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Human Rights and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 3 Sep 2020

Senator Larissa Waters [by video link] 3/09/2020

Over the last six months, the world's attention has understandably been diverted to the response to the COVID-19 crisis. This afternoon I want to draw this chamber's attention to the human rights abuses that continue to occur unabated around the world in spite of the pandemic. In some cases, the abuses have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said this week that COVID-19 has fuelled authoritarian trends. As the UN Special Rapporteur, on the situation of human rights defenders, recently said, the pandemic means that we need to do more to protect human rights activists.

In the short time I have available today, it's not possible to traverse all the atrocities occurring globally, but I wanted to mention a few. In India, Prime Minister Modi is rounding up critics in the shadow of the virus. Indian authorities have arrested dozens in a nationwide crackdown, with arrests based on scant evidence. Those who have been detained include a youth activist who raised awareness of police violence against Muslims, an academic who opposes the government's dangerous anti-Muslim citizenship law, and a co-founder of a women's collective.

Authorities continue to impose harsh and discriminatory measures in Kashmir just over a year after the Indian government drastically eroded Kashmiris' right to self-determination. To quell dissent and to keep away news from the outside world, it continues to maintain stifling restraints, with widespread detention and drastic limits to the internet, to name a few abuses.

In the Philippines, Duterte's brutal drug war goes on. The UN found in June that thousands had been killed in the so-called war with near impunity. Duterte's government has given police permission to kill. Along with ordinary Filipinos, human rights activists must also fear for their lives. Only a few weeks ago, unidentified gunmen fatally shot human rights worker Zara Alvarez. Separately, peasant leader Randall Echanis was also murdered. They were the 13th and 14th human rights workers killed in the Philippines in the last four years. They had been subject to so-called red-tagging or political harassment. Their deaths show that extrajudicial killings in the Philippines remain rife in COVID times.

In China, egregious abuses against the Uighur people go on, exacerbated by the pandemic. We continue to see mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination and the destruction of heritage, as well as forced birth control. What we are seeing is cultural genocide of the Uighur people, and it is abhorrent.

A bit further afield in Ethiopia, the government begun a crackdown following the killing of popular Oromo artist and activist Hachalu Hundessa. Authorities have detained dozens of opposition members and journalists for prolonged periods, often without charge. Members of the Oromo community in Australia have raised their serious concerns with Greens MPs. Ethiopian authorities must bring credible charges against those detained or release them, and there should be an independent investigation into Mr Hundessa's killing.

The cases I've just mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg. I could go on, but unfortunately I'm limited by time. I urge the government to actively call out global atrocities and abuses, even as our attention is turned inward to our domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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