COVID-19 induced human rights violations need civil society oversight, as emergency and temporary laws accelerate the regression democracy in Southeast Asia.

This is one of the findings of Asia Centre’s report ‘COVID-19 and Democracy in Southeast Asia: Building Resilience, Fighting Authoritarianism’, released to mark the UN’s International Human Right Day (10 December), with its theme of ensuring human rights are central to COVID-19 recovery efforts.

“Civil society has a central role in ensuring human rights are at the forefront of COVID-19 recovery efforts,” said Dr James Gomez, Regional Director at Asia Centre, who led the research on the report, during its launch.

The 54 page report, compiled from July to November 2020, examines the state of democracy and human rights in the region between 1 January and 30 November 2020. It encompasses a review of over 200 reports, articles and case studies, examined by the key words and data presented.

The report begins with a review of crises that have befallen Southeast Asia, over the last 20 years. The analysis shows that after each crisis, civic space has considerably shrunk due to governments’ measures.

“COVID-19 is the latest crisis to hit the region and, like with past crises, will leave an authoritarian residue,” noted Dr Gomez.

The report, therefore, cautions that post-crisis, there is a real risk of governments expanding the temporary laws enacted in 2020 to be long-term laws and practices that further shrink civic space.

Specifically, Dr Gomez hinted that “the increased capacity of state surveillance will be the authoritarian residue of the COVID-19 crisis”.

“With time,” he hinted that “the focus of state surveillance will be directed at the youth; making young people the most surveilled and curtailed generation of all time”.

Dr Gomez continued, “Because of this risk and the residual capacity that we expect to be strengthened post-COVID-19, this emerging situation requires a strong push back, led by civil society.

“Hence, support to civil society in building democratic resilience has become imperative.”

His statement underpins the role of four key stakeholders in bringing about this change to civil society. The report recommends that the United Nations, governments, and donors do their part in supporting Civil Society.

Civil society organisations are also encouraged to respond innovatively to the digitalised environment brought on by the COVID-19 ways of working.

“Without the push back by civil society”, Dr Gomez warned that “the future of democracy in the region is at risk.”

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