The Irish Times view on the threat to rights: autocrats take advantage

In a democracy there is a clear understanding that emergency powers must be time-limited and proportionate

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech about the current state of the coronavirus during a plenary session in the house of parliament in Budapest. Photograph: Tamas Kovacs/EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech about the current state of the coronavirus during a plenary session in the house of parliament in Budapest. Photograph: Tamas Kovacs/EPA

 

There is an unsurprising willingness among citizens to accept the curtailment of rights and extension of powers of the State during the coronavirus pandemic. But this is no blank cheque. Emergency powers have been put through the Oireachtas, with the support of opposition parties and the backing of human rights groups, that will allow gardaí to close down events and public gatherings. Gardaí also get the power to assist medical workers in detaining people at risk of infecting others with the virus if they refuse to self-isolate.

But in a democracy there is a clear understanding that such measures must be time-limited, and proportionate. In a timely statement this week UN human rights special representatives insist emergency powers must not be used to quash dissent: “While we recognise the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law ... we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.”

It is an important and necessary reminder, particularly to autocrats for whom the pandemic is a golden opportunity to ratchet up repression and crack down on dissent. Demonstrations have been dispersed in India, Iran and Russia, notionally as public health measures, but suspicious and resentful populations are unlikely to buy in to such measures from governments they do not trust, a social buy-in that is essential to the effectiveness of any lockdown.

The response of two prime ministers is particularly alarming: Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu has used the opportunity to block parliamentary debate on his own replacement and on the corruption charges he will face when he has to step aside.

And Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has put a bill to MPs to allow rule by decree under the current state of emergency that could be extended indefinitely, without recourse to parliament, if the Covid-19 outbreak made it impossible to gather a quorum. Democratic values must not be the next victims of coronavirus.

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