Editor’s Note: This piece is part of Just Security‘s Assessing Emergency Powers During #COVID-19 series, which aims to highlight and give voice to legal and civil society voices from across the globe, assessing the specific legal consequences of declared and de facto emergencies. Previous contributions have covered Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria.
The rise of autocratic strongmen obviously didn’t begin with COVID-19. Corruption certainly didn’t either. But as with many trends underway prior to this crisis, the pandemic has accelerated democratic decay, and whatever undermines democracy enables corruption. Indeed, the presumptive goal of most autocrats is to amass, protect, and then enjoy, in relative safety, their looted fortunes. To counter these worrying trends and avoid squandering years of global anti-corruption efforts, liberal democracies must put preventative safeguards in place now.
Dismantled Democratic Norms
Consider the power-grabbing roadmap followed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Amongst his most effective and predictable abuses of power was citing the threat of the pandemic to pass legislation allowing him to rule by decree with no specified time limit. Other strongman leaders have restricted democratic processes in response to the crisis by delaying elections, censoring critics and journalists, threatening free speech, and arresting political rivals.
In Brazil, which has suffered one of the world’s highest coronavirus death rates, President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to exploit the pandemic to further his anti-democratic goals. He was elected in 2018 on a platform of transparency and anti-corruption, although an early hint to his anti-democratic tendencies included encouraging vigilante groups, and he and his family have been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals ever since. Clearly not an ideologue, Bolsonaro has changed parties nine times. He has been consistent, however, in his preference for authoritarianism. He recently stirred up a densely crowded anti-democratic rally — amid a rapid increase in coronavirus cases — having previously stated, “I am actually the Constitution.”
Though these actions may seem less significant when examined in isolation, they combine to systematically weaken democratic institutions. Nationalistic rhetoric such as Bolsonaro’s and broad emergency powers invoked in the midst of a crisis threaten to shape policy or become permanent installations. Long after a health crisis has passed, these measures protect strongmen and divert attention from the fortunes they’ve accumulated.
Stifled Civil Society and Undermined Oversight
Hungary and Brazil aren’t outliers: Leaders in China, Bolivia, Cambodia, India, and elsewhere are using sweeping measures — some of them newly implemented — to restrict civil society. Human rights groups have already warned that these measures enable dangerous abuses of power. Folded into a decree issued in March by Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez Chávez, is a broad measure authorizing criminal punishment of individuals who “misinform or cause uncertainty to the population.” Just a few days before, the interior minister launched a “cyberpatrol” initiative to identify candidates for prosecution and specifically warned political opponents by name.
Most recently, China announced its intentions to seize expanded power over Hong Kong while the rest of the world was distracted with its response to the pandemic. Under the guise of national security, Beijing rubber-stamped a plan to implement a law that will counter “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference,” which it will undoubtedly use to silence activists who have been struggling to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomous status. When civil society activists are intimidated, malfeasance flourishes, and those in power can make deals in the shadows with no accountability.
Unique to this international health crisis is enthusiasm for the widespread introduction of surveillance to track citizens’ movements, ostensibly to ensure accurate contact tracing and to enforce lockdown orders. This technology is not new. The Chinese government has used facial recognition to track Uighurs in Xinjiang Province for years. While surveillance technology may be useful in controlling the spread of COVID-19, we have seen both in Xinjiang and Hong Kong that it can also silence political opponents, activists, and journalists, all of which act as essential checks on corruption.
There have also been reports of law enforcement in Russia tracking citizens with facial recognition technology deployed in February. The prime minister later called on authorities to develop a mobile phone contact tracing apparatus. Both of these systems could easily be weaponized to harass, locate, and silence civil society and opposition.
Democracies are not safe from the risk of power grabs, either. President Donald Trump threatened to suppress ongoing protests of police violence against black citizens by deploying America’s military throughout the United States, calling violent demonstrations “domestic acts of terror.” This came just after he diminished internal federal government oversight through the serial expulsion of five purportedly independent inspectors general in the past three months, typically late in the day on a Friday. The collective effect of these actions is the discouragement of dissent and the loss of independence, and both democratic safeguards and transparency suffer.
Autocrats who succeed at controlling the narrative as they consolidate power use the same playbook to loot their countries’ coffers with impunity. In the absence of a free press, the president of Turkmenistan has been able to stifle even a reference to the coronavirus. That level of control over the public narrative leaves little hope that corruption can be uncovered, much less made public. Turkmenistan’s abysmal record on corruption is reflected by its bleak ranking of 193 out of 200 countries on the likelihood that companies operating there will be shaken down for bribes.
Of the 58 journalists murdered in Russia between 1992 and 2020, 21 were killed while reporting on corruption. There are regular reports of beatings, threats, detentions, disappearances, arrests, and baseless imprisonment — allowing President Vladimir Putin to operate with near perfect opacity. Terrorizing reporters serves the dual purpose of dampening political criticism and discouraging investigations into the activities of what is, in Putin’s case, fabulously corrupt leadership.
The pandemic has only boosted Russia’s long-standing track record of silencing independent media. Lawmakers in March passed legislation imposing prison time and fines on journalists accused of spreading “intentionally false” public health information. Putin has always played the long game, and the pandemic is just one more crisis enabling him to extend and consolidate his power.
Since the beginning of the health crisis, there have been several instances of authorities silencing journalists in Egypt as well. The Guardian reporter Ruth Michaelson was forced to leave the country in March after publishing evidence-based reporting that contested the government’s official count of COVID-19 cases. Other journalists in Egypt who questioned official numbers or covered human interest angles of the pandemic have been arrested on broad charges of “fake news” or terrorism, prompting criticism from human rights groups.
In President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, reporters covering the pandemic have been arrested in the middle of the night, accused under the penal code of “sowing panic and fear” and publishing information about cases and deaths before official numbers are released. Some face jail time.
Acquiescent Law Enforcement and Politicized Judiciary
Predictably, some autocrats have responded to the crisis by wielding the police as a personal security force and the courts as a rubber stamp for their actions. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte said publicly in April that he has ordered law enforcement and military to shoot “dead” anyone who opposes the government response to the pandemic, presumably to include journalists and activists. Extrajudicial killings in response to crises rarely abate when the situation stabilizes.
In March, Sri Lanka’s newly elected president pardoned a war criminal under cover of the pandemic, while the country was on strict lockdown with demonstrations forbidden and the courts closed. In the US, where the president has disputed the independence of judges, and distracted citizens can’t keep up with the chaotic news cycle, cases are being dropped against political allies, while others are quietly released from prison — contrary to published guidelines — to serve their terms at home. D.C. law enforcement efforts are supplemented by jarring militaristic images: low-flying military helicopters dispersing protesters in the nation’s capital and photo ops with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs General Mark Milley, who was walking the streets dressed in battle fatigues alongside the president in a distressing deviation from long held civil-military norms.
The erosion of checks on power enables corruption and allows autocrats and kleptocrats to enrich themselves and amass the power needed to protect their wealth. When heads of state project impunity, resistance falters, and they and their allies are further emboldened.
Vilified Outsiders and Reduced Oversight
“Otherizing” opponents is perhaps what autocrats do best. This doesn’t just serve to turn a community against outsiders with rhetoric like “the Chinese virus”: It stokes nationalistic interest in homegrown supply chains. These, in turn, can make corruption simpler. Suddenly, countries find themselves with enormous funds distributed domestically at great speed and with reduced oversight, and some of those funds invariably find their way into the pockets of allies.
Many countries have reduced the level of due diligence on suppliers that would normally be required. Transparency measures in Argentina have revealed dubious deals in response to the pandemic, including one that awarded funds to a hotel where Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s sister sits on the board. The contract was later canceled.
Romania has also relaxed procurement oversight measures. A small tobacco and liquor company secured $12.6 million in state-issued personal protective equipment contracts after partnering with a medical company barred from doing business directly with the government due to tax debt.
The lack of transparency around stimulus bailouts also presents concerns. Private jet and luxury hotel companies owned by Trump’s campaign donors, for example, have received enormous taxpayer-funded federal bailouts in response to the pandemic, prompting questions about the fairness of the process. The president has resisted measures that would limit his company’s access to stimulus funds. It’s often difficult to tease out whether corruption is a consequence of autocracy or if it is the goal.
What is a Liberal Democracy to Do?
Crises that render uneasy citizens more acquiescent can also make communities more vulnerable to corruption. Given the current global health crisis, expansive economic sanctions against kleptocrats may be limited in their application. Targeted sanctions that restrict the movement of individuals engaged in corruption, and their money, can be a powerful deterrent. In the US, the Global Magnitsky Act is one such instrument, and other democracies, including those in Europe, are establishing similar sanctions.
But sanctions alone are not sufficient, and there are other measures that can help to prevent the long-term, rampant corruption that emergency power grabs enable. Liberal democracies can lead through soft power by funding civic institutions overseas that support grassroots anti-corruption initiatives. The Crook Act, which has garnered bipartisan support in the US House and Senate, would require the State Department to provide assistance for governments and grassroots NGOs in countries transitioning to rule-of-law-based governance. Democracies should also fund domestic and foreign organizations that support reputable academic communities and independent media, both of which are proven tools in combating malfeasance.
While investigative journalists and civil society can be the most effective monitors of political change, democratic governments should invest additional resources in tracking and reporting developments related to emergency power grabs. Policymakers are more likely to effectively allocate funding if they have a granular awareness of the issues they need to address. In the US, Congress should direct the State Department and intelligence agencies to report more consistently on countries of concern, including the health of civil society and protection of independent journalism, relevant legislative and judicial developments, and the use of invasive surveillance as it violates human rights.
Finally, governments should rely on the mechanisms they have been cultivating for years to bolster the rule of law against transnational corruption, deter bad actors, and prevent the erosion of progress in the face of the crisis. But the effort must begin at home. As it continues to counter malfeasance abroad, the US must acknowledge and address corruption within the walls of its own government institutions. We should also support the momentum behind beneficial ownership registries and tighter restrictions on shell companies, which corrupt elites rely on to launder money into and through the US financial system.
Corruption is already both a goal of and a tool for autocrats who use their largesse to secure the loyalty of cronies. It is a menace to democracies, and the scale of emergency pandemic response efforts has put more money into play. The continued deterioration of democratic safeguards and widespread abuse of power by emboldened strongmen will only amplify the threat. But if we apply and extend the array of options available to us and advocate for transparency and the rule of law, we may be able to forestall further long-term damage.
Image: Riot police confront anti-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro football fans during a protest against him, at Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 31, 2020, amid the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic. Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images