President Donald Trump is already talking about a “war” against COVID-19, and with all wars come serious human rights risks. If the pandemic poses a national security threat, it also requires that we re-think the role of government and what national security really means. That includes how the United States uses its military, and the $738 billion Congress allocated to it in 2020.
This is a time to reconsider the wisdom of fighting an endless war, with an ever-changing enemy, governed by an un-disclosed legal and policy framework that’s killed thousands of civilians worldwide. How else might the U.S. shift focus and resources toward uniting with allies, rivals, and even declared “enemies” to defeat a common foe?
The U.S. government’s war against COVID-19 should also encourage peace in other arenas. COVID-19 has already led to renewed calls for a ceasefire and prisoner releases in Afghanistan, both of which the U.S.-Taliban Agreement tried but wasn’t able to implement.
As the U.S. confronts this new transnational threat, international human rights law provides some guidelines for how the country can constructively and humanely respond.
First, don’t discriminate: This isn’t the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” Calling it those names undermines the international human right of non-discrimination and actually encourages xenophobic attacks against people who had nothing to do with the virus or its spread. We’ve already seen a rise in what appear to be bias-related attacks on people perceived to be of Asian descent in New York and California, for example. As the U.N. Special Rapporteur on racism said, “political responses to the COVID-19 outbreak that stigmatize, exclude, and make certain populations more vulnerable to violence are inexcusable, unconscionable, and inconsistent with States’ international human rights law obligations.”
Rhetoric resonates. It also alienates the government of China, which has significant leverage over global health supplies, at a time when the U.S. desperately needs it to be cooperative. This isn’t the time to claim “America first,” to close borders to refugees, or to attack other countries or their citizens. It is a clarion call for global cooperation. Instead of blaming other countries for the pandemic to deflect attention from one’s own lack of preparedness, the U.S. should view this crisis as an opportunity to forge meaningful constructive partnerships while modeling what a human-rights centered approach would look like.
Second, pay careful attention to those at the highest risk: the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, people who are in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, incarcerated, or otherwise forced to live in confined and crowded conditions. Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill both famously acknowledged that a nation’s greatness can be measured by how it treats its weakest members. Those members’ needs and safety should be paramount in setting U.S. policy. Trump claims the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease. But a rush to abandon social distancing and other measures that were put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would truly and appallingly be instituting the “death panels” that some Republicans falsely claimed the Affordable Care Act would create.
Third, don’t use COVID-19 as an excuse for government repression or excessive force. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), any derogation from a State’s commitment to these rights must be strictly required by the exigencies of the situation; they must be temporary, necessary, proportionate and limited to what is required to counter specific threats justifying the given measure of derogation. The Trump administration has sought emergency powers to allow judges to detain individuals indefinitely without trial during this public health emergency. That is neither a necessary, nor proportionate, response to the COVID-19 crisis.
We saw the U.S. suspend basic civil liberties after 9/11, with disastrous results. The U.S. continues to maintain a prison in Cuba dedicated to indefinite detention. The half a billion dollars spent per year to run an offshore prison for 40 men denied fair charges or trials would surely be better put to use providing truly “essential services” in a time of national crisis. Public health requirements can be enforced without suspending due process, threatening violence or excessively intruding on privacy. Such actions only sow fear and mistrust of government and community members and undermine the sort of cooperation the U.S. now desperately needs. Invoking the Defense Production Act to procure more COVID-19 tests, masks, ventilators, and even hospital beds, is one obvious way the federal government could effectively respond to today’s threat.
Finally, make accurate information available widely, and don’t censor or limit its access. Trump’s claims, for example, that Chloroquine would prove an easy cure has already led to at least one tragic death in the U.S. and additional poisonings abroad. His suggestion that shuttered businesses could possibly re-open in just a few weeks could also further hamper state and federal lawmakers’ ability to craft a realistic and effective public response to the crisis that seeks to prevent its most dire impacts. That response should include support for workers who lose their jobs, or measures to prevent that from happening; a social safety net for independent workers whose income has plummeted due to the crisis; and guaranteed access to health care, safe water, and sanitary living conditions. (The stimulus bill passed in the Senate on Wednesday is a start, but more and longer-term relief will surely be needed.)
This crisis will have tragic results. But it also presents an important opportunity to re-think the role of government, the essential functions of the military and our economy, and the use of taxpayer dollars. We should use this pause in business-as-usual to re-envision our government as one that puts upholding basic human rights at its core, and, in doing so, better protects our national security.