‘World leaders have failed’: Q&A with Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard | News on the coronavirus pandemic

In its latest annual report detailing the state of human rights in the world, Amnesty International denounces world leaders for militarizing the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks on fundamental rights, while failing to address the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

In the 400-page report released on Wednesday, Amnesty’s new Secretary General Agnes Callamard described 2020 as “366 days that saw the promotion of deadly selfishness, cowardice, mediocrity and toxic failures of xenophobia and racial hatred ”.

Known for her bold claims, Callamard is a human rights expert who previously investigated extrajudicial killings as the United Nations Special Rapporteur – an independent role she had held since 2016.

His most publicized case was the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Callamard probe concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the extrajudicial execution. Following the investigation, a senior Saudi official reportedly issued death threats against her.

Al Jazeera spoke with Callamard about the report’s findings and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected human rights concerns around the world.

Al Jazeera: What struck you the most about the report’s findings?

The indivisibility of human rights, the interdependence between civil and political rights, economic and social rights. All over the world, people have been the victims of inequalities and discrimination, often associated with the repression of their political and civil rights. [It shows] a complete interdependence of the functioning of the true system of violence.

In 2020, governance and joint responsibility came from the people on the streets. It came from those who worked in hospitals to heal us, who cleaned the streets, who fed us, who brought parcels to our homes, who marched against oppression. Leadership came from the most vulnerable groups, without whom we would not have survived the pandemic.

2020 is the story of those who had the least, who gave the most and who received the least. On the other hand, the world’s leaders, whether political or business, have let us down.

Healthcare workers protest over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus (COVID19) outbreak, outside a hospital in Cape Town, South Africa [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

Their response to the pandemic failed to take into account the vulnerability of individuals and groups, such as migrants, refugees and women, who are the recipients of highly problematic policies. This is what 2020 is all about: the result of years of neglect where inequality and discrimination were not seen as a priority as they should have been. On the contrary, the policies implemented have increased these inequalities.

Al Jazeera: You describe 2020 as the result of a ‘broken system’ that needs a ‘reset and restart’. How do you get there?

The first step that must be taken immediately is to ensure that everyone in the world has access to free point-of-use vaccination. It means sharing the knowledge needed to produce and scale up vaccine production with countries around the world. Otherwise, we are not going to cope as an international community.

It is essential that countries that were already among the poorest in the world and suffered even more during the pandemic are offered outright debt relief. Not temporary as agreed at the G20 meeting [debt payment has been suspended for low-income countries, but they are expected to return the money with interest later].

Protester, maintaining social distance from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19, holds sign reading ‘Human rights defenders are not terrorists’ at rally against anti-terrorism bill which was approved by President Rodrigo Duterte the day before. , in Quezon City in the Philippines [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Nationally, there needs to be a reset. This means that there has to be a real understanding of the politics of the past 10 years that has led to increased poverty in 2020. Whether it’s public investment, public services, social security, protection of freedom of assembly… all the measures that have made the world unable to cope with a pandemic. They must be identified, named and modified.

Concretely, this could mean a fair taxation system, which allows fair taxation of businesses around the world, especially businesses that continue to make money from fossil fuels. We need taxation geared towards responding to climate change. We have to think about social security because it is unacceptable that people face the most dire economic situation, because for years we have neglected to invest in social security systems.

There is no quick fix, but we have to commit to taking all of those steps that have made us so vulnerable to the pandemic.

Members of a Russian feminist movement march to mark International Women’s Day along a street in central St. Petersburg [File: Olga Maltseva/AFP]

Al Jazeera: Is the very idea that human rights mattered under attack?

2020 was a year in which we understood that the attack on the human rights of some becomes an affront to the human rights of all. Human rights have been attacked as an ideal for some years now, a number of governments insist that human rights are not important and that there are other values, such than national interests and sovereignty, which should dominate.

With this language, the whole world is sinking into the sewers. Because without global solidarity, you cannot fight a pandemic.

Al Jazeera: What challenges do new technologies pose for human rights?

The challenge we face as a human rights organization and as an international community is that there is a multiplicity of attacks on human rights and each of these attacks have a multiplicity of dimensions. The new industrial revolution may have positive aspects for the production of human rights, but it is a revolution that is progressing very quickly and we do not understand it very well.

Every month we see new attempts by a number of governments and companies to use artificial intelligence around facial recognition, the use of drones for police purposes, or murder. The proliferation of weapons is part of our environment and they are a major source of challenges for the protection of human rights.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam have been taken into custody after pleading guilty to charges relating to a protest outside police headquarters during anti-government protests last year. [File:Vincent Yu/AP]

Al Jazeera: What are the biggest challenges facing the Middle East region in terms of human rights violations?

The Middle East is a region that suffers the most, not only from the pandemic, but also from geostrategic considerations. It is a place much neglected by the international community, except for profit and military presence. It is the place where justice and accountability have not received the attention they deserve and where the international community has waged war, unable to think of a post-war scenario and support the search for justice.

The region is characterized by the multiplicity of regimes that suppress, stifle dissent and imprison all those who criticize the authorities. It is a place where conflicts between regional powers and superpowers take a heavy toll. We have seen situations probably resembling genocide with what Daesh [ISIL, or ISIS] did, crimes against humanity in Syria as well as war crimes in Yemen.

Al Jazeera: What has been the role of the United Nations this year and has it been effective in defending human rights?

The United Nations is a product of the Member States, and in 2020 the world did not act or think globally.

Multilateral instruments have not been able to meet the challenge. In the UN Security Council, even before 2020, we have regularly seen the use of the veto by countries preventing global action. So, for the moment, and as it has been revealed by 2020, the multilateral instruments are not suited to their purpose.

A view of a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece [File: Elias Marcou/Reuter]

Al Jazeera: You recently revealed that a Saudi official threatened you with death while you were working as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings. What does this say about the scope of rights violations?

He says some governments around the world, in my case Saudi Arabia, are ready to target and threaten an international expert appointed by member states to monitor the human rights situation. And they threaten her because she is doing her job. This means that there is no safe space, including the diplomatic one, although it is safer than many other spaces.

We face a world where governments are ready to silence and censor anyone who criticizes them, even those outside their own country’s borders. We are facing a world where governments are prepared to go out of territory to engage in acts of espionage that can lead to disappearances, to murders – as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi.

There is a proliferation of attempts by governments to silence anyone, no matter where they are, because what they are doing is a global phenomenon and that is one of the lessons we need to learn. . We need to be much more nimble to react to these situations and be much more aware of the fact that the targeting of individuals is more and more frequent, wherever they are.

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