Special Report on COVID-19: Keeping Justice in Sight


Sparing almost no corner of the world from its wrath, the COVID-19 pandemic has now spread to every country. In an effort to slow the contagion, governments in most countries have been taking drastic measures requiring all residents other than essential workers to confine themselves in their homes, and shutting down vast sectors of their economies. The impact has been crushing. Not only have hundreds of thousands already succumbed to disease, but countless millions more now find themselves out of work or scraping by in a sinking global economy.

Perhaps the hardest hit by this perfect storm are countries torn apart by conflict or where past or ongoing repression has left state institutions weak and society grappling with a legacy of mass atrocities. In these already fragile, unstable, and often poor nations, the most susceptible to COVID-19 and the fallout of the economic shutdown are members of marginalized communities and vulnerable social groups, such as victims of human rights abuses and refugees and displaced persons. Women and members of the LGBT community also face unique and lopsided challenges during this health crisis. Many women who previously helped support their families financially are now unemployed, confined at home with an abusive spouse, and caring for and educating children who had been in school most of the day before the pandemic prompted authorities to close them.

These people often eke a living in the informal or gig economy and struggle to feed themselves and their families, even in the best of times, and they live in underserved areas with little or no access to health care and other basic services and where following the recommended sanitation and social distancing practices is near impossible. They are often those who have been treated unequally and unfairly for generations and have known firsthand the tragic loss of violent conflict. They are also the ones who have long led the struggle for justice and redress and who stand to gain the most from an inclusive, gender-sensitive, and context-specific transitional justice process. They are ICTJ’s raison d’être; they at the heart of its mission and all programmatic activities.

COVID-19 has profoundly affected every country where ICTJ currently works: Armenia, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Uganda. We recently caught up with ICTJ’s heads of country programs to learn more about the impact the pandemic is having on transitional justice and society more broadly.

The current pandemic is not only a public health emergency, it is also a crisis for human rights and for justice.

According to our experts, government measures to try to contain the coronavirus have interrupted most transitional justice processes and many political ones as well. They have largely halted economic life, which in turn has made life unbearable for the most vulnerable and precarious for innumerable others. However, the impact of this crisis and the measures to address it does not stop there. In many of these countries, the crisis has worsened political, social, and economic problems rooted in historical inequality, exclusion, and injustice. Alarmingly, some governments are using the preventive policies as a pretext to suppress freedoms and expand their power. In a few cases, they are threatening, detaining, and otherwise silencing critics of their response to the crisis.

The Most Vulnerable Bear the Brunt

Vulnerable populations around the world are invariably the most susceptible to the coronavirus and the economic consequences of the stay-at-home orders and business closures. According to the heads of programs, it has unfortunately proven to be the case in the countries where ICTJ works.

The pandemic is bringing to the surface underlying inequalities, including the unequal access to health care. In Colombia, for example, health care is in theory universal. However, the truth is that the public health care system does not always deliver adequate and timely care. In marginalized urban neighborhoods and especially in rural regions most affected by the internal armed conflict, health care is unreliable at best. For example, one such region, Chocó, only has 27 intensive-care beds in the private system and none in the public hospitals for a population of around 540,000, many of whom have suffered the scourge of the armed conflict for decades. 

Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers living in Tunisia are excluded from the national health care system, making them vulnerable to the virus, as well as from any government social welfare programs. In Lebanon, Syrian and Palestinian refugees live in overcrowded camps, where recommended social distancing sanitation practices are impossible to maintain. Discrimination against refugees is an added challenge. Some Lebanese are blaming them for the pandemic. It does not help that recently the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in one of the Palestinian camps.

The vulnerability of some groups is most striking in conflict zones. Families already torn between fleeing their homes or staying and living in fear of violence are now contending with the added danger of the virus. Syria has the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world, while at the same time the conflict has all but destroyed the health care system. Meanwhile, the violence in Libya has escalated; the Libyan National Army intensified attacks on the capital, bombarding civilians, but is also targeting hospitals dealing with COVID-19 cases.

Women in particular confront acute economic and health-related challenges as well as abuse during the pandemic. With stay-at-home orders in place in most countries, incidents of domestic violence around the world have sky-rocketed. In Tunisia, as in many countries, women heads of households have access to fewer resources than men and disproportionately work in the informal economy, which has been largely shut down in the crisis. In Uganda, most of the measures have been gender blind and enforced accordingly, even to the point that pregnant mothers have not been allowed to access vital medical services. At least 11 pregnant women have reportedly died in the country because they could not reach emergency health care, as a result of restrictions on movement and transportation. In response to a national outcry, the president subsequently exempted pregnant women from these restriction on movement, however it was too late for those mothers who had already died.

Widespread Economic Hardship

Every country program expert described the dire economic consequences that the pandemic has had on the countries where they work. Many of these economies were already fragile; now, some could be pushed to the brink of collapse.

The coronavirus, the drastic measures to contain it, and the calamitous economic consequences of both have put these societies at increased risk of social unrest, violence, or even a recurrence of conflict.

In Lebanon and Sudan, the economic uncertainty has started to fan the flames of protest movements and social unrest. Last October, the Lebanese people embarked on an uprising aimed at ending rampant corruption and the government’s mismanagement of the economy, which only stopped when measures to combat the spread of coronavirus were put in place. But the economy has since gone into free fall, making life unbearable for many, and, despite the pandemic, Lebanese people have, again, taken their grievances to the streets.

In Sudan, the closure of important local markets and the restrictions on movement have caused violent demonstrations in some areas. Making matters worse, according to the International Monetary Fund, the Sudanese economy is projected to sink deeper into recession this year. Notably, there is a risk that even pledged foreign aid, on which Sudan is largely dependent, may not materialize in the coming months as donor countries deal with the pandemic domestically.

Suspension of Transitional Justice and Political Processes

In a number of countries, the coronavirus and the measures put in place to contain it have effectively brought ongoing transitional justice processes to a standstill. In the Gambia, for instance, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission suspended its public hearings and outreach activities until June as a result of the pandemic. In Ethiopia, highly anticipated national elections, initially scheduled for this August, were suspended likely through the end of year, putting the country in jeopardy of a constitutional crisis.

In Armenia, both transitional justice and major political processes have been postponed. On March 1, after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country, the ruling Civil Contract party cancelled the annual rally commemorating the 10 victims of the 2008 anti-corruption protests scheduled for later that day. Shortly after, a constitutional referendum planned for April 5 and that proposed the dismissal of seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges who were appointed before the 2018 election was postponed. A nationwide lockdown and curfew moreover derailed the transitional justice roadmap, drawn up by the country’s new leaders to overhaul a corrupt government and to establish a truth-seeking process to investigate past corruption and human rights abuses.

Families of the disappeared hold a sit-in in front of the criminal court in Sidon, Lebanon, on April 13, 2006, as they have done every year since the the end of the civil war. (Mazna El Masri)

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the current health crisis has stalled advocacy efforts to implement the Law on the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared Persons in Lebanon, which among other things establishes an independent national commission to investigate the fate of these individuals. Passed in 2018, the government has yet to do much to carry it out.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck Sudan not even a year after the country had initiated a historic political transition after decades of dictatorship and conflict. The government declared a nationwide emergency in mid-March, shutting down vast sectors of the economy and requiring residents to confine themselves to their homes. These measures, however, have delayed ongoing peace talks aimed at resolving Sudan’s multiple conflicts, as well as transitional justice processes for which protesters have fought hard during the revolution that led to the ousting of President Bashir on April 11, 2019.

Crackdown on Civil Liberties

Disturbingly, governments in several countries have been exploiting well-meaning preventative measures to suppress individual freedoms and expand state power. In Kenya, the National Police Service has been accused of using excessive force to apply a controversial partial lockdown and dusk-to-dawn curfew. Police officers have reportedly assaulted and tortured individuals who were allegedly flouting the restrictions. They have been implicated in deaths of 14 civilians, including a 13-year -old boy who was hit by a police officer’s stray bullet in an informal settlement in Nairobi. The police have also been reportedly extorting and soliciting bribes from people caught not abiding by these and other mandatory directives such as wearing a face mask and social distancing.

The situation in many countries has brought to the surface underlying social, political, and economic problems rooted in historical inequality, exclusion, and injustice.

Similarly, in Uganda, the enforcement of government restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a series of human rights violations. The police, local defense units, and other security agencies stand accused of using excessive force to enforce the measures. Only a day after the restrictions took effect, police and local defense units on patrol were photographed beating women street vendors and motorcycle riders. The government has also been using the pandemic as pretext to silence of critics and journalists who question the government’s actions. On April 13, a political activist and writer was brutally arrested at his home, accused of “mobilizing the public against complying with the health directives on combatting the coronavirus,” after he criticized the president and his family.  A week later, a prominent journalist was arrested after he wrote a story about the misappropriation public funds intended for helping people affected by COVID-19.

In Tunisia, a member of parliament proposed a draft law meant to combat misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis and manage the flow of information that could affect “national security and order” on social media platforms. The draft law was widely deemed to be a direct threat to freedom of expression as most of its provisions sought to muzzle journalists and activists. Fortunately, civil society condemned it swiftly and forcefully, and only few hours after the draft law was leaked to the press, the same member of parliament was obliged to withdraw it.

In neighboring Libya, where ongoing civil conflict has fractured the country, measures to deal with the pandemic vary. In Benghazi, the authorities have taken a militaristic approach to containing the coronavirus; any public criticism of their response to the pandemic is considered an act of treason. In April, after making comments on television perceived as critical of the authorities’ response to health crisis, a young ophthalmologist was arrested, taken into custody, and has since gone  missing.

Keeping Justice in Sight

As ICTJ’s country teams have indicated, the current pandemic is not only a public health emergency. It is also a crisis for human rights and for justice. The situation in many countries has brought to the surface underlying social, political, and economic problems rooted in historical inequality, exclusion, and injustice. In particular, fragile countries, such as those emerging from conflict or repression, are up against the odds in this uncertain era. The coronavirus, the drastic measures to contain it, and the calamitous economic consequences of both have put these societies at increased risk of social unrest, violence, or even a recurrence of conflict, as well as abuse or repression by governments that seek to expand their power by exploiting the measures put in place to slow the spread of the disease. For societies that have taken their first wobbly steps toward a sustainable peace, democracy, and truth, justice, and redress, the current crisis threatens to set them back to square one. But, it does not necessarily have to end this way. Government and societal responses to the pandemic do not have to be narrow or short-sighted. They can, and should, be comprehensive in their approach and based on human rights and justice. Rather than jeopardizing fragile peace and hard-won progress, these solutions could in fact prevent violence, improve social harmony, and increase access to justice if they affirm the general public’s sense of fairness and the dignity of citizens. ICTJ remains steadfast in its commitment to justice and to the world’s most vulnerable populations and it stands ready to support its partners in civil society and state institutions by all means possible to help them develop such solutions.

PHOTO: On April 22, 2020, vendors in a market in Kenya practice social distancing. (World Bank/Sambrian Mbaabu)