“Authoritarian regimes are poorly designed to deal with the kind of crisis that this pandemic has engendered. Democracies, where we are free to critique and comment … these are the kinds of places where scientists and freedom and thought and journalists can all operate freely. These are the societies that will deliver the right outcome … This is where we see the true benefit of freedom and liberty, and in the days and weeks and months ahead I am confident that the world will see that as well.”
— Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, April 29, 2020
The United States is committed to the protection of democracy, good governance, and human rights in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Societies that respect and defend human rights, fundamental freedoms, democratic institutions, and the rule of law are best equipped to respond transparently and effectively to crises. A robust respect for human rights, as well as whole-of-society action, are necessary parts of the solution to public health crises. Government responses to the COVID-19 epidemic must not use the disease as a pretext for repression of persons or ideas.
The United States Champions Democratic Responses to the COVID Crisis
The U.S. Government leverages bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, foreign assistance, and other foreign policy tools and resources to advance democratic norms and combat authoritarian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the State Department, the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has launched a COVID-19 Working Group to coordinate policy and programming on government transparency and accountability, full participation of civil society, and access to information. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG Center) has created a cross-cutting DRG Issues and COVID-19 Working Group. The State Department and USAID have undertaken the following actions to date to advance democratic values during the pandemic:
- In Azerbaijan, the State Department has urged authorities to ensure that actions taken in response to COVID-19 are not used to silence civil society advocacy, opposition voices, or public discussion. Azerbaijani authorities have harassed and arrested — and in one case institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital — opposition members and others who have criticized the government.
- In Bangladesh, the State Department has emphasized the need for a free and independent media, as the government uses the Digital Security Act to charge and arrest journalists, cartoonists, doctors, academics, and other individuals who have critiqued the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Also in Bangladesh, Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has publicly pressed the government to lift the internet and phone restrictions at the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
- In Bolivia, USAID is working to help safeguard electoral integrity by providing support for local stakeholders to determine new election date timing on scientific evidence and trends regarding the virus’ advance in Bolivia and the region.
- In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, USAID has supported community radio in order to disseminate information on COVID -19 and counter misinformation, including production of the song “Toko Longa Corona” (“We will beat the Coronavirus”) by leading Congolese artists.
- In El Salvador, the United States has urged the government to avoid rhetoric that could encourage extra-judicial killings after its president authorized police to use deadly force against gang members, claiming they could exploit a security vacuum caused by COVID-19 to engage in criminal activities while the attention of security forces is shifted to the pandemic response.
- In Guinea, USAID is working with radio and TV studios in Conakry and N’Zérékoré and an extensive network of institutional, community, civil society and media partners to disseminate key COVID-19 prevention messaging and fight misinformation.
- In Hong Kong, Secretary Pompeo has warned against Beijing’s increasing efforts under cover of COVID-19 to interfere with Hong Kong governance, which includes enacting a national security law that restricts Hong Kong residents’ rights and eviscerates the rule of law.
- In Indonesia, USAID’s National Accountability Program is upgrading and enhancing the national complaint system to support an effective COVID-19 response. The program will also expand its procurement transparency work to cover COVID-19 related procurement, and will be conducting rapid corruption risk assessments and online procurement training for the Ministry of Health’s Inspector General.
- In Iran and Syria, the State Department, in coordination with international partners, has consistently shed light on the lies of the Iranian and Syrian regimes and called for accountability for their actions at the UN Security Council. These brutal regimes continue to focus on violently cracking down on dissent and sowing disinformation on the impact of U.S. and EU sanctions instead of committing to take critical actions to mitigate the danger of COVID-19, such as the release of arbitrarily held detainees from overcrowded prisons.
- In Kosovo, the USAID Justice System Strengthening Program (JSSP) facilitated the drafting of an Emergency Preparedness Plan for the Kosovo Judicial Council to guide the Council’s decisions and work during COVID-19 and when responding to other emergencies in the future. JSSP is also supporting the development of individual court action plans that among other matters will address how to deal with future backlogs resulting from the limitation of hearings during the pandemic.
- In Mali, USAID supported efforts to strengthen protective health measures for legislative elections (March 29 and April 19), providing soap and handwashing stations across more than 22,000 polling stations that reached nearly 2.7 million voters. In the lead up to the elections, USAID also supported the production of public service announcements to use masks, maintain social distancing, and wash hands at the voting centers.
- In Moldova, U.S. assistance has enabled partners to purchase protective masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for five independent local media outlets, so that they can continue to report in a safe manner.
- In Russia, the State Department has condemned threats of violence made by the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, against two journalists over their coverage of the pandemic, as well as Russian federal authorities’ decisions to censor articles unfavorably covering the government’s pandemic response.
- In Ukraine, the State Department has spoken out against the scapegoating of vulnerable groups. The mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk called for the expulsion of Roma from the city alleging that Roma were violating quarantine restrictions. Also, U.S assistance in Ukraine has provided a series of ad hoc consultations and legal assistance to media professionals, journalists, and activists on the impact of emergency laws and quarantine restrictions on freedom of expression.
- In Uzbekistan, the State Department has promoted the rights of journalists to express themselves freely, including to criticize Uzbekistan’s amended criminal code, which applies hefty fines or up to three years in prison for the distribution of false information on COVID-19.
- As a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, Media Freedom Coalition, Global Action on Disability network, Community of Democracies, and Open Government Partnership, the United States has been an active partner in calling on governments to respect democratic values and human rights in their responses to COVID-19.
- In the face of an alarming global increase of gender-based violence (GBV) during the pandemic, U.S. assistance — such as the Voices Against Violence Initiative— funds hotlines and psychosocial support services for survivors and those at risk of GBV.
- U.S. programs continue to provide significant resources for LGBTI persons through emergency assistance, security trainings, and short-term urgent programmatic interventions that advocate for inclusive COVID-19 relief efforts and provide legal support to human rights defenders.