The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption of normal life. In Africa and the Middle East, swift and strict containment measures resulted in fewer recorded COVID-19 cases in these regions. However, questions have been raised over the validity of this data and the extent to which civil and economic rights were sacrificed for such lockdown and quarantine regulations. The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights highlighted the responses of Morocco, Jordan, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Iran as particularly troubling, with numerous allegations of uneven enforcement of lockdown measures, police brutality, and oppression of media and political opponents.
Even before these reports, the rule of law in African and Middle Eastern countries was largely unstable and fragile, with the majority of countries and jurisdictions in these two regions scoring below the global average in the WJP Rule of Law Index 2020. In fact, since 2015, 64% of countries and jurisdictions measured in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa declined in their overall rule of law score.1
A notable emerging trend is the disproportionate economic and health impact on rural communities, children, and women, who often lack access to basic public services and experience poor health infrastructure. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women in Africa were more likely than men to live in extreme poverty and work in informal sectors. According to a survey by UN Women and UNFPA, 60% of female respondents in East and Southern Africa lost all of their income or experienced reduced incomes since the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, there has been a significant increase in reports of gender-based violence in the region, yet lockdown measures have limited the availability of services to these victims. In a notable example, data from the UNFPA report shows that there was an incredible 775% increase in calls to national hotlines in Kenya from pre- to during COVID months.
To address these concerns, WJP virtually convened a group of regional experts and local changemakers on March 31 as part of its World Justice Challenge 2021: Advancing the Rule of Law in a Time of Crisis. Nathalie Delapalme, Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, began the panel discussion by setting the current rule of law stage, emphasizing that the organization's last governance Index showed trends of decay in the region over the last few years in almost all aspects of governance. While there were small improvements in anti-corruption, it is still the lowest sub-category, showing the region’s struggle to effectively implement accountability measures.
Maina Kiai, former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, highlighted a unique aspect of Africa's response to the COVID-19 pandemic—the securitization of the enforcement of COVID-19 measures. Many African countries have used police and military forces to ensure compliance with COVID-19 quarantine regulations, resulting in the abuse and harassment of civilians. In South Africa, within the first seven days of lockdown, security forces arrested more than 2,000 people for quarantine-related infractions, with that number reaching 230,000 by June 1. In Kenya and Nigeria, security forces reportedly used aggressive tactics, such as water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, leading to dozens of deaths of citizens by mid-2020. COVID-19 has also given states cover to shut down critics and opposition as well as the press, and with current emergency measures, civil society has few avenues left to express themselves.
Leslie Tsai, Director of Social Impact at the Chandler Foundation, discussed the dangers the COVID-19 pandemic posed to increased risks of corruption and less accountability. She emphasized that massive amounts of funds are being spent quickly at the expense of policies meant to curb corruption. For example, in South Africa, allegations of massive fraud led to investigations into almost $10 billion USD of funds, and in Uganda, an ambassador was recorded on a Zoom call attempting to pocket relief funds. While these situations portend a worrying trend, civil society organizations have come together to follow and track COVID relief spending to ensure that relief aid is getting to the people who most desperately need it.
Salaheddin Al-Bashir, founder of International Business Legal Associates (IBLAW) in Jordan, illustrated how COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities. Women and children withstood the worst of the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, as they were unable to access public services such as education, healthcare, and vaccines. Furthermore, with judiciaries not functioning or moved online, many were unable to access justice mechanisms. As Africa has had one of the lowest levels of internet penetration, Mr. Kiai echoed these concerns, and added that the switch to virtual life raises significant issues of privacy. Both emphasized that the state has been given enhanced powers to monitor digital footprints and gain access to previously restricted online information.
Moving on to solutions, the panelists echoed that a strong rule of law is key to any post-COVID-19 recovery. As part of its World Justice Challenge 2021, WJP has identified seven innovative projects as finalists from Africa and the Middle East that are working to ensure the region builds back better.
Protecting the Rights of the Most Vulnerable
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to what is known as the "shadow pandemic" of domestic and gender-based violence (GBV). Africa and the Middle East have seen daunting increases in reports of violence, yet many victim services have been shut down or deemed "non-essential." Using the power of artificial intelligence, AI for Good launched the "rAInbow" chatbot to deliver tailored conversations to those experiencing abuse and to act as a companion to support survivors on their difficult journey. "rAInbow" helps survivors understand and spot early signs of abuse, learn about their rights, and hear stories from other survivors. Since 2018, 20,000 women have used the device. The Lotus Flower in Iraq similarly turned to technology to provide online support for survivors of ISIS who were at high risk for gender-based violence. According to an assessment carried out in May 2020, 89% of females in their community experienced an increase in violence and 57% experienced increased sexual exploitation. The organization adapted to the new COVID-19 reality by shifting to remote delivery for their adult literacy classes, counselor and mental health appointments, and GBV and early marriage awareness sessions. The Lotus Flower’s program empowers young survivors to play a greater role in their community and stand up for their rights.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has also led to increased discrimination by state-actors. In Israel, the Arab community, which consists of 20% of the national population, faced discriminatory state policies that limited access to key health and economic resources. In response, Adalah pursued 40 legal cases and interventions and worked with state authorities to implement fairer and more equal policies. Adalah’s efforts resulted in the opening of COVID-19 testing centers in areas with Arab majority populations, information in Arabic on the health ministry website, expanded emergency food aid, and increased state funds to Arab communities. In Kenya, unequal enforcement of lockdown procedures led to the illegal detention, arrest, and harassment of women domestic workers. To address the vulnerabilities these women faced, to provide legal help, and to protect their rights, the Dhobi Network launched Inua Mama Fua in April 2020. The Network is in the process of developing a USSD platform that would allow these women to access essential services, such as justice hotlines, job opportunities, and counseling, and to better track and report cases of worker violations.
Ensuring Equal Access to Justice and Public Services
The ability of citizens to hold their governments accountable and express their frustrations is essential to the rule of law. However, both Africa and the Middle East have seen a decrease in government transparency, with a mere 16% of countries seeing an improvement in their open government factor scores in the WJP Rule of Law Index.2 In Uganda, in response to limited avenues for citizens to report inefficient services or corruption, SEMA created devices from which citizens could provide the government with direct feedback after interacting with a public service. During COVID-19, the organization expanded to cover these response services, engaging with almost 100,000 citizens. This data was used to inform recommendations for local authorities on how they could improve their facilities and services.
Over the last five years, both civil and criminal justice scores for the regions have improved in the WJP Rule of Law Index, albeit marginally.3 However, the pandemic-induced shutdown of judicial services threatens these small gains. All across the African continent, prisoners in overcrowded situations were left exposed to COVID-19 and lacked access to legal recourse. In Kenya and Uganda, prisons were holding three times their recommended capacity. In response, Justice Defenders was able to provide paralegal training and facilitate virtual court sessions to secure the release of 15,000 prisoners. In their neighboring country, Burundi Bridges to Justice (BBJ) faced a similar landscape, with prisons dramatically overpopulated and government-sponsored legal aid suspended. In partnership with the Ministry of Justice and the National Police, BBJ was one of the only organizations allowed to enter prisons during the pandemic to provide legal help and investigate allegations of torture and violations of due process. BBJ's efforts contributed to a 20% drop in the country’s pre-trial detention rate and reached four million individuals through their legal rights awareness campaigns.
You can read more about these inspiring projects on the World Justice Challenge website.
1 According to the WJP Rule of Law Index, since 2015, 16 countries and jurisdictions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa have declined in their overall score, while eight have improved and one saw no change.
2 Since 2015, only four countries and jurisdictions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa have seen an increase in their Factor 3: Open Government scores in the WJP Rule of Law Index.
3 Since 2015, the average score in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa for Civil Justice (Factor 7) has increased by 1.62%, while the average score for Criminal Justice (Factor 8) increased by 0.05% in the WJP Rule of Law Index.