As Morocco moves into a fourth month under a state of emergency, debates arise over the country’s ability to uphold human rights under restrictive lockdown measures.
Rabat – After three months of enforced lockdown measures, Morocco appears to have beaten the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the country’s restrictions to curb the spread of the virus have hailed international praise from many, others are critiquing the government’s prohibitive response in terms of human rights. These critics claim the measures are costing citizens more than their worth in terms of economic and civil liberties.
Following the enactment of the lockdown on March 20, Moroccan authorities took an aggressive approach toward imposing the new state of emergency laws to keep the country’s infection rate low and the crisis relatively under control — and according to the numbers, it worked.
Although Morocco announced hundreds of new cases on June 19 reportedly stemming from work in strawberry fields, statistics show low transmission and death rates and a high recovery rate, indicating Morocco’s relative success in containment.
While the government has worked hard to maintain control over the epidemiological situation, delicate tribulations have trailed its efforts.
Human rights defenders: Rights are not conditional
In an effort to keep the population in check, Morocco threatened hefty fines of up to MAD 1,300 ($130) and up to three-month long prison sentences for those violating the state of emergency. As per the country’s May 22 statement, just over two months into Morocco’s lockdown, 91,623 people had been prosecuted for breaking the state of health emergency laws and for other offenses during the state of emergency period.
At the time of the report, more than 550 people remained in detention for violating lockdown measures. The majority of detainees faced at least one other charge not related to violating the lockdown.
In addition to policing curfew hours, stay-at-home orders, and mandating face masks, the country has also detained journalists, civilians, and netizens for “obstructing” the government’s handling of the pandemic or sharing controversial information related to COVID-19.
At least five of the detained people are considered human rights activists or citizen journalists.
“The Moroccan authorities’ introduction of prison sentences to punish those who break confinement or curfew is a disproportionate one. In all cases, this flawed law should never be used to silence the voices of those daring to criticize the government’s measures and handling of the pandemic,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa region.
“It is not a crime to question the government’s response to the pandemic or call out the shortfalls of its approach.”
Human rights activists, journalists, and citizens impacted by the ongoing state of emergency are citing “disproportionate” punishments and “troubling examples of human rights allegations.”
In one case, a Moroccan woman was arrested and received two months in jail for posting a satirical video online, in which she imitated a security official enforcing lockdown orders.
Guellali added that Amnesty International calls on the Moroccan authorities to immediately “release all those detained solely for expressing their views. Charges against all those being prosecuted unlawfully for breaking the state of emergency must be dropped.”
In defense of public interest
In contrast to these critiques, Morocco has repeatedly noted its respect for human rights and ability to uphold justice during the trying times.
On April 28, Morocco’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Omar Zinber, said that allegations of human rights abuses in Morocco amid the lockdown were “devoid of any foundation.”
Similarly, in a recent interview with Maghreb Arab Press (MAP), Moroccan lawyers assured the public that COVID-19 tests in the workplace are aligned with employee rights and do not strip away personal freedoms.
In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that COVID-19 may cause the Middle East and North Africa region to experience the biggest human rights crisis since the Arab Spring. However, the report spotlighted Morocco as a positive example for the region.
The report highlighted Morocco’s ability to protect prisoners and take human rights into account during the crisis.
Although the HRW report on Morocco was generally positive, it did cite concerns surrounding Morocco’s vulnerable populations under a precarious economic situation.
Adding repatriations and economic distress into the equation
In addition to putting the government under fire for intensive regulations throughout the crisis, many have shared their concerns for Moroccans left stranded abroad. While the government collaborated with foreign government officials to send home an estimated 80,000 foreign nationals stuck in the country after the airspace closed, more than 33,000 citizen repatriation requests went unanswered until very recently.
Those left abroad report hanging on by a thread as many rack up hotel bills, face job loss, and struggle to make ends meet while relying on borrowed money and the kindness of strangers. So far, the government has repatriated citizens from Algeria, Spain, and Turkey. Tens of thousands of Moroccans are still awaiting their chance to return.
With nearly three months of shuttered businesses, Moroccans abroad are not the only ones struggling to pay the bills. In a country where approximately 11% of GDP centers around tourism, many fear the unprecedented impact that the virus has had on the industry.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the world, leaders and citizen populations alike have been challenged by the measures taken to battle the novel coronavirus. The debate over human rights violations during a global health emergency has garnered significant attention worldwide as systemic struggles unfold and infectious disease rocks the world order.