Tracking human rights in a Covid era

The Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) has released its 2021 Rights Tracker, with a focus on human rights during the pandemic. They released some key findings during a recent webinar, including results on several East Asian locations: Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea.   

HRMI’s latest annual report makes for sober reading. Covid has been a time of global cooperation, but the pandemic has also been used as an excuse for some governments to crack down on human rights.  

Globally, the report found there were ‘stark differences’ in how governments acted in the pandemic – actions that were reflected in what people experienced. 

The annual report from HRMI looks at 13 different rights, which are split into three categories: Quality of life (five rights), Safety from the state (five rights), and Empowerment (three rights). Based on survey responses, each country or region is given a score out of 10. 

In launching the data, HRMI co-founder Anne-Marie Brooks highlighted issues surround Hong Kong, which has seen a drop in its empowerment rights scores – the rights encompassing the right to assembly and association, the right to opinion and expression, and the right to participate in government. 

Anne-Marie-Brook | Photo: HRMI

“There’s been a really significant drop in all three of the empowerment rights scores for Hong Kong. The only country in our dataset of 39 countries where we saw a larger drop across the board in empowerment rights was in Malaysia,” Brooks said. 

In contrast, looking at Taiwan – the first time it’s been included in HRMI’s report - “Taiwan topped the East Asia charts on the exact five [out of eight] rights where Hong Kong did most particularly badly,” Brooks said. 

Those five rights included the three empowerment rights that Hong Kong saw such a dramatic drop in, alongside the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and the right to freedom from torture. 

Survey respondents said that in Hong Kong, particularly when it came to rights of freedom of opinion and expression, the people most at risk of having their rights infringed included teachers straying from teaching guidelines to restaurant owners supporting pro-democracy protestors, to journalists.  

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, people reported that authorities were using Covid-19 as a reason to target peoples’ rights to opinion and expression, as well as implementing health laws to silence critics.   

Earlier this year, international NGO Human Rights Watch, found similarly sober results for Malaysia when it released its World Report 2021.

Malaysia has undergone an incredible reversal of human rights in 2020 – all for the worst,” said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson at the time, “Hopes for human rights reforms have never risen so fast in Malaysia nor collapsed so quickly.”    

Along similar lines, the Human Rights Watch found the first nine months of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government (from March 2020) particularly featured an “aggressive crackdown” on rights in the country. 

HRMI’s annual data set covers five economic and social rights for 194 countries and eight civil and political rights for 39 countries. The organisation’s full report and data set tools are available on its website. 

The webinar launching the data is also available to watch on YouTube 

- Asia Media Centre