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Petition: EU must save its democracies during coronavirus

April 27th, 2020
topic:Rule of Law
by:Yair Oded
located in:Hungary, Poland, USA, Italy, Israel
tags:Benjamin Netanyahu, Coronavirus, COVID-19, dictatorship, EU-commission, European Union, freedom of press, freedom of speech, human rights, mass surveillance, Viktor Orbán

The spread of coronavirus has given political leaders across the globe an opportunity to arrogate power at the expense of democracy and human rights. From Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, leaders have been exploiting the health emergency to enact policies that give them unrestricted control over the affairs of the state, stifle dissent, expand surveillance over citizens and further unleash the use of military and police force within their territories.

A Change.org petition calls on several European bodies, including the European Commission, to pass legislation that will keep leaders of nations within the bloc in check. The petition, launched by a coalition of rights activists, journalists, and politicians, seeks to ensure that responses to the current health crisis will be measured and respectful of human rights and the rule of law, and that the pandemic will not be exploited as an excuse to give rise to autocracies. 

One of the most concerning phenomena the pandemic has resulted in — aside from the tragic loss of life across the world — is the way in which political leaders have utilised this state of emergency to erode democratic institutions and concentrate power while quashing their opposition and inhibiting freedom of speech. 

Orban establishes an autocracy

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now rule by decree, after a majority vote in the Hungarian Parliament granted his government the power to act without oversight. Crucially, Orban’s newfound power has no expiration date, which makes him a bona fide autocrat operating right at the heart of the European Union. 

Orban has wasted no time, and has over the past few weeks passed several nefarious executive orders and had carried out amendments of laws. Under the current state of emergency, Orban’s party will be allowed to jail journalists who disseminate ‘misinformation’ about the government’s handling of the crisis. Orban has also used his unlimited power to pass laws that have nothing to do with the COVID-19 outbreak, such as a provision that would prohibit transgender people from changing their names or sex status on official documents. 

Thus far, the EU has been alarmingly mild in its criticism of Orban, effectively giving free reign to assume the status of a dictator. 

Elections undermined in Poland and U.S.

In Poland, the outbreak of the pandemic and the ensuing state of emergency had led all presidential candidates except for the incumbent, Duda, to suspend their campaigns for the presidency. Duda did not only fail to suspend his campaign, but also refused to postpone the election date and had his government change the elections law in violation of the Polish constitution merely six months before the elections. 

Tampering with the electoral process, one of the most crucial pillars of democracy, has also been the case in the United States. Since the disease began to rage across the U.S., four different states had held primaries, mostly in an in-person voting format. In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers and judges successfully blocked attempts to postpone the primary date and extend the deadline for absentee ballots, knowing full well that the move would disenfranchise urban, and predominantly black and poor, communities and place their health at an even greater risk. 

Republicans and corporations run the show in U.S.

President Trump has also seen in the pandemic an opportunity to push through his base’s political agenda with little to no scrutiny. While the country has been grappling to contain the rapid spread of the disease, the Trump administration had rushed ahead with several disastrous policies, one of which was the roll-back of Obama era regulations on tailpipe pollution - a move that will be sure to hinder the health and safety of Americans (as well as, ultimately, of all dwellers of the planet). 

The U.S. is also proving to be an excellent case study in how corporate greed is exploiting human suffering under the pandemic to maximise profits and expand monopolies. While hospitals and cities have been caving under the rising influx of COVID-19 patients, and as the death toll among Americans has been soaring, major corporations — ranging from pharmaceutical companies to big banks and the airline industry — have successfully pressured the government to hand them out enormous sums of bailout money, which will be doled out in a secretive manner. The bailout plan does not stipulate any obligations as to how corporations may use the money or use their resources to support the nation in overcoming the growing health and economic crisis. 

Netanyahu expands surveillance state

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the crisis in order to save himself from his looming corruption trial and salvage his declining grip on power. Long before the disease had started to claim the lives of Israel, Netanyahu began conducting daily broadcasts in which he addressed the public, expounded his ways of combating the disease, and situated himself as an indispensable leader. 

Right as his trial was set to begin, Netanyahu dismissed the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) and shut down the courts, citing health concerns. Netanyahu has also tapped into a secret database compiled by the Israeli intelligence community, which contains, among other things,detailed information about the location of every citizen at any given moment, a transcript of every call they made and text they sent, as well as information about the people they were in physical proximity to. With Parliament dismissed, Netanyahu accessed this data cache using an executive order. This surveillance tool is used, the Israeli government claims, to track down COVID-19 patients and ensure that people are abiding by shelter-in orders. This constitutes an unprecedented expansion of the government’s usage of surveillance on its citizens, and opens the door to further encroachment of the civil and human rights - particularly among vulnerable minority populations, such as Palestinians. 

Israel has also been using its military and border patrol in order to patrol the streets and intimidate citizens into abiding by the isolation orders and social distancing guidelines (violations can result in a fine of up to $1,500 and a six-month prison term); arrests have already been made, particularly in Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.

Police brutality becomes a global crisis

But while Israel is reportedly the only democracy using its military services to enforce shelter-in orders and track people infected with coronavirus, cases of police increased police brutality have been registered in countries across the globe, from Italy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It seems that, across the globe, governments and law enforcement agencies have been utilising the health crisis to exert unbridled control over their populations, often through an unnecessarily excessive and arguably inhumane use of force. 

Petition to EU leaders: act now

“The coronavirus pandemic calls for an urgent and ambitious response. Measures have to be taken to save lives and protect incomes and the economy,” write the authors of the Change.org petition. “But: Democracy must also be protected during the Corona pandemic! All emergency measures taken by governments need to respect democratic procedures, transparency and the rule of law. Particularly, when severe limitations to basic freedoms are imposed, this needs to be done by the broadest possible democratic majorities and not against the opposition.”

In their list of demands, the petition’s authors call on all EU member countries to issue an expiration date to all of their emergency measures, as well as ensure that they enable journalists and parliaments to act unimpeded. 

They also call on the EU Commission to take a bold, decisive stance against governments exploiting the crisis to establish autocracies in their nations, and freeze funding for the Hungarian government in response to Orban’s suspension of parliament (instead, they claim, funds should be allocated directly by the Commission). 

Please consider signing the petition, and signal to Europe’s leaders that their action or inaction at this critical moment could determine the future of European democracies. 

A move by such a high-profile body to preserve democratic principles and human rights could have a trickle effect that would impact the trajectory of how the coronavirus shapes the nature of our societies. 

Article written by:
yair oded profile
Yair Oded
Author, Project Editor, Contributing Editor
Hungary Poland USA Italy Israel
While the US has been grappling to contain the rapid spread of the disease, the Trump administration had rushed ahead with several disastrous policies, one of which was the roll-back of Obama era regulations on tailpipe pollution.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now rule by decree, after a majority vote in the Hungarian Parliament granted his government the power to act without oversight.
In Poland, the outbreak of the pandemic and the ensuing state of emergency had led all presidential candidates except for the incumbent, Duda, to suspend their campaigns for the presidency.
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