Curtailing freedoms has saved lives – but we must not sacrifice them carelessly. Essential rights are under pressure
Almost a year ago, with the full impact of the pandemic becoming evident, the human rights barrister Adam Wagner warned that it might lead to a suspension of human rights as a kind of “peacetime nicety”. This would be a mistake, he argued: the human rights system was developed precisely as a set of checks and balances, because societies tend to turn to illiberal measures in times of crisis.
Many of the restrictions adopted by governments over the last 12 months – which would previously have seemed extraordinary and draconian – have been necessary. As Mr Wagner noted, responding to Covid means balancing rights, including, of course, the right to life. Yet the decisions that states make can no longer be regarded as emergency measures; leaders and the public now understand that we are in this for the long haul. It is also evident that some governments have gone much too far. A new report from the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, based in Germany, suggests that the pandemic has played an important part in weakening democracy across the continent, not only due to the curtailment of freedoms, but also through the use of fast track procedures for new laws, limiting oversight. In eastern Europe – notably in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia – it has provided cover for power grabs, used as a pretext for further eroding democratic standards.
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