The Human Rights Watch acting MENA director expressed serious concern over the impact the lockdown will have on access to education in North Africa and the Middle East.
Dorset – “With this pandemic, the Middle East and North Africa is confronting its first regionwide stress test since the popular revolts against authoritarian and inept governance erupted a decade ago,” said acting MENA director at Human Rights Watch Eric Goldstein on April 16.
In an in-depth interview, published on the Human Rights Watch official webpage, Goldstein outlined the organization’s most serious concerns in the MENA region, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
War-torn countries such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen will be very vulnerable to the pandemic, Goldstein explained. He also expressed concern over the plight of the Palestinian population in Gaza under Israeli occupation.
“Another vulnerable population is refugees and migrants, as well as people in prison or detention,” Goldstein added.
The HRW press release added that the NGO is concerned about access to education and those living under the poverty line across the whole MENA region.
Goldstein is particularly concerned about “people who don’t have any financial cushion and don’t know where next week’s meals will come from if the lockdown continues.”
Spotlight on Morocco
HRW explained how MENA governments’ response to the virus could infringe on fundamental rights.
Morocco, Goldstein emphasized, is among the countries that have taken the human rights and safety of prisoners into account.
In early April, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI pardoned 5,654 prisoners in order to ease pressure and overcrowding in the North African country’s jails amid the pandemic.
The justice ministry selected the prisoners for release based on age, health, good behavior, and time served.
King Mohammed VI also told prison governors and police to take “all the necessary measures to reinforce the protection of detainees in prison.”
The Moroccan government’s decision to release a number of detainees and convicts is a positive one since “prisons are notoriously overcrowded in just about every country, and it would be hard for inmates to practice social distancing.”
On April 14, Morocco announced that one inmate and four members of staff at the Kasr El Kebir prison, near Tangier, had contracted the virus.
In order to prevent further spread of the virus in the prison or in other facilities, authorities introduced a series of preventative measures including new shift systems and the provision of medical masks.
The HRW report did, however, spotlight concerns about the economic impact on Morocco’s informal workers and deprived citizens.
“Tourism, which provides significant jobs and revenue” in Morocco “is unlikely to rebound quickly,” Goldstein noted.
“Peddlers and shopkeepers, other than those providing necessities, have largely closed down for now, as has the huge informal sector,” he added.
The government may face challenges in terms of resources and public trust, the press release notes.
“I think the fact that they’re staying inside for their own well-being has delayed public displays of anguish and desperation,” Goldstein argued.
He warned that if the lockdown continues too long “Desperation may prompt people to take risks for their own and their community’s health, reigniting the spread of COVID-19.”
Concerns in North Africa
The HRW press release expressed serious concern that the international focus on COVID-19 could mask human rights violations in the region.
Goldstein flagged both Egypt and Algeria as countries where human rights are at risk amid the pandemic.
Algeria witnessed ongoing peaceful protests on the streets of Algiers and other large cities for months before the outbreak of the virus, with demonstrators calling for a complete political overhaul and more transparency in government.
“In Algeria, courts imprisoned protest leaders on the basis of patently political charges at a time when the street protests that they led had been suspended due to the coronavirus,” he explained.
Meanwhile, “Some governments are stifling criticism of their response to the pandemic,” the press release added.
“Egypt expelled a reporter from the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper after the journalist wrote that Egypt was underreporting its COVID-19 cases,” HRW wrote, expressing worries over press freedom amid the pandemic.
War-torn Libya is one of the biggest causes for alarm, according to HRW.
“The decline of Libya’s health care system has only accelerated during the conflict in western Libya,” the report noted.
The report also underlined the risks for undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in Libyan detention centers and “the thousands of detainees held in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.”
HRW warned that governments should put in place measures to prevent a rise in domestic violence during the lockdown.
Goldstein cited Tunisia and Lebanon as countries where initiatives are in place to support at-risk women and children.
“Tunisia and Lebanon created a 24-hour hotline for domestic abuse victims, recognizing that it’s harder for women to leave home and file a complaint at the police station during a pandemic,” he said.
Morocco has also launched preventative projects to curb the rise in domestic violence, partnering with the United Nations and the European Union.
The initiative supports the UN goal for “peace at home, in households, around the world” against domestic violence during the pandemic.
The collaboration came after Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres spoke out against a “horrific outbreak of domestic violence” worldwide due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
“We know that containment measures and quarantine are essential to overcome COVID-19. But they can also trap women with violent partners,” the UN chief warned.