Coronavirus must trigger substantial, simple and swift support to civil society
States are taking strong measures aiming at stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising fears that governments use coronavirus as an excuse to introduce excessive restrictions. In the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and individual countries like Norway and Switzerland, governments adopted measures to support their economy and financial markets often with tax reliefs and measures to make cheap and fast loans available, and in some cases even aiming at cash support for households.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, underlined the risks coming along the measures prescribed by WHO: ‘People who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus’, said Bachelet. Measures such as closure of schools put a greater burden on the poorest of us in society and charities will need to provide for more support to families most in need. In such times of emergency reliability on charitable support indeed grows even starker.
However, charities will fall out of donations very quickly, at a time their services are more needed than ever. Right now, even the best intended of us tend to stop donations to charities. Foodbanks, shelters for victims of domestic violence, health charities or charities working with prisoners and their relatives will rapidly reach a cash-crisis.
Such service providing organisations will aim at being able to continue delivering their services to those most vulnerable of us. The risk is that organisations decide to divert from providing services to beneficiaries to protect the members of their staff, because they cannot afford the protection measures needed to allow their staff members to continue to work, including tailored and professional health advice. In times of emergency, this would effectively put vulnerable people at-risk of lacking the essentials, such as food and medicine.
Organisations addressing human rights violations are more than ever needed to monitor situations in areas affected by COVID-19 outbreak.
For us at Penal Reform International (PRI), COVID-19 represents a high risk to populations in prisons. Such human rights organisations can only continue their work at a certain cost to ensure we are not exposing our members of staff to excessive risks. For us, as an organisation working on protecting human rights in the criminal justice system, postponing our work and engagement also means taking a risk of further isolating prisons and people in prison. In little time, we can see progress made over months and years vanish. Detention facilities are always a risky place in regard to infectious deceases and are now more exposed than ever.
Similarly for other human rights organisations, to be able to continue to operate where we are most needed right now means we must divert resources from other projects and invest in protecting their staff working in the frontlines.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law recently published a review on state reactions to the emergency and the protection due to freedom of association and assembly even in an emergency situation. Some governments use coronavirus as an excuse to end the protests, such as in France, Iraq or Kyrgyzstan. Others declare emergencies to unlock executive power, such as in the United States the states of California, Maryland or Washington. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, indicates that emergency measures tend to become permanent and underlines ‘emergency or not, states must reach the same threshold of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality for each measure taken’. This context does not make it any easier to operate for non-governmental organisations. Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director, Ken Roth, called upon states to ensure that COVID-19 is ‘reason to reaffirm, not abandon, everyone’s rights’:
‘That means prioritizing science over politics, caring for those most at risk, avoiding censorship, limiting lockdowns, and building the public trust that is essential to an effective response.’
Similarly, COVID-19 must lead governments to empower and support civil society to continue its work. The services provided by civil society and the human rights monitoring in affected areas is however a need government should invest in.
In a funding landscape for human rights and humanitarian NGOs largely based on project grants, civil society has little flexibility to adapt to external events hampering its ability to operate in certain territories and to deploy its staff. In other words, just like the for-profit-sector, not-for-profit organisations see their revenue decrease and have costs associated to a crisis like this one, but do not have reserves and little ability to divert costs associated to a specific project to address the new challenges.
Many private donors have already adapted their grant making. One of them, Ford Foundation, should be applauded for strengthening even further its flexibility on the use of resources by its grantees. Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation specialised in promoting freedom of expression, announced it would invest 40 million Norwegian kroner in its programmes, at a time the kind of human rights work it wishes to support will face financial difficulties.