When we give politicians permission to govern, we want them to do what’s best for all of us. In the coming months our communities will be navigating their way through the coronavirus pandemic. We expect governments to use the powers we've loaned them to keep us safe and give everyone the support they need. Sometimes our governments have to ask the public to temporarily press pause on some of our freedoms. This can only happen when the public is in a lot of danger. It's referred to as a 'state of emergency'.
What kinds of freedoms are we talking about?
We're social people. We like to travel, move around, meet friends and family, go to concerts, sports events, church or work. And that's why we have a human right to 'free movement' and to 'assembly'. But if we use these freedoms to meet in large groups during a time when there's a dangerous virus, we can end up helping it spread.
All of us also want our own personal space. We use it to exchange opinions, read the news or go places knowing that no one is watching us. That's why we have the right to privacy - it allows us to keep personal information to ourselves. Everyone uses the internet and has mobile phones. So we leave a lot of information about our lives online. Many governments want to get hold of this personal information and use it to keep track of who is infected, where they've been, and whether people are staying home.
What's the problem?
Sometimes, governments go too far in limiting our freedoms or they keep those restrictions in place for longer than they need to. We saw this after terrorist attacks in Europe a few years ago. Many governments gave security forces powers to spy on us, ban protests and search and arrest people without evidence. A lot of these limits on our freedoms are still in place. And in the end, none of these powers were actually any good at helping to prevent or punish terrorism.
Today, many EU governments are taking our personal information to track where we go or how we are feeling. This could be OK, if the information is only used to fight coronavirus, if it is deleted after a short time, and if it isn't collected anymore after the pandemic stops. That would keep the invasion of our personal lives to a minimum and it could help to save people. But some governments in the EU are just asking phone companies to hand over all the information they have about us without any of these safety limits. We don't know how long they will keep this information, what they will use it for in future, and if they will ever stop collecting it.
Many governments, such as the British, Italian and French, have also passed laws that allow the police to lock people up if they gather in public or are suspected of carrying the virus. In the UK these powers will stay in place for two years. That is probably a lot longer than they are actually needed. In Italy and France these powers have to be reactivated every few weeks or months.
How we do get our freedoms back?
Imagine a new law that allowed the police to take your car so they can deliver life-saving medicines. You'd probably be happy to help. But wouldn't you want a guarantee you'd get your car back as soon as possible? And a guarantee that the police can't use your car for something else, like going on a trip to the seaside? You'd also probably want to know that there is an independent judge you can turn to, to make sure of these things. It's the same for our liberties, like privacy or our ability to move around or meet other people.
This is why we have a human right to independent courts. It is their job to check up on governments when they restrict our freedoms. Judges make sure our leaders don't take more from us than they really need to. They also make sure that we get our liberties back as soon as governments don't need them anymore. And the same is true about our representatives in parliament. We have a human right to choose parliamentarians by voting in elections. And it is their job to make sure that ministers don't take away too many freedoms or for too long. In later articles, we'll explain how we also rely on independent journalists and on rights and democracy activists to make sure ministers don't misuse the powers they have.
In countries like Hungary, that don't have independent courts or fair elections or where the government controls most of the media and attacks activists, it is harder to use our rights to get our freedoms back. The Hungarian government seems to be using coronavirus as an excuse to take further steps towards creating a dictatorship. For example, Prime Minister Orban wants to pass a law that would allow the government to imprison journalists who criticise the government. Unfortunately, the European Union isn't doing much to protect democracy there. This is why it's important for all of us to understand, use and hold on to the rights and freedoms we have.