COVID-19: The Risks of Mass Atrocities and the Opportunity for a Rights-based Rebuild

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to nearly every country on earth. But in countries where populations are already subject to, or at risk of, mass atrocities – such as extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, mass rape, and the destruction of health facilities and entire communities – the pandemic poses even more acute risks.

Civil society activists have expressed significant concern that the pandemic could be “weaponized” by world leaders and guardians of law and order who hold unmonitored excessive powers. These leaders could deny, and in some cases have already denied, marginalized populations their right to health and access to information, movement, and services; they could also expand military operations while the world’s attention is elsewhere.

But despite these grave and widespread threats, the global spread of COVID-19 also creates an opportunity for positive change. The pandemic reminds us of the need to rebuild healthier and more equitable societies and for the international community to re-commit to the essential pillars of universal human rights and global cooperation.

“Weaponizing” a pandemic

Over the past six months, as COVID-19 has spread, governments, military officials, and other authorities around the world have restricted access to information, communication services, and basic medical services. In Myanmar, for example, the organization Progressive Voice claims that the military is using the pandemic as a cover to expand military operations against ethnic armed organizations, to continue to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in minority areas, and to actively target medical facilities, all the while casting themselves as benevolent protectors.  

In Myanmar and beyond, many ethnic and religious groups who had been restricted to particular areas and small spaces prior to the spread of COVID-19 have been kept confined, even as the virus moves across domestic and international borders. Many internally displaced people, such as those in Myanmar, have not had access to basic and regular information about the virus, preventing self-protection measures.

“Every attack on health care is a tragedy, every attack is an attack on humanity.”

Ali Naraghi, head of Health Care in Danger, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

Restricting Access to Health and Humanitarian Aid

For health care workers in conflict settings, the conditions and threats were already alarming before the COVID-19 pandemic. While health care workers should be protected at all times, they are instead increasingly targeted, with more than 1,203 reported incidents of violence against health care workers in conflict regions in 2019. The recent killing of a World Health Organization driver who was transporting COVID-19 surveillance samples supplies in Rakhine state, Myanmar exemplifies this increased threat. Such attacks on health care workers present a clear danger to populations’ access to essential health care.  

Further, humanitarian workers, civil society, and communities are all too often prevented from helping the record 168 million people in need of aid worldwide due to various barriers imposed by governments and non-state groups. Additional restrictions, whether genuinely designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus or not, pose grave threats to many communities worldwide. In Bangladesh, for example, the lockdown measures have restricted all but humanitarian workers deemed to be providing “essential services” from entering the vast and high-density Rohingya refugee camps – the largest in the world – creating severe risks of food and water shortages. In Syria, the government has been accused of denying life-saving assistance and deliberately destroying health facilities in opposition areas throughout the country’s nine-year armed conflict. This situation is further worsened by the UN Security Council’s decision, in July 2020, to limit the provision of cross-border humanitarian assistance into Syria; Russia, the Syrian government’s ally, forced the Security Council to scale down humanitarian operations from four crossing points to just two in January 2020, and then to just one. With life-saving aid needed in conflict zones now more than ever, the limiting of access to health care and humanitarian aid can constitute grave breaches of international humanitarian law.

Worsening Rights Crises

The pandemic has laid bare the deep-rooted and systemic inequalities and discrimination facing many marginalized communities and communities at risk of atrocities. The rapid rise in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) during the pandemic indicates the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic presents a “double crisis.” In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, COVID-19 is threatening the progress made in combatting SGBV as authorities order school closures, restrict movement, and require people to self-isolate in their homes. In Iraq, where atrocities include the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, PHR has reported a “current of stigmatization” that is “driving those infected, particularly women, to deny that they have the virus and avoid potentially life-saving medical interventions.”

The socio-economic and political consequences of the pandemic are becoming all too evident: a marked rise in xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, an increased number of people falling into unemployment, hunger and, poverty, and the excessive or arbitrary use of power by leaders. These well-known risk factors for mass atrocities should be of serious concern to state leaders and the international community.

“COVID-19 is a human tragedy. But it has also created a generational opportunity. An opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world.”

António Guterres, Secretary-general of the United Nations

An Opportunity to Rebuild with Human Rights at the Core

COVID-19 has been identified as the greatest crisis since World War II by the UN Secretary-general, António Guterres. There are lessons learned from past crises – whether epidemics, pandemics, or experiences of mass atrocities – that can guide leaders in this moment to ensure that the risks of mass atrocities are limited. The UN is calling on its member states to reflect on the situation and to come together to “build back better.”

The pandemic’s universal threats and unique risks to marginalized and war-affected populations underscore the need to “build back better” with human rights placed at the core of the national- and international-level recovery. We cannot afford to delay this process. States must show greater commitment to global cooperation and human rights to bridge the gaps opened by the pandemic. The risk of inequalities growing and the foundations for future atrocities being built is all too real.

This article draws from comments made during PHR’s webinar on the Risk of Mass Atrocities During a Pandemic, which focused on the situation in Myanmar. The conversation featured expert panelists Yee Htun, of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School; Akila Radhakrishnan, of the Global Justice Center; and Lawrence Woocher, of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center and was moderated by PHR Board Member Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp. The article represents the views of the authors and does not serve to summarize the webinar discussion.

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