Australia should prioritise rights as Asia battles COVID-19

By Elaine Pearson
xingtu/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Authoritarian-leaning countries in southeast Asia are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further repress human rights, which the Australian government cannot afford to ignore.

In Cambodia, a new state of emergency law will further entrench the rule of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, already one of the world’s longest-serving political leaders. The law allows the government unchecked and unlimited powers to restrict civil and political liberties, including surveillance of private communications and arbitrary restrictions on the media. Cambodian police have already arrested more than 30 people, including opposition politicians and online critics, for allegedly sharing “fake news” about the coronavirus in Cambodia.

In Thailand and the Philippines, “fake news” laws have been used to silence those who criticize their government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Thailand, the government has been covering-up and restricting information about inadequate equipment to protect medical personnel.

In the Philippines, authorities have thrown people violating curfews into already overcrowded jails. President Rodrigo Duterte, whose “war on drugs” has unlawfully killed thousands of people since 2016, has said his orders to security forces during the pandemic are “if there is trouble… shoot them dead.”

International law is clear that even amid a public health crisis, emergency measures taken by governments must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. Yet the Cambodian, Thai, and Philippine governments are exploiting the pandemic to silence critics.

By curbing information and shutting down criticism of their often-flawed health policies, governments that do not respect rights put both their citizens and neighbouring countries at further risk during the pandemic.

The Australian government has called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, citing the need for transparency. Transparency is not only an issue in China, where the virus originated, but also in countries closer to home where Australia has strong bilateral ties and influence.

A rights-based approach to this public health crisis would keep people safer and could help curb the virus’ spread in our region. Consistent and principled diplomacy is urgently needed to protect the vulnerable and avoid the censorship and suppression of information that is costing human lives. Particularly during a crisis, Australia’s leaders should condemn these developments and press abusive governments to respect human rights.

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