2020 has been a year like no other in recent memory. The unprecedented threat from COVID-19 has caused unimaginable suffering around the world. This year also triggered a healthy and much needed discussion on the role of law enforcement in societies.  While the pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis, we must not lose sight of related challenges that are consequential for containing this threat and for promoting a rapid and sustainable recovery. The struggle to uphold the rule of law is one of them.

Where governments respond with an expanded role and the forceful presence of police and other security actors, challenges can emerge, including perceptions of bias, disproportionate use of force, and other human rights issues. There is also a risk that some states may utilize emergency powers to consolidate executive authority at the expense of the rule of law, suppressing dissent and undermining democratic institutions, especially where courts and other oversight bodies struggle to perform due to COVID-related restrictions.

Some countries have seen a sharp increase in arrests. This runs counter to the need to decongest prisons, which have suffered disproportionally high infection rates, both among inmates and staff, spreading to surrounding communities and potentially triggering violence.

The distribution of emergency aid, medical supplies, and economic stimuli provide ample opportunity for corruption and fraud. Without effective institutions that ensure transparency, accountability and oversight, much of it will not reach intended beneficiaries, deepening the social, medical and economic crisis and compromising and delaying recovery.  

The pandemic also provides opportunities for armed groups, including terrorist organizations, to discredit state institutions, exploit gaps in public services and capitalize on public outrage, for example over the closure of places of worship. As some security personnel face reduced operational capacity because of their unavoidable exposure to the virus and competing new responsibilities, some armed groups are consolidating and extending control over territory.

These challenges can severely undermine the legitimacy of governments, which is critical for effective mitigation and containment strategies during public health crises, as observed in some countries battling the 2018/19 Ebola outbreak. It is therefore in the interest of governments to ensure that emergency restrictions on rights are necessary, proportionate, legal and time bound.

The United Nations has reacted quickly to provide immediate assistance to national rule of law and security institutions. For example, it has expanded police training in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries in promoting a human rights-based approach to COVID-19 related tasks. Together with partners, we have also developed practical tools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, guidance to decongest prisons, and a manual for holding virtual court hearings. These materials are now being used around the globe.

This hands-on approach has resulted in improving the safety in prisons and the release of thousands of low-risks prisoners, including in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Guinea Bissau and South Sudan. Peacekeepers have distributed emergency medical supplies, including to beneficiaries of disarmament programmes and to populations affected by armed groups, for example in Darfur and Mali, helping to build confidence among warring factions.

When the pandemic wanes, we will offer our support to governments to undertake after action reviews, including of performance under emergency powers, to inform future practices and reform where appropriate. This might be particularly relevant for police sectors, where the UN has accumulated decades worth of international best practices. For example, we can help with improving community-police relations, aligning responsibilities of police and other state services to their respective strengths, and strengthening oversight and accountability mechanisms.

In the longer-term, the pandemic – as any crisis – may also offer opportunities.

In the criminal justice sector, for example, we should analyze the impact of practices developed in response to the pandemic on state budgets, communities and rehabilitation prospects with a view towards their institutionalization. This should include the potential release of non-violent prisoners, adjusting arrest and prosecution strategies and non-custodial sentencing. It should also include e-filing and virtual judicial hearings as possible. While presenting challenges to some fair trial rights, these practices can make justice systems more accessible and efficient. As the digital divide narrows, they can enhance access to justice in remote areas, increase legal representation and the participation of witnesses, clear backlogs and reduce pre-trial detention.

It is my hope that world leaders, as they discuss joint action to contain and overcome the pandemic, will consider the need to avoid enduring harm to rule of law principles and fundamental freedoms.

This will help to avoid aggravating social tensions, grievances and underlying causes of conflict – and preventing conflict is perhaps an imperative now more than ever, as prospects for large-scale investment in conflict management and post-conflict recovery fall victim to scarce resources. We are ready to help.