Pandemic exposes weaknesses in Mongolian human rights protection system

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- Expert calls for a re-think and reset of broken systems to genuinely build back better -

“Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 contributed to an increase in domestic violence and affected children’s rights to education and health in Mongolia. Prior to elections in June, there was a rise in cases of arbitrary detention of individuals speaking out against the government,” Amnesty International said in its annual report published on April 6.

The “Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights” report covers 149 countries and delivers a comprehensive analysis of human rights trends globally in 2020.

In the report, the human rights NGO describes those already most marginalized, including women and refugees, as bearing the devastating brunt of the pandemic, as a result of decades of discriminatory policy decisions by world leaders. Health workers, migrant workers, and those in the informal sector - many at the frontlines of the pandemic - have also been betrayed by neglected health systems and patchy economic and social support.

The report highlights a marked increase in gender-based and domestic violence with many women and LGBTI persons facing increased barriers to protection and support due to restrictions on freedom of movement, lack of confidential mechanisms for victims to report violence while isolated with their abusers, and reduced capacity or suspension of services. For example, domestic violence surged in Ulaanbaatar as lockdown measures were imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The number of reports increased by more than 50 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020, with 90 percent of victims being women. Lockdown measures also reduced the options available for support and counselling services, the organization found.

Violation of people’s right to housing and forced eviction is an issue that emerged in Mongolia following the government’s initiative to redevelop ger areas, the poorest parts of Ulaanbaatar. As a result, countless people have been left home-
less or without adequate housing during recent years. Amnesty International outlined that these people are facing a higher risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic due to lack of access to sanitation facilities and protection from weather.

Residents who lived in areas scheduled for redevelopment reported that construction companies immediately asked them to vacate their land and homes after signing development contracts with the government but did not adequately consult and compensate them. 

That’s not all. The pandemic forced Mongolia and countries worldwide to close schools and other educational institutions, which put many children who depended on school meals as a main source of nutrition at higher risk. In other words, school closures affected access to adequate food and placed their health at higher risk. Mongolia shut down schools and other educational facilities from late January through August over COVID-19 concerns. The government offered remote classes through television programs, but access to education for children returning to remote areas from urban boarding schools was found to have been restrictive because of poor internet connectivity or television network coverage.

ARBITRARY ARRESTS AND TORTURE PLAGUE MONGOLIA AHEAD OF ELECTIONS

Amnesty International’s new annual report revealed several human rights violations in Mongolia relating to parliamentary elections in June 2020.

Prior to the elections, the government arrested and arbitrarily detained individuals – including lawyers and activists – for expressing their views on the human rights situation and corruption. Many of them were detained for weeks without being charged or brought to court. The authorities failed to investigate most re-
ported cases of torture.

“There were credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by law enforcement officials but the government showed unwillingness to conduct investigations. Between January and October, 54 cases of torture were reported, but
only three of them were investigated and brought to court,” the report read.

Other violations highlighted in the report were as follows:

• Human rights defenders

In May, the government submitted to Parliament a bill on the protection of human rights defenders, which was discussed in December, but remained pending. Human rights defenders lacked sufficient legal protection, putting them and their families at risk. In September, a woman herder-activist and NGO leader was harassed and beaten by managers of a mining company, due to her efforts to protect herders’ land from business encroachment and to prevent environmental degradation. Her case was dismissed after investigation by the municipal police.

• Freedom of expression

In January, an amendment to the Criminal Code, which criminalized the dissemination of “false information” came into effect. A dedicated police unit was created for its enforcement. Civil society publicly expressed concerns that the law was overly broad and could be used to suppress press freedom.

NATIONAL SELF-INTEREST HAS TRUMPED INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION IN COVID-19 RESPONSE

World leaders have wreaked havoc on the international stage, hampering collective recovery efforts by blocking or undermining international cooperation, according to Amnesty International.

These include:
• Leaders of rich countries, such as former US President Trump, circumventing global cooperation efforts by buying up most of the world’s supply of vaccines, leaving little to none for other countries. These rich countries also have failed to push pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge and technology to expand the supply of global COVID-19 vaccines.

• Xi Jinping’s government censoring and persecuting health workers and journalists in China who attempted to raise the alarm about the virus early on, suppressing crucial information.

• The G2O offering to suspend debt payments from the poorest countries but demanding that the money be repaid with interest later. 

The response to the global pandemic has been further undermined by leaders who have ruthlessly exploited the crisis and weaponized COVID-19 to launch fresh attacks on human rights, the organization says.

“COVID-19 has brutally exposed and deepened inequality both within and between countries, and highlighted the staggering disregard our leaders have for our shared humanity. Decades of divisive policies, misguided austerity measures, and choices by leaders not to invest in crumbling public infrastructure, have left too many easy prey to this virus,” remarked Agnes Callamard, new secretary general of Amnesty International. “We face a world in disarray. At this point in the pandemic, even the most deluded leaders would struggle to deny that our social, economic and political systems are broken.”

Noting that the pandemic has cast a harsh light on the world’s inability to cooperate effectively in times of dire global need, Callamard says the only way out of this “mess” is through international cooperation. He urged countries to unite and reset the “broken systems” that have turned a blind eye on inequalities, neglect and abuse for centuries.

“States must ensure vaccines are quickly available to everyone, everywhere, and free at the point of use. Pharmaceutical companies must share their knowledge and technology so no one is left behind. G20 members and international financial institutions must provide debt relief for the poorest 77 countries to respond and recover from the pandemic,” the secretary head stated.

He continued, “We are at a crossroads. We must release the shackles that degrade human dignity. We must reset and reboot to build a world grounded in equality, human rights, and humanity. We must learn from the pandemic and
come together to work boldly and creatively so
everyone is on an equal footing,” he said.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ASIA-PACIFIC

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the human rights situation in the Asia-Pacific region. It was the first region affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as the first cases were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. When Chinese authorities reprimanded health workers who had raised warnings about a new virus, it sparked calls for transparency not only from people in China, but also from other countries in the region. It was the first of many moments throughout the year when governments seized on the pandemic as a pretext to muzzle critical voices and unduly limit the right to freedom of expression, including the right to receive and impart information on COVID-19.

Amnesty International gave the following recommendations for the region to improve its human rights protections systems:

• The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive and impart information, is especially critical during a public health crisis. Governments must understand fully that access to credible, objective and evidence-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic saves lives. The role of journalists and media in providing reliable information to the public during a public health crisis is vital. They also play an important role in calling attention to matters of public interest and upholding human rights. Rather than thwarting such efforts, governments must enable, promote, and protect robust and independent media in the region.
• Governments must effectively address acts of violence against human rights defenders and perpetrators of these acts must be held accountable. It is crucial that human rights defenders are able to do their work free of fear of punishment, reprisal or intimidation so that everyone can effectively enjoy all human rights.
• Governments must ensure access to health facilities and services without discrimination.
• Governments must ensure that the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities are protected. Moreover, they must facilitate equal access to health care for all minority groups and take steps to end systemic discrimination against them.
• In developing their post-pandemic response and recovery, governments must give priority to advancing gender equality and
 eliminating gender-based violence and harmful gender stereotypes. Women must also be involved in all stages of legislative policy and budgetary decision-making processes in developing the post-pandemic response and recovery plans of governments in the region.
• Governments must urgently adopt and implement emission reduction targets and strategies that protect human rights from the climate crisis and ensure a just and human rights-consistent transition to a zero-carbon economy and resilient society.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan

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