Aug 25, 2020

Coronavirus: How Limits on Movement Affect UNPO Members

A key theme running through the XV General Assembly of the UNPO was the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has severely affected many UNPO members around the world. One particularly important problem brought about the coronavirus has been the hugely increased restrictions on people’s freedom of movement. With the closure of many international borders, many unrepresented peoples have been forbidden to travel outside their regions, thus limiting their ability to deal with the virus. Moreover, authoritarian governments have taken the opportunity to use their increased powers to ramp up their oppression of national minorities, which has been exacerbated by many people’s inability to escape oppression.

While the UNPO understands the necessity of every country limiting freedom of movement during times of pandemic, the exploitation of the powers given to governments to limit movement in order to repress their national minorities is a catastrophic and sinister development on the part of authoritarian regimes. These governments have willingly and deliberately sabotaged the ability of vulnerable peoples on their territories to combat the virus and develop strategies to keep their peoples safe. They have done so by refusing to provide information about the virus, as well as government strategies to combat the virus, in the languages of minorities and vulnerable peoples, thus leaving them even more vulnerable and ill-prepared in the face of the pandemic.

The travel restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments have not been one way. In addition to preventing people from leaving, these governments have prevented people entering affected areas. A good example of this can be seen in the case of Ambazonia (Southern Cameroon), where the Cameroonian authorities have prevented medical professionals from entering Ambazonia, a region afflicted by an ongoing war, which has thus had extremely negative health implications for the local population, who are unable to receive adequate medical help for both war and virus casualties.

A further issue brought about by the pandemic has been that human rights advocates have been unable to travel abroad to human rights mechanisms of the United Nations in order to present important information. In combination with the closure of many UN human rights forums, the inability of rights advocates and civil society organisations to get a hearing means that severe human rights offences are going undocumented by bodies that could make a difference. Travel restrictions and bans on physical meetings have meant that human rights defenders, advocates and unrepresented diplomats have been unable to present their cases to the UN human rights mechanisms in person. However, the large-scale switch to online working platforms has meant that human rights defenders and advocates have been able to continue their work, but only by submitting written documents online and by speaking at virtual events.

The transfer to online working and communication, as well as the closure of physical space at the UN are key issues that have arisen due to the pandemic which have consequences for the human rights advocacy work undertaken by civil society actors, such as NGOs. Because informal spaces where unrepresented diplomats can have informal conversations (with UN staff, mission staff etc.) have been shut, the organisation has become much more closed and any opportunities for dialogue, whether formal or informal, have been restricted. Moreover, since a large part of UN diplomacy and advocacy takes place behind closed doors, and sometimes informally, civil society and human rights advocates have been denied access to these mediums of advocacy due to the closure of these spaces.