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Security and Justice

COVID-19: a cover for crackdowns and an impetus for peace 

A lot has been said about the threats of COVID-19 to public health and to economic systems. But how are prevention responses affecting civil liberties and democratic practice? Especially in countries that are already dealing with conflict. In this third expert interview, Michael Warren and Nikki de Zwaan expand on the states of emergency, policing and justice provision in times of COVID-19.

(Policing in DR Congo, street scene in Eastern DRC.)

Nikki de Zwaan is an expert on security provision and access to justice at Cordaid. She works together with colleagues and partners in Iraq, Afghanistan, CAR, Sierra Leone, DRC and South Sudan.   



Michael WarrenMichael James Warren leads Cordaid’s global advocacy on achieving justice for all and supports programme development across 7 country offices. 



Can you give examples of crackdowns on civil liberties in the name of fighting COVID-19? 

Michael Warren: We are still struggling to fully understand how COVID-19 is impacting patterns of police enforcement, legal restrictions, and democratic procedures and how long the impact will last. But there are many worrying examples. Hungary is an obvious case, with a significant backslide in democratic openness and the pandemic as a justification. A couple of weeks ago, in a sub-Saharan African country, dozens of LGBTQ activists were rounded up, arrested, and prosecuted under the current COVID-19 state of emergency and quarantine laws. In Iraq, there have been youth-led summer protests in the last couple of years, against corruption and service delivery failures. These ‘hot summers’ have threatened government stability. With the lockdowns and mobility restrictions, that type of protest will not be possible. In fact, there’s a well-founded fear that the government is seeking to prolong the COVID-19 state of emergency in order to avoid another ‘hot summer’, even though the curve of contagion is flattening. We even see evidence that young leaders of past summer protests are being arrested or detained under the COVID-19 rules. Overall, autocratic states around the globe are using states of emergency related to the pandemic to reduce access to justice, to attack civil society activists, political opponents, or unfavoured minority groups. COVID-19 measures are convenient tools and covers to suppress outbreaks of people’s frustration and anger toward governments.

“These examples urge us to stop treating Africa as a victim and Europa as the model.”

Nikki de Zwaan

Interestingly, in Sierra Leone, where they managed to fight off the Ebola outbreak, the COVID-19 restrictions are more finely tuned and used in a less authoritarian way. It seems that the Ebola trial of the past is now also helpful in protecting democratic and civic space. 

Nikki de Zwaan: The Sierra Leone example strikes me. I think it’s very important to give positive examples, before we, stereotypically, paint low-income or conflict-affected countries as only corrupt or authoritarian. Take a country like Senegal. Where the richest parts of the world fail to upscale their COVID-19 testing capacities, Senegal is introducing 1dollar tests for all its citizens. Or look at the way Uganda has been dealing with the influx of refugees, giving them plots of land, which is now helpful in organising physical distancing. These examples urge us to stop treating Africa as a victim and Europa as the model.

What worries me most, whether in Holland or elsewhere, is that people care so much about their health that they are willing to accept a lot of very restrictive government measures. There’s a dominant frame, worldwide, that opposes human rights and civil space vs health. It’s a misleading frame. Even Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, in one of his press conferences, said that ‘one person’s liberty should not pose a threat to another person’s life’. But it’s not either/or. We need to shout out loud that health and liberty must go hand in hand. Without liberty, people go crazy and societies turn sick. 

In the Netherlands as well, basic liberties are being restricted for public health reasons. In what way is that different from responses in the Middle East or in sub-Sahara Africa? 

Michael: Let me start by saying that, strikingly, there are also similarities. The burden of coercive policing falls disproportionally on the most marginalised populations. In Nairobi, the most violent lockdown enforcement actions were against slum dwellers. In Afghanistan, women are disproportionally exposed to violence if they are out in public during lockdowns. Just as in the Netherlands, police are more comfortable to approach teenagers of Moroccan and Turkish origin and breaking these groups apart. Globally, the most marginalised pay the highest price.

Result Based Financing
Justice provider in Walungu, Easter DRC. © Teun Voeten / Cordaid

In most countries where Cordaid works, however, policing and justice services are provided in a much more coercive manner than in the Netherlands. Lockdowns and mobility restrictions are enforced violently. People get hurt badly. They pay the police to avoid even bigger fines. The pandemic context has seriously aggravated and illuminated existing law enforcement, justice, and corruption problems. Obviously, that is not comparable to the Netherlands. 

Is that because Dutch people have more trust in their political leaders?  

Nikki: Trust is key. Generally, in countries where Cordaid works, people do not trust their governments and authorities. For various reasons. Indiscriminate state violence, lack of public service delivery, now or in the past. This lack of trust complicates all dealing between governments and citizens, also COVID-19 responses. It rubs off on health workers who are seen as part of the government. We saw it during the Ebola crisis in DR Congo when the epidemic response was blocked because of the ongoing conflict, but also because of the distrust towards authorities. If people do not trust the police, health workers, judges, and other governmental authorities and service providers, it’s nearly impossible to successfully implement COVID-19 responses or any other response for that matter.

“I fear that restrictions on individual liberties and democratic practice introduced under pandemic conditions will allow states that are already backsliding on maintaining an open society, to justify in doing so further.”

Michael Warren

Michael: We saw during the Ebola response in West-Africa, that people started complying with prevention measures, not because of what police or national authorities told them to do, but because customary leaders and local authorities like mayors convinced them to do so. They stand closer to communities and are seen as more reliable.  The same is true for local civil society organisations. They get things done, where sometimes international NGOs with a top-down approach fail to make a difference. The average Dutch citizen has the confidence that the state is operating in the public interest. The average citizen in the countries where Cordaid works, believes government decisions have a sectarian agenda or reflect a politician’s self-interest. 

Don’t examples like China and Singapore show that very disciplined and military-like responses do work, trust, or no trust?  

Micael: So far, we cannot really analyse China’s response due to a lack of information. As for Singapore, that is an extremely high-trust society. The vast majority regard the state as both legitimate and competent. That combination of legitimacy and competence explains the successful response in Singapore. It doesn’t exist in most of the countries Cordaid works in. 

Nikki: Lack of a functioning social welfare system combined with low trust, urges people to protest. Look at the United States, where people take to the streets, armed with machine guns, to protest against Covid-19 measures. It’s a sign of distrust in the political system. And remember, people in Congo, Afghanistan, or the Central African Republic hardly have any other options than to go out in the streets to claim what they need to live a life in dignity. And when I say dignity, I mean a day’s ration of food. Now, with a pandemic and very restrictive and sometimes repressive state measures, even that option of going out in the street is barred. It shows that military-like imposed restrictions can be extremely harmful to large parts of the already underserved population. 

How is Cordaid trying to counter or limit the harmful impact of COVID-19 responses on civic and democratic space? What are we doing? 

Nikki: Cordaid’s Security & Justice programmes strengthen the accountability mechanisms of security and justice providers. They invest in positive and trustful relations between local police and communities. They bring justice closer to people. All this in places where violent conflict affects daily life, where the state is either absent or violently coercive. So, by continuing our work we are already countering these negative impacts. 

We work a lot with the police, from Sierra Leone to Iraq, to DR Congo and South Sudan. Assuring and increasing awareness of human rights, accountability, gender equity. But also supporting them in doing their job properly, with a minimum of means, so that at least they don’t need to ask bribes in order to feed their families. Now, we are also including COVID-19 awareness indicators in our results-based financing programmes with the police. Meaning that, for example, we try to increase police awareness of domestic and gender-based violence due to COVID-19 confinement measures.

“Women disproportionately bear the burden of this pandemic. They are the first to be fired, they are forced to absorb even more of the domestic labour, especially now that children are held inside. Confinement results in more family friction which translates to more domestic violence against women.”

Michael Warren

Michael: I’d like to mention what we do in South Sudan and Afghanistan. In both countries, formal justice systems hardly extend beyond the capital and main provincial towns. The vast majority of people are rural, extremely poor, and illiterate. To them, formal court processes are very alienating. They use customary and informal justice systems – tribal or faith-based. These are their preferred paths to justice, to either claim their rights or hold others accountable. These are the justice systems we work with. In South Sudan, we support mobile courts, that physically transport judges, prosecutors, record keepers to isolated rural areas, in order to provide justice services in the most severe cases.

(A woman and man face the Bashingatanhe, Burundi’s customary justice providers. © Stuart Freedman)

Adding to what Nikki said, I want to stress that police forces, around the world, are on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19. Doctors and nurses always come first to mind, but police are part of that frontline of maintaining order and enforcing prevention measures. Just as protection of health workers and health systems must be a priority, the protection of security and justice providers must also be a priority. This is why, as a modest example, we are now delivering food parcels to police outposts in Iraq that have been cut off because of the curfews and lockdowns.

If you try to imagine the longer-term outcome of the COVID-19 crisis, what is your biggest fear, and what is your best hope? 

Nikki: My biggest fear is responses to COVID-19 even more than the pandemic, will further push disadvantaged populations off the cliff. And that progress made in terms of peace and stability is undone.

For me, a positive outcome of this crisis is that it inspires a lot of African countries to not look at Europe as an example but to go their own way.  And it pushes Europeans to look differently to Africa, not through the stereotypical glasses of misery, needs, and victimhood. And not to look at themselves as the saviours of the world. For once, Europe and the US are the epicentre of a global crisis. Not Africa. In fact, some African examples, like Senegal, show that they are doing a better job in coping with COVID-1. In Mali, Niger, DRC, Ghana, governments were more proactive and faster in taking prevention measures than Western-European governments.

Michael: I have two big fears. The first one is that restrictions on individual liberties and democratic practice introduced under pandemic conditions will allow states that are already backsliding on maintaining an open society, to justify in doing so further. As we saw after 9/11, many countries adopted the language of counterterrorism, to justify repressive measures against populations. We already see that a lot of countries adopt a language of public health and pandemic mitigation as a way of justifying repressive measures that they were likely to have imposed anyway. On that front, we are watching some of the countries we work in, very closely. Especially this coming summer, during the ‘protest season’.

Military outpost in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Northern Iraq. 2017, © Frank van Lierde / Cordaid.

The second fear is that the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence will continue to hit women even harder with COVID-19. Women disproportionately bear the burden of this pandemic. They are the first to be fired, especially in informal economies. They are forced to absorb even more of the domestic labour, especially now that children are held inside. Confinement results in more family friction which translates to more domestic violence against women. Police statistics from Wuhan, where this global crisis started, show a massive spike in domestic violence against women during lockdown. This is echoed in all the countries where we operate. Iraq, with a 30% increase in domestic violence against women, is one example. And seeking help, by going to a police station or a shelter, has now been completely circumscribed by the pandemic. That’s why we are now supporting domestic violence hotlines and smartphone-enabled opportunities for women to seek support. In Afghanistan we work with the Provincial Women’s Networks, among the only rural-based women’s organisations in the country, to reach out to women in even the most remote villages. And as Nikki said, we are engaging with the police in many countries to address this shadow pandemic.

International Day of Peace
Police officer in Walungu, DRC. © Cordaid

But I am also hopeful. Historically, disease outbreaks were often also opportunities for parties in conflict to prioritise collaboration over fighting. We saw it during smallpox outbreaks, when ceasefires were declared, in order to allow for medical responses. Similarly, the UN Secretary-General recently called for a global ceasefire in order to address COVID-19 effectively. That call has been taken up in quite a few places, which is deeply inspiring. In Yemen, for example, where we provide humanitarian assistance and support civil society, there is now a COVID-19 ceasefire. In Afghanistan, there is an unprecedented civil society campaign that calls on the Afghan government and the Taliban for a ceasefire. It shows that COVID-19 is also an impetus for peace in some of the most violent places on earth.

Interview by Frank van Lierde. This is the third interview in a series in which Cordaid experts comment on the COVID-19 crisis from different angles. In previous interviews, Jos Dusseljee talked about public health systems in sub-Sahara Africa and Paul Borsboom discussed the humanitarian situation in refugee camps and settlements. 

Read more about Cordaid’s Security and Justice Programmes.