Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.
In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.
American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States. Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.
The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment. Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites.
Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.
Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.
In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.
Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”
While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.
The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.
Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.
Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.
The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.
The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.
America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”
Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims. Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation.
According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system.
The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.
While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community.
The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic.
Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.
The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.
Australia is a middle economic power in the Indo-Pacific, geographically distanced from Europe and the US. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia has galvanised international attention and support regarding its recent call for an international inquiry into the coronavirus. In Australian colloquial terms, the nation is ‘punching above its weight’ to pursue their own interests through advancing global cooperation. Though Australia faces increasingly tense relations with China, this reality has not prevented Australian officials from taking a stand on the world stage to criticise Beijing for its management of the coronavirus. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the international community to support an inquiry into the origins and transmission of COVID in addition to the WHO’s response.
China, fearing that such an investigation would harm its international reputation has responded to Australia’s suggestion for an independent investigation with threats of economic coercion. Chinese ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng has threatened a freeze on tourists and students coming to Australia and a boycott on Australian beef and wine. While it would be easy for Australian officials to scale back their rhetoric in light of Beijing’s bullying tactics, Australia continues to remain vocal on the international stage, presenting a compelling case for the inquiry. At this early stage, Australia’s efforts appear to be successful in gaining international recognition with recent support pledged from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Australia is a regional power with global interests. Pursuing this inquiry is within our national interest as we seek to uphold international rules and norms of transparency and rule of law. An international community which respects these values and has international institutions which support integrity and facts over politics enables peace and prosperity to flourish among nations. The COVID inquiry will help to achieve this vision by seeking to uncover the truth amidst a sea of informational warfare. It will hold China accountable for their negligent handling of the coronavirus and set a clear standard for China’s future cooperation, forcing them and others to think twice before censoring critical health information and delaying international coordination. The inquiry will also uncover problems with the World Health Organisation’s response to this pandemic, a needed step to ensure the institution can develop clearer guidelines and international expectations for dealing with future international health risks.
Australia’s announcement to pursue the COVID inquiry follows in the footsteps of the successful Australian-led MH17 inquiry. In the aftermath of a transnational tragedy, Australia capitalised its seat on the UN security council by introducing resolution 2166, leading the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The binding UN resolution called for a ‘full, thorough and independent investigation’ into the crash and demanded military actives in the area cease to enable site access. Through active and determined diplomacy, Australia put vital pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators and for the victims to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones. Australia’s leadership from the downing of MH17 to the coronavirus pandemic indicates a promising pattern of behaviour emerging within Australian Foreign Policy. Australia is filling a US leadership void and acting independently to help maintain regional peace and security.
Australia’s foreign policy is predominately focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Australia seeks to increase the stability, prosperity and health within Pacific nations and such objectives will likely be advanced due to a COVID inquiry into the WHO. The WHO works to advance public health infrastructure within the Pacific. It is for this reason that Australia has not followed the US to halt the organisation’s funding as this would unnecessarily hurt the people we seek to empower most through Australian aid. Advocating for an inquiry on the other hand provides a more nuanced policy approach. Australia can criticise the inadequacy of the WHO’s response, demanding a higher standard for future compliance, whilst continuing to support the organisation’s valuable work within the Pacific. An inquiry into the management of COVID will help to ensure that the future work of the WHO is more transparent and therefore more effective at managing future health risks through improving infrastructure and resilience among vulnerable states.
Furthermore, an inquiry provides an opportunity for Australia to differentiate itself from China as a partner of choice for future trade and development partnerships within the Pacific. Over the course of the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Pacific providing new opportunities for the Pacific to participate in the Belt in Road Initiative and accept concessional loans to grow their economies. Australia now faces exceptional competition with China, particularly in the area of development. By standing up to China and exposing their negligent management of this pandemic, Australia is presenting a strong case for why it should continue to be a partner of choice in the Pacific. Australia’s display of leadership has outlined its priorities for transparency and international cooperation while exposing the risks associated with participating in trade and accepting development from China.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on Australia’s ability to lead the international community and contribute to global stability and prosperity. As a regional power, it is within Australia’s interests to hold states accountable for their disruptive actions and to build international institutions that promote transparency and integrity. In a time of great pessimism and uncertainty, Australia’s recent leadership provides hope for an international system more committed to truth, transparency and cooperation.
The Islamic State genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria, beginning in 2014, drew international condemnation. In 2020, Southeast Asia is the new hotspot for Christian persecution. Communism and religious fundamentalism appear to be the main driving forces of Christian Persecution. Such oppression will only be increased by the global COVID-19 pandemic as Christians are more likely to experience discrimination when seeking basic provisions in many countries.
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of persecution that Christians face in Australia’s backyard.
As of 2018, the Xi Jingping’s government has implemented draconian laws on religious practices. Increased surveillance and restriction of privacy have severely constrained the religious freedoms of the Chinese people. Christians found to publically profess their faith have experienced interrogation, imprisonment and loss of property. The Chinese Communist Party is driving ‘thought reform’ with plans to retranslate and annotate the Bible so that the text is compatible with sinicization and socialism. Troubling parallels can be observed between this heavy-handed response to Christianity and Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.
Opposition to Christianity has reached unprecedented levels in India due to the rise of Hindutva nationalism. Aid to the Church in Need reported nation-wide attacks on Christians in 24 of India’s 29 states from 2017 to 2019. Indian Christians face physical abuse, rape and murder for professing their faith. Sectarian violence remains wide-spread. However, of greatest concern is the growing impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, engendered by the failure of authorities to address attacks on religious minorities.
North Korea is an exceptionally dangerous place to be a Christian. The bible is illegal and from a young age citizens are taught to worship Kim Jong-Un. Christians in North Korea are routinely deported to kwanliso, maximum security political prisons or ‘re-education’ camps. Torture, starvation, sexual assault and death are frequently reported within these facilities. CEO of Open Doors David Curry, cautioned that as COVID-19 ravages health conditions in developing countries, “North Korean Christians who are already seen as second-class citizens, traitors, and infidels” face exceptional risks.
In Laos, Christianity is branded as a harmful Western influence which challenges the nation’s communist values. Government officials use Laotians’ hostile attitude towards Christians to justify strict monitoring of believers. Converts to Christianity in Laos face the most severe forms of persecution. Abandoning Buddhism or tribal animist beliefs is seen as a betrayal to family members and the community.
The international community has rightly condemned the horrific ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Yet, the Buddhist-dominated military has also systematically attacked other religious minorities including Christians. The military routinely engage in torture, rape, abduction and murder of Christians. Efforts to force conversions to Buddhism are common. Thousands of Christians have also been displaced and forced to flee to refugee camps. As access to these regions is very limited, their plight goes widely unnoticed outside Myanmar.
Brunei is an Islamic absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In 2014, Brunei became the first East Asian country to adopt parts of Sharia law, despite condemnation from the UN. The Sultan, along with the prime minister, has declared his vision that Brunei will be an entirely Muslim nation by 2035. All churches, including registered ones, are monitored and restricted by the authorities. Further, Islamic authorities offer financial bonuses and employment opportunities to those who follow Islam. This creates a social hierarchy that discriminates against non-Muslims.
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia purports to protect the right to freedom of religion, including the profession, practicing and propagating of a person’s religious beliefs. Despite this, federal law favours the Islamic faith. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution privileges Islam with special status. Although it is more subtle than in neighbouring countries, examples of discrimination against Christians include the existence of sharia courts available to Muslims and the constitutional definition of ‘Malay’ to mean only those who profess the religion of Islam.
An opportunity for the United States and Australia
Under President Trump, the US has affirmed its strong commitment to the freedom of religion both domestically and internationally. While I was at the UN during Leaders Week 2019, the US hosted a high-level event titled ‘The Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom’. The scheduling of this event at the same time as the Climate Summit sent a clear message to the international community about the foreign policy priorities of the Trump/Pence administration.
Domestically, Trump has made a 2017 executive order to advance religious freedom as a centre-piece of his administration’s human rights agenda. The President has also taken action to ensure that Americans and American organisations are not forced to violate their religious or moral beliefs by complying with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Further, the Administration has dedicated $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics around the world.
Given our shared liberal-democratic values, Australia is uniquely positioned to cooperate with the US on this serious international human rights issue in our region. With rising Christian persecution in Southeast Asia and the Indo-pacific, Australia’s strong bilateral relationship with the United States may provide a solution. As an evangelical Christian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shares a unique personal connection with persecuted Christians in our region and a commitment to protecting religious freedoms alongside President Trump and Vice President Pence. If there were ever a time to ignite a global crusade to combat religious persecution, this would be that time.
2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.
At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.
Warnings from Hungary
Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?
Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies
Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.
Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.
Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.
Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.