’ again and again – first two, then three, then four weeks. This left many uncertain of an income and even homeless. Subsequently, all businesses, services and schools closed.

“The schools rarely have toilets inside, let alone good computers. People have no internet at home. How are people supposed to learn, or earn a living?” – Zara

Zara noticed inequality increasing since the arrival of the pandemic. “I know a lot of families with parents forced to work from home, while trying to make their children learn something. In my community for example, you should know, the families are large and own not even one laptop.” Zara depicts the reality for many families in her country: “The whole family shares one phone, and the kids wait for dad to finish his calls before they can do their homework.” Here, Zara points out the major regional differences in her country. The implications for some, in wealthy regions like Moscow or St. Petersburg, is incomparable to the impact on the lives of people in impoverished communities. In Russia’s mountains, people are hit hard by the measures. For example in North-Caucasus: “The schools rarely have toilets inside, let alone good computers. People have no internet at home. How are people supposed to learn, or earn a living?” The response to COVID-19 varies immensely between regional authorities too, increasing the inequality, Zara explains.

The practical implications of the virus changed Zara’s work as well. Restricted movement – working from home in a crowded house – turned her life upside down. Yet, there was a lot to do. Court hearings continued, unlawful arrests and killings went on as before. Injustices persisted, while other aspects of life came to a halt.

Measures against COVID-19 added to the pile of work. Closed borders made it hard for Zara to ensure her people’s safety. One of her clients, a Caucasian woman, was sought after for divorcing her husband – a scandalous act in the eyes of her community, her husband, and even regional leaders. She received a visit from her husband and a handful of other men. “Luckily she was at the other apartment we arranged for her at that time.” More work was demanded from Zara as she and her colleagues tried to prevent an elderly client from being detained in an overcrowded prison cell – where the virus had free rein.[2] To no avail.

On top of the increased workload, COVID-19 measures and working from home meant that lack of motivation, fears of burning out, and even depression loomed over Zara and her colleagues. All the while, injustices and uncertainties kept piling up.

Anna – the crisis is only there when it suits him

When COVID-19 emerged in the rest of the world, Belarus pretended to be immune. Anna illustrates the general sentiment in her country: “Drink enough vodka and eat plenty of garlic, and you’ll be fine.” President Lukashenko – eagerly using COVID-19 when it comes to barring foreign election monitors[3] – continuously calls the pandemic a ‘mass hysteria’.

“[A] large part of our country believes our government, saying that a lockdown – like they have in Europe – is absolutely crazy.” – Anna

As a journalist, Anna covered everything unfolding in Belarus in the year that passed. So, she would know if the virus had a great impact on her society. However, her answer was a resolute “no”: other issues had a much greater impact. The number of COVID-cases has indeed remained relatively low,[4] yet, the authorities refused to take any serious steps at all.

Anna explains: “a large part of our country believes our government, saying that a lockdown – like they have in Europe – is absolutely crazy.” Anna herself went to work as always. Cafés, schools and offices remained open. At the same time, Anna sees that “another part of the country is now really angry. Perhaps they have lost friends or relatives to the pandemic. They see people without masks in shops and get angry, they are angry because the government is not taking any effective measures against the pandemic.”

“Journalists were no longer allowed at court hearings – especially when they were political. They said, ‘too many people in the building, so bye bye’ and closed the door in my face. Justice behind closed doors”. – Anna

But the government did take some dubious measures, contradicting the president’s blasé stance on COVID-19. That left Anna scratching her head. “For example, since the coronavirus, lawyers are not allowed into detention centers.” The same was true for relatives, “They couldn’t even give something like clothes or a toothbrush, any of this stuff. How could they ban gifts because of the pandemic? It is crazy.” The list continues: “Journalists were no longer allowed at court hearings – especially when they were political. They said, ‘too many people in the building, so bye bye’ and closed the door in my face. Justice behind closed doors.”

Photograph by Nadia Buzhan, Award-winning Photographer, 2021 World Press Photo Contest. Originally published on Nasha Niva.

Independent journalists like Anna saw the space for free speech shrink again once authorities started to accuse the media of spreading misinformation. “We wanted to cover the coronavirus for the public, and wanted to verify the ministry’s numbers.” Covering the spread of a disease was apparently feeding into ‘mass hysteria’. Their space shrank even further when the airspace closed after the hijacking of the Ryanair flight in May this year,[5] Anna says, trapping human rights defenders in the country. Again, they were confronted with a door slammed shut in their face.

“[T]he waves of street protests have become silent protests as people have become afraid of the police, afraid to be detained in prison.” – Anna

Meanwhile, Lukashenko was re-elected in highly contested and tumultuous elections in August 2020, sparking the largest anti-government protests Belarus has ever seen.[6] “At the moment”, Anna says, “the waves of street protest have become silent protests as people have become afraid of the police, afraid to be detained in prison.” Silent protests mean, for example, having the flag in the window or stuck onto a car bumper. The old national flag became a political symbol, and it’s a criminal offense to use it. “People even get fined for wearing white and red clothes.”

As a journalist, Anna tried to cover the protests objectively, and is careful to express opinions in her writing. Staying under the radar this way might be crucial for her to continue her work.[7]

Guliaim – COVID-19 dangles at the bottom of the list

As 2020 shook the world, so did it shake the Kyrgyz mountains. Guliaim, chair of the Bishkek Feminist Initiative, leads a group promoting women’s rights and working for real equality. They are most famous for their annual Women’s March in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. For Guliaim, the past year proved turbulent and difficult.

[T]he Kyrgyz people were left to fend for themselves. The government failed to provide public services, and people had to learn to mobilize themselves.

The advance of COVID-19 was slow in the sparsely populated mountains and valleys, Guliaim explains. Her government’s response was not, however. At the end of March 2020, a state of emergency was declared less than a day after the first few cases were confirmed.[8] The government spared no means. In Bishkek and the larger cities, strict curfews were installed, most amenities closed, public transportation ground to a halt, along with the installation of roadblocks around the cities and profound use of military force. “For two months, military tanks were in the streets. They were there just to spread fear on the people.”

In the meantime, the Kyrgyz people were left to fend for themselves. The government failed to provide public services, and people had to learn to mobilize themselves. “That meant we no longer had to sit and wait for someone from the government to help us. But in our situation, this meant our government totally forgot to do what it was supposed to do.” Volunteers started providing meals and support for the poor and elderly citizens, untrained volunteers offered relief for hospitals. At one point people had put together a fund to purchase much needed oxygen concentrators from China themselves. Guliaim and the Bishkek Feminist Initiative provided women with sanitary kits. “The government would have never thought about women’s needs in this situation, if they did anything at all.”

Guliaim saw the horrific consequences of the ‘state of emergency’ on Kyrgyz women and girls. Living with abusive family members has become unbearable, Guliaim explains. Due to closed roads and curfew, finding help among friends and family was no option for many women. “We tried to help however we could through the internet,” Guliaim explains, “we made toolkits with tips on how to live with an abusive family member, who to call in case it gets worse, and so on.”

“In Kyrgyzstan, the COVID-19 situation is like a person in hospital, dying of illness and injuries. At the same time, the doctor finds a tiny scratch on his elbow. We have so many problems, the pandemic is – maybe – on the tenth place on the list.” – Guliaim

Back to the start of March 2020. Not a single case was confirmed in Kyrgyzstan. Still, the annual Women’s march had to be cancelled because of ‘health concerns’, a Bishkek court ruled. When the march was simply moved out of the court’s jurisdiction, the crowd found itself attacked by men in balaclavas. It was clear to Guliaim those men were not arrested, as they were sent by the government. “They didn’t get their way through court and now they wanted to send a message.”

2019 Women’s March. Photograph courtesy of Bishkek Feminist Initiatives.

2020 Women’s March. Photograph courtesy of Bishkek Feminist Initiatives.

The attacks on Guliaim’s women’s march do not stand alone. It was merely part of a series of smear campaigns, intimidations and threats directed at Kyrgyz civil society. On the waves of the pandemic, political turmoil persisted. Hurried elections in October meant waves of protest and harsh repercussions from authorities.[9] A new constitution was drafted in several weeks; even more flawed and inconsiderate toward human rights, says Guliaim. With all that is going on, COVID-19 and health concerns are the least of Guliaim’s concerns.

“In Kyrgyzstan, the COVID-19 situation is like a person in hospital, dying of illness and injuries. At the same time, the doctor finds a tiny scratch on his elbow. We have so many problems, the pandemic is – maybe – on the tenth place on the list.”

COVID-19 – not a crisis?

The stories of these three defenders show the road to advance human rights is riddled with challenges. In their respective countries, trends towards less democracy, less freedom, less tolerance and less respect for human rights are endangering human rights defenders.

“When society shakes, human rights lose priority and will be violated. And when law doesn’t work, those without power suffer first; women’s rights and those of children disappear.” – Guliaim

COVID-19 has aggravated that trend and made the work of defenders more difficult in a literal sense, and by serving as a pretext for governments – be it to justify the cold-blooded crackdown of anti-government demonstrations, allowing flawed elections, violating civic freedoms, barring press from documenting trials or stopping lawyers visiting their clients. “When society shakes, human rights lose priority and will be violated. And when law doesn’t work, those without power suffer first; women’s rights and those of children disappear,” said Guliaim.

Although our lives have been turned upside down this year, has COVID-19 really been a crisis for human rights? Zara, Anna and Guliaim demonstrate some perks stemming from the situation. Zara sees the flexibility to adapt in difficult situations and looks back at a fruitful year “because we worked hard and got a lot of positive decisions in the European Court of Human Rights”. Anna feels that Belarusians are on the brink of change, even though the protests fell ‘silent’, for now. Guliaim sees how being forced to work online brought her organisation new tools to reach more people. More importantly, she sees her country becoming more resourceful: “people learnt to mobilize themselves”.

If we call it an opportunity – an opportunity to reflect and reshape our human rights space – perhaps we can make it one.

The pandemic has huge consequences for people worldwide, including those who stand up for human rights. Yet, these stories show that we are not powerless. Any situation is never more than what we all believe it is. If we call this situation a crisis, it may remain a crisis. If we call it an opportunity – an opportunity to reflect and to reshape our human rights space – perhaps we can make it one.


*Zara and Anna are pseudonyms used to protect the respondents’ identity.

[1] Ljubownikow, S., Crotty, J., & Rodgers, P. W. (2013). The state and civil society in Post-Soviet Russia: The development of a Russian-style civil society. Progress in Development Studies, 13(2), 153-166; Aleksanyan, A. (2020): Civil Society as a Phenomenon of Post-Soviet Political Life: A Threat or a Guarantor of National Security. In: Mihr A. (eds) Transformation and Development. Springer, Cham.
[2] Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/03/russia-authorities-urged-to-protect-half-a-million-prison-population-in-face-of-covid-19/
[3] OSCE: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/457309
[4] Johns Hopkins CRC: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/belarus
[5] Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/24/belaruss-shocking-new-low-crushing-dissent
[6] OSCE: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/belarus
[7] Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/29/belarus-crackdown-independent-journalism
[8] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-kyrgyzstan/kyrgyzstan-locks-down-major-cities-imposes-curfew-idUSKBN21B0FC
[9] BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54422884


About the Author

Kay Hollanders is a Master’s student at Radboud University focusing on the geography of conflicts, peace, identities and human rights. For his thesis, he is researching the consequences of COVID-19 for Human Rights Defenders and their work. As an intern at Justice & Peace, he is involved in supporting Shelter City’s new alumni community.