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Implications of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Accountability Agenda

The outbreak of Sars-Cov-2 has deeply impacted every aspect of life.  The virus’ lethality and its wider toll on human wellbeing (particularly as a result of economic hardship) are the most apparent impacts. Dire human suffering is taking place and will continue to endure. There have been multiple significant changes to how we live, and, in the future, many other dimensions of human life will be altered.

Most of us working on justice for atrocity crimes – whether nationally or internationally – have experienced a slowdown or halt of social and judicial processes linked to the struggle against impunity. A rare case on Syrian accountability made some headway in German courts, but most processes have been obstructed. In many parts of the world, the lockdown has translated into suspended hearings, but the passage of time can result in impediments that deal deadly blows to justice claims (e.g. as a result of the tolling of terms and statutes of limitations).

As we look forward, it seems necessary to explore the impact of COVID-19 (both the viral epidemic as well as the ensuing public and private reactions) on the accountability agenda. This article contributes to that appraisal by presenting some preliminary observations on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the ongoing quest for accountability in relation to crimes of atrocity committed by states and other powerful organizations throughout the world. It is a preliminary result of an ongoing assessment that we are conducting at the Guernica Centre for International Justice in order to adapt and respond to the challenges of the promotion of justice in this volatile operational environment.

We have identified that the accountability agenda needs to consider at least three scenarios: first, patterns of abuse of power and gross misconduct taking place in the context of various national COVID-19 responses; second, the use of the coronavirus crisis as a mechanism of denial of ongoing atrocities; and third, that the humanitarian response to COVID-19 could displace and hamper programmatic action on the struggle against impunity for gross human rights abuses and violations.

Abuse of Power and Gross Misconduct during COVID-19 National Responses

Above all, exploration of political and legal responsibilities should start with the failure of certain governments to prevent or contain the spread of the coronavirus and to mitigate its effects. Gross negligence and a lack of due diligence in the face of substantiated early warnings need to be investigated.

We should also remain vigilant in the face of governmental inaction to confront the health crisis. Governmental omission has ranged from negligence to outright endangerment by cavalier leaders, as in Brazil, Nicaragua, and the United States of America. The disproportionate impact of these reckless actions on specific populations, particularly those suffering historic discrimination, should be taken into consideration.

Some governments (e.g. Hungary and El Salvador) have used the context of the health crisis to decree far-reaching states of emergency or other measures aimed at concentrating power, subverting the rule of law, and conducting manifest instances of governmental overreach. Various countries have seen the instrumental use of the pandemic to adopt outlandish measures and new incursions of state power into private life. The two most evident incursions of state power are the militarization of security and social control, and the use of invasive techniques to gather private data in ways that circumvent state controls and cause undue infringements of personal rights and freedoms. As with similar instances in the past — El Salvador is a concrete example — the risk of normalization of these extraordinary measures is real. Public accountability needs to be promoted, and governmental excess should be curbed and checked.

The coronavirus epidemic has also become an opportunity for mass corruption, for example in Colombia. The combination of exceptional spending mechanisms and the relaxation of controls in order to deliver humanitarian relief have provided opportunities to rent seekers to levy unexplainable surcharges and embezzle public resources. Along with ensuring swift corrective action, perpetrators of this misconduct should be prosecuted.

In addition to malfeasance and abuses of power in the context of the COVID-19 national responses, the epidemic is serving as an informational shield or a denial mechanism in relation to atrocity crimes.

Denial in the Wake of the Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus outbreak has led to neglect of ongoing dynamics of repression and violence that demand immediate attention. Ongoing armed-conflict dynamics, such as those in Syria or Yemen, have lost public traction. Meanwhile, coercive targeted violence in Colombia has increased; murder and other forms of egregious crimes are being committed stealthily in rural communities. Limited public appearances by authorities and generalized fear add to a multiplicity of factors already stacked in favor of impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes.

Moreover, wide-scale military offensives resulting in hefty death tolls have taken place unimpeded and unchecked, with little public control. For example, the Chadian government conducted an anti-terrorist campaign during the third week of April 2020 that produced an official death quota of 1,000 purported Boko Haram combatants. Given recent history and the litany of violations documented in the context of similar operations in the region, this type of event should be subject to judicial oversight. The absence of news coverage in relation to these and other similar events can cloak atrocities; whether intentional or not, the lack of exposure facilitates denial or obliviousness, which hinder the possibilities for accountability.

The cases brought to bear are merely illustrative of many others that have been suppressed or smothered by the information overload of the COVID-19 crisis. The persons victimized in these and other active violent dynamics should not be deprived of justice.

Humanitarian Response Could Displace Accountability Efforts

Lastly, as the world adjusts and responds to the health and economic crisis, we should be cautious that the reaction does not dislodge or completely supersede the quest for accountability for atrocity crimes. The response to the COVID-19 crisis is peremptory; however, its urgent and needed character should not place preexisting social challenges and state obligations on the back burner. The humanitarian and economic response to COVID-19 should be designed and implemented with other complex public policies and goals in mind.  The sidestepping of other pressing social issues now will only augment future effects of the viral outbreak.  

Accountability for state crimes and crimes of the powerful has always been resisted. Strides made against impunity have been gained painstakingly; forces and actors opposing these advances will be quick to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself in order to regain lost ground.

Constant programmatic action placed the struggle against impunity of gross violations on the global agenda, though obstacles continue to be wide and varied. Even temporary restrictions or cutbacks on legal and policy action could deal fatal blows to social initiatives promoting justice at the local and national levels. Larger more structural restrictions will have dire consequences in the quest for accountability at all levels (local/community, national, and international).

Tactical and creative adjustments are required by all of us to endure the crisis and respond to the steadfast and (even) sounder claims for justice emanating from the communities and people(s) for whom we advocate. However, support from private and public funders to the accountability agenda also must not waver.

The road ahead winds through uncharted territory that is rife with risks and traps. We need to adapt while simultaneously keeping the accountability agenda from being overtaken by the crisis. Most (if not all) processes aimed at combatting impunity of atrocity crimes are experiencing a loss of momentum because of the coronavirus outbreak; a standstill must be averted.

Michael Reed-Hurtado is the Director of Operations at the Guernica Centre for International Justice, and his Twitter handle is @mreedhurtado. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

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