Laura Thornton: Any crisis can affect democracy and human rights, Covid-19 could too

States of emergency give the executive a significant amount of power, and it is essential that checks and oversight remain in place

In times of crisis, there can be a blind “rally around the flag” response from the public, the sheep behaviour to follow the leader. People are simply too scared to ask questions or provide oversight and this could result in ceding unwarranted authority, says Laura Thornton, Director for Global Programs at International IDEA, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Ms Thornton, what is the objective of the new online platform Global Monitor of Covid-19's Impact on Democracy and Human Rights, launched by the EU and International IDEA?

When the crisis started the online sphere quickly proliferated with articles and analyses of the impact of Covid-19 on democracy and human rights. A number of online trackers started to be produced and are still compiling information on the measures imposed. The Global Monitor was developed to tie all these different sources together, serving as a “one-stop shop” platform that will enable analysts, policy-makers and the public in general to understand the Covid-19 crisis and its ramifications for the health and sustainability of democracy and human rights. It aims to be an easily accessible tool that is independent, is reliable and provides a succinct overview of the Covid-19 related measures taken by 162 countries. It also provides contextual analysis of the democratic state of the countries before the pandemic started with the Global State of Democracy Indices data that goes to December 2019.

To what extent are democracy and human rights under threat as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

Of course, this varies from place to place. All countries have had to restrict certain liberties to prevent the spread of the virus, including sheltering in place and social distancing measures. Where we need to be vigilant is when such restrictions are not clear, proportional, legal, time bound and taken democratically. We have seen leadership in some countries take advantage of this. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon - any crisis, war or otherwise, can and has resulted in executives pushing the envelope of their power. Fear and the “monster under the bed” is the beloved elixir of wannabe authoritarians to subdue the public. What better than a scary, “foreign” pandemic? Countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to target minority populations, restrict the political opposition and engage in violent, disproportionate actions against those violating Covid-19 regulations.

Of particular concern is the restriction of freedom of speech and media in many places. At least 49 countries have imposed restrictions of freedom of expression or press freedom as part of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, either by using existing laws, or passing new ones, shutting down internet or detaining journalists or citizens reporting on or discussing Covid-19. All this in the name of curbing disinformation about the virus.

Elections is another area of concern as many countries, territories, and states grapple with first the question of whether to postpone, and second, if not, how to hold a safe election in this environment. The results thus far have been mixed. There are excellent examples such as South Korea, which managed to organise quickly and efficiently to carry out elections and earned broad public trust in the process. Then there are cases, such as Wisconsin, US, in which the decision to hold the election was over-shadowed by distrust and driven by political motives, and the actual election witnessed under-staffing, enormous lines at polling stations, all putting people's health at risk. The state of Georgia's elections also resulted in large crowds and delays, particularly and notably in communities of colour. The biggest issues to consider with regard to elections are whether there is widespread political consensus and the trust of the public in the process.

Finally, it is important to observe the impact of coronavirus regulations on the operation of different branches of government. States of emergency give the executive a significant amount of power, and it is essential that checks and oversight remain in place. Parliaments, for example, have been under strain to operate and conduct scrutiny of government actions, particularly when events require quick reaction and spending.

The monitoring will cover 162 countries. How were they selected and why exactly that number?

The 162 countries that are covered by the Global Monitor are the same covered by International IDEA's Global State of Democracy Indices. We only include countries with a population of over one million.

What will be your sources of information and how will you verify its reliability?

Information on concrete measures and actions taken by governments, official institutions or key actors in the country will be drawn, preferably, from official sources. Other reliable sources, such as ICNL-ECNL tracker, or reports from organisations as Human Rights Watch and of course local and international reliable media outlets. We triangulate various sources to make sure the information provided is accurate and valid, including the triangulation of statements from other authoritative organisations.

You said in your presentation that you would not rank or judge the countries which, while pretending to combat the coronavirus infection, in fact infringe on democracy and human rights. How will this monitoring help the citizens of these countries?

The Global Monitor is a reliable and accurate source of information that will help citizens from the 162 countries covered by the Global Monitor and the GSoD Indices to better understand the measures their country is taking to curb the spread of Covid-19. Our tool will enable them to understand and assess if the measures taken give rise to concerns from a democracy and human rights perspective, if they violate human rights or democratic benchmarks, or if they are either disproportionate, unnecessary or illegal. The platform is informative and the responsibility on further actions lies within other institutions.

Who can determine which measures are relevant to the risk of spreading the new coronavirus infection and which are excessive?

We have developed a two-level monitoring tool that aims to indicate primarily where there are issues or developments that might be considered as concern from a democracy and human rights perspective. We have a team of regional and thematic consultants that are continuously gathering information on measures taken by the governments and assessing them as concerning or not by following a thorough questionnaire developed by our experts within International IDEA. Our regional offices and experts at International IDEA analyse the assessment of the consultants and give the final clearance (maybe after deeper analysis) before publication. The two-level monitoring tool serves to identify if a measure is a concerning development or a development to watch. A concerning development - marked with a warning sign - is a measure or action to curb Covid-19 deemed as undemocratic because they are disproportionate, unnecessary, illegal or indefinite. A development to be watched - marked with a loupe - is a measure or action where a transgression of democratic standards may occur if enforced or maintained over time. It is important to mention that in every update, these labels will be checked and for example if a measure that has been a development to watch is lifted by a country, the loupe will be erased too. The criteria that has been used is very specific and if you would like to learn more, please access our methodology document in the About page of the Global State of Democracy Indices website.

Our personal human rights are quite often opposed to the public health - for example the right to move freely during the pandemic, personal data protection, tracking citizens through their mobile devices. Where is the balance, according to you?

It is important not to presume the adoption of strict measures - including restrictions of rights - is inherently undemocratic. Representative democracy entails electing leaders we entrust with important (and life-saving) decisions, and the public generally supports this. In fact, it is a sign that democracy is working, not failing. It is critical to distinguish this from unnecessary (restrictions on speech), unrelated, or purely self-interested abuses of power. Time is also a factor - how long the state holds on to these measures past their expiration date. That timing, that balance, will vary from country to country and should be determined democratically. That is why the role of elected legislatures and their ability to conduct oversight is critical.

Are the fears grounded that - in some of the countries - part of the emergency measures introduced due to Covid-19 will remain even after there is no longer a need for them?

In a time when democracy is backsliding across the globe and countries have experienced the rise of authoritarians and far-right populism, this worry is deserved.

The emergency situation requires emergency measures imposed by emergency legislation. But the risk of arbitrariness is always there. How can we protect ourselves?

Again, checks are needed to ensure this distinction is made. This comes from different branches of government, as well as nonstate actors. Parliamentary oversight is critical to protect against executive abuse. In disbursement of emergency funding, for example, it was important that the US Congress ensured that this was not simply a slush fund for the executive but had specific criteria and oversight in place. Does the media back down and become complacent or continue to push for answers? The other question will be how the public reacts and if they are paying attention to potential executive abuse. In times of crisis, there can be a blind “rally around the flag” response from the public, the sheep behaviour to follow the leader. People are simply too scared to ask questions or provide oversight and this could result in ceding unwarranted authority.

More safety or more rights - is this the new choice which we face? And do we have now any choice at all?

Our rights have always been curbed to some extent to ensure broader public safety, from seatbelt laws to environmental regulations. We have a choice in an electoral democracy to elect representatives tasked to determine this balance.

Close-up

Laura Thornton leads and manages a portfolio of programmes that supports democracy world-wide through the development and application of global comparative knowledge resources and tools, supporting democratic reforms, as well as actively contributing to shaping the global and regional policy agendas by bringing the democracy lens and perspective to debates at that level. Prior to joining International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) on 1 April 2020, Thornton joined the National Democratic Institute in 1998 and served as a global associate and senior director in Georgia since 2014. Thornton earned her master's degree from Princeton University in public and international affairs.

Similar articles