Rights groups warn some govts using pandemic to tighten grip on power

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STOCKHOLM: More than 500 political and civil society leaders, Nobel laureates and rights groups warned yesterday that some governments were using the coronavirus pandemic to "tighten their grip on power", undermining democracy and civil liberties.

In an open letter signed by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, actor Richard Gere and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi, Lech Walesa and Jose Ramos-Horta, among others, the authors called the ongoing pandemic a "formidable global challenge to democracy".

"Democracy is under threat, and people who care about it must summon the will, the discipline and the solidarity to defend it," the authors wrote.

"At stake are the freedom, health and dignity of people everywhere."

The letter - the aim of which is to raise "awareness and mobilise citizens" - was initiated by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

"Just as the pandemic is already having massive economic and social consequences, it is very likely already having very profound political consequences," Mr Kevin Casas-Zamora, the organisation's secretary-general said.

Stressing that it was still early days and the full impact on democracy would have to be evaluated later, Mr Casas-Zamora noted that there were already worrying signs.

He pointed to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's expansion of emergency powers and El Salvador's use of detention centres as other causes for concern.

Noting that emergency powers were a "legitimate part of the arsenal" of democratic governments to deal with exceptional circumstances, Mr Casas-Zamora said the exercise of those powers had to be "proportional to the emergency".

Speaking of how to balance measures such as lockdowns with protecting liberties, he noted that it is still hard to gauge which strategy is the most efficient. As a result, it is important to not fixate on whether you have the "correct" policy but instead on whether you could adjust that policy.

Another worry is that people would also become "numb" to overreaches of policy when gripped by fear of the disease. - AFP