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COVID-19 Dispatch: Kenneth Roth Talks The Rise of Autocracy During the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has caused a variety of problems, one of which is increasing authoritarianism. Room for Discussion interviewed Kenneth Roth about how Covid-19 has created increasing opportunities for authoritarianism in many countries, focusing on the rise of autocracy in Hungary. Roth is currently the executive director of the Human Rights Watch, a renowned international human rights organisation, and has worked against and written extensively about human rights abuses globally.


The discussion began by exploring how Covid-19 has caused logistical challenges for the Human Rights Watch. Since their work mostly involves being physically present at scenes of human rights abuses and collecting evidence, Covid-19 and lockdown orders made it much harder to collect evidence and coordinate efforts. To resolve this, they are using virtual modes of monitoring, such as through emails, phone calls, satellite imagery and open source investigations (social media).


However, Roth mentioned that the greatest challenge to human rights resulting from Covid-19 is that governments are using the pandemic to further marginalise its people, silence their critics and overall become more autocratic. In times of such crisis, governments justify their use of autocratic rule by arguing that a ‘strongman’ is needed to forcefully guide the country to safety. However, the Human Rights Watch aims to discredit this argument by highlighting how such governments are misusing the pandemic to serve their own political needs and thereby cause many human rights abuses. It uses three main mechanisms to achieve its goals: investigate, expose and change.


The conversation then shifted to the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, Viktor Orbàn, the Prime Minister of Hungary, had secured a majority in parliament by manipulating elections, and worked to silence independent media, civil society and academics. He then used the pandemic to declare a state of emergency, thereby allowing him to rule by executive order, and pushed the elections indefinitely. Even though he later ended the state of emergency, he passed legislation that would essentially allow him to declare a ‘medical emergency’ at any time. He has also used the pandemic as a cover to pass extremely homophobic laws. For example, he passed a law where transgender people could no longer register their gender and name, even though this has nothing to do with the virus. Roth believes that this is an attempt by Orbàn to appease his predominantly conservative base. Governments have also passed laws to punish the spread of false information regarding the coronavirus, and some have used this to unfairly imprison its critics.


He then went on to further explore the myth that democracies are ill-equipped to handle such crises, and that an autocrat would be more successful. He mentioned that this myth may be easy to believe because democracies can be quite messy, and on paper it seems that autocrats could quickly pass regulations and force people to cooperate. However, Roth disproves this myth by stating that autocrats mostly use their power for their own benefit, and the people’s health and rights even during a pandemic would only be secondary. For example, Orbàn told hospitals in Hungary to empty 60% of their beds to make room for Covid-19 patients. No provisions were made for the patients who were forced to go home and many of them died as a result. This shows how Orbàn only cares about Hungary’s coronavirus statistics and looking successful against the virus, and not about the actual patients. He also mentioned that even when democracies have insensible leaders, such as Donald Trump, there is allowance for independent courts, legislators, civil society and media to fight back and correct such bad leadership, when they would be otherwise silenced in an autocracy.


The conversation then moved on to the role and responsibility of the European Union (EU) in dealing with Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism. He believes that the EU has a great responsibility in upholding the democracy of its member states, that it is currently failing to fulfil. Although the EU is excellent at vetting the standards of democracy in a country that is applying for membership, it is terrible at enforcing these same standards once a country is a member.


For example, the European People’s Party (EPP) in the EU parliament only recently suspended Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, after pressure from the Human Rights Watch. However, the EPP is still reluctant to expel it, despite Hungary’s clear disregard for the EU’s standards of democracy. Roth believes that this is because of internal politics, as the centre-right does not currently have much power and sees itself challenged by the growing centre-left. Therefore, it does not want to expel Fidesz as it may lose votes in the EU parliament.


There are also concerns that the EU is essentially bankrolling Orbàn’s government through its budget. The Human Rights Watch has put pressure on the EU to reduce the subsidising of Hungry with the new budget, in order to act as an economic sanction as long as Hungary continues to be autocratic. In addition to putting pressure on the EU to hold Hungary accountable, the Human Rights Watch also intends to use its large platform to expose the autocracy in Hungary and increase pressure on its government, as most governments care about their public perception.


Roth believes that if the EU does not keep Hungary in check, other countries who already have more centre-right leaders, such as Poland, may begin to embrace autocracy.


The discussion then shifted to what the future will look like. Roth related how the EU’s foreign policy is changing, as they released a joint statement critiquing the U.S. for attacking the International Criminal Court (ICC), even though Hungary had not signed onto it. He hopes that the EU will apply these changing practices to its internal policies as well, and hold Hungary accountable for its actions. In addition to this, Roth stated that the U.S, under Donald Trump, is no longer a pioneer of human rights, and the other world power, China, is becoming more assertive in international relations. Therefore, he concluded that it is now up to other countries and groups to stand up for human rights and democracy all over the world.


If you would like to watch the original interview you can find it here. If you would like to read more reviews of Room for Discussion interviews done by Rostra, you can check out our Room for Discussion section.

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