Pandemics are no excuse to just forget about human rights

If one national institution is permitted to violate the fundamental human rights of any one minority group… it inevitably follows that all the others will start doing the same thing, too. And in fact, this is already happening

Ever get the feeling that – whenever calamity or catastrophe strikes – some people will always try and use it to justify doing what they all along intended to do anyway? (And which, in most cases, will have very little to do with the catastrophe in question?)

One obvious example would be how the tragedy of September 11, 2001 – in which over 3,000 people lost their lives in a terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre – ended up becoming a pretext for America and Britain to invade Iraq.

There were, of course, other arguments used to justify that war at the time: such as the claim (later proven to be unfounded) that Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’, etc.

But looking back on that episode all these years later – and it’s a worthwhile exercise, by the way: for, then as now, there was a similar pervasive feeling that ‘the world had changed forever’ - it clearly emerges that there was one factor, above all others, that enabled a military intervention that would otherwise have been universally condemned as ‘illegal’.

And that was the widespread sense of fear and disorientation caused by the carnage of 9/11… a fear that was exploited by governments (not just across the Atlantic, but all over Europe too) for all sorts of other dubious purposes: including ramping up surveillance measures across the board; and generally empowering States to intrude upon the privacy of their citizens in ways that – under normal circumstances – we wouldn’t accept without a fight.

From that perspective, it should come as no real surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic is having entirely analogous effects today. Call me paranoid, if you will (I’m a Black Sabbath fan anyway, so I’ll take it as a compliment)… but I find it disconcerting that so many people are now openly clamouring for the mandatory imposition of even more intrusive surveillance techniques than the ones associated with 9/11.

Like ‘location-tracking apps’, for instance: which use people’s smartphones to pinpoint their exact whereabouts, at all times, and convey the information to the health authorities (for our own benefit, naturally).

Don’t get me wrong: I can well understand how that sort of thing could indeed be useful when it comes to contact-tracing for those who tested positive for the virus… or even to apprehend those who defy health and safety regulations, thereby endangering everyone else.

What these arguments overlook, however, is that such measures have a tendency to outlive the immediacy of the crisis itself. I have no idea how long this pandemic is going to last – it could be months, but it could also be years – but I do know that, like every other pandemic before it, it will eventually come to an end.

Can the same truly be said for any ‘emergency measure’ we introduce today? Once this crisis is over, and the immediate need for surveillance is no longer so urgent… can we safely predict that governments will voluntarily relinquish all the extra powers we might unwisely confer upon them now, in our current state of collective fear and anxiety?

I don’t think so, myself. On the contrary, I rather suspect that – just like we all accepted to be fingerprinted for the purpose of ‘biometric passports’, back in 2006 – we will likewise all come round to accepting a new ‘post-COVID-19’ reality… i.e, that of governments using ‘smart technology’ to literally track our every movement and every social interaction… and who knows? One day, perhaps even our every private, innermost thought (as, after all, was predicted by so many dystopian novels in the past: look under ‘Orwell, George’ for further details).

For the present, however, there are other ways in which the pandemic is being used to justify violations of basic human rights. And I’ll limit myself to just one example for now.

You may already be aware that members of the local Serbian community – whose children face possible deportation, depending on the outcome of their appeals with the immigration authorities - have received letters at home, informing them that:

“As a result of the current COVID-19 situation, the proceedings of the [Immigration Appeals Board] have been indefinitely suspended […] you are requested to make arrangements in order that you may depart from Malta as soon as possible.”

You will probably also know that this prompted a public outcry: following which, the Home Affairs Ministry stepped in to correct what it described as a ‘mistake’ made by Identity Malta.

In the words of Parliamentary secretary Alex Muscat: “Following the COVID-19 outbreak in Malta, the proceedings of the Immigration Appeals Board have been suspended. In view of this, Identity Malta has decided not to extend the interim permit of third-country nationals who are staying in Malta only to await the outcome of their appeal. However, this does not apply to minors whose parents are both authorised to reside in Malta, and hence the letters mentioned in the article should not have been sent.”

And there you have it: government has acknowledged that Identity Malta was ‘wrong’ to send out those letters; therefore, those Serbian children are no longer in any imminent danger of being forced to leave the country.

So the problem’s been solved, right? Um… not exactly, no. For there was more than one ‘mistake’ involved in this issue: and the most serious one by far has nothing to do with any bureaucratic slip-up (unintentional or otherwise) by Identity Malta.

The real problem lies in the first sentence: both of the original letter, and the government’s response: i..e., that the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an pretext to simply suspend the Immigration Appeals Board altogether… and with it, the right to judicial review of any sentence or decision taken by the immigration authorities.

And this is, in a word, illegal: not just because the right to judicial review is a fundamental human right in itself… but also because it is a necessary component of ‘the rule of law’ (over which we have already been subjected to so much international criticism in recent years).

As such, it cannot be so lightly cast aside, for any reason whatsoever… still less, on the pretext of a national health emergency that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impact the functionality of the Immigration Appeals Board in any meaningful way.

To illustrate that last point: the same ‘smart technology’ that permits our governments to spy on us, also allows for such things as ‘tribunal sessions’ to be held on any of literally dozens of available digital platforms (eg., Skype, Zoom, etc).

Ironically, this is even acknowledged by Identity Malta itself: which, in that same letter, also specifies that: “The Board may use electronic means, or other viable means of communication, in order to give opportunity to appellants not present in Malta to testify…”

You don’t exactly have to be a software engineer to realise that, if the Board is technologically capable of hearing the testimony of people in other countries (through ‘electronic means’, etc.)… well, it should be just as capable of hearing them testify today, through the same channels, while they are still in Malta.

But no: rather than doing what so many other institutions have already been forced to do (e.g., University, and all schools), and adapt to the crisis through the use of digital technology… Identity Malta chose to simply scrap its appeals board altogether: at a time, I might add, when the law-courts are also closed… which leaves the subjects of all that institution’s decisions with no right of legal recourse whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the government’s ‘correction’ doesn’t actually rectify that situation at all. For even if the immediate question concerning those particular Serbian families has now been resolved… the underlying problem still persists (and has even been confirmed by the Home Affairs Ministry).

It’s right there, in Alex Muscat’s own statement: “Identity Malta has decided not to extend the interim permit of third-country nationals who are staying in Malta only to await the outcome of their appeal”.

Sorry, but that is simply not a decision Identity Malta is legally entitled to take: pandemic, or no pandemic. Because if one national institution is permitted to violate the fundamental human rights of any one minority group… it inevitably follows that all the others will start doing the same thing, too.

And in fact, this is already happening. Even as I write, a very similar controversy is unfolding within the Planning Authority: which at first likewise suspended all its board meetings… but then (after public outcry) chose to resume its board meetings via video-conferencing.

By an extraordinary coincidence, however, it was only the PA’s main Planning Board – i.e., the one that decides on whether or not to issue planning permits – that availed of what digital technology has to offer, in order to keep up its activities as usual.

The PA’s Appeals Board, on the other hand (you know, the one that gives us all the right to challenge any decisions already taken by the authority) has for some arcane reason - just like its immigration equivalent - been ‘suspended indefinitely’.

As a result, the Planning Authority has reserved for itself the right to continue simply churning out building permits in record-breaking numbers… but at the same time, it has denied everyone else the right to contest any of its decisions, in any form of official tribunal.

And its justification? COVID-19, of course: a virus which somehow only impedes the PA’s Appeals Board from functioning… while the main decision-making body remains entirely unaffected (for at the risk of repetition, or overlabouring the obvious… if the Planning Board can still meet to decide on permits, there is no reason under the sun why the Appeals Board can’t do the same.)

So as you can see, it’s not just Serbians or other minorities who are being targeted. Whether we like it or not – indeed, whether we even realise it or not – the COVID-19 pandemic is being exploited, as we speak, to curtail all of our basic human rights.

But like I said earlier: that’s just me, and I’m probably paranoid anyway…

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