States of emergency stress-testing democracy, OSCE parliamentarians hear in COVID-focused webinar

COPENHAGEN, 8 May 2020 – More than 50 members of parliament from across the OSCE region participated in an online discussion today focused on the human rights consequences and democratic challenges posed by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some two-thirds of OSCE countries have put in place states of emergency or other extraordinary measures, which often enable curbs on rights and can result in limitations on parliamentary oversight. The webinar encouraged participants to address the question of ‘Respecting human rights and maintaining democratic control during states of emergency’, with parliamentarians from more than 30 countries attending the online event.

In welcoming participants to the discussion, Kyriakos Hadjiyianni (MP, Cyprus), Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights committee, noted the complexity of current challenges. “We must address the health of our population without forgetting the health of our democratic systems,” he said, acknowledging that some agreed measures challenge basic aspects of parliamentarism.

GisladottirThe Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ingibjorg Gisladottir, and the President of Freedom House, Michael Abramowitz, introduced a number of aspects for discussion by the parliamentarians.

Gisladottir noted that while the crisis is exposing and widening the pre-existing cracks that have been weakening democracies for years, a number of parliaments across the OSCE region have proven able to adapt quickly and respond effectively to the pandemic. “Their actions and flexibility in reshaping their work, amending regulations and embracing new technologies, playing their vital oversight role through special committees or parliamentary enquiries, and boosting transparency and inclusive representation, all teaches us how parliaments can perform a key role in addressing today’s crisis and upholding democratic principles,” she said.

A range of practical examples adopted by parliaments to ensure their continued effectiveness were presented by MPs, who took the opportunity to share their countries’ approaches.

Several speakers reiterated the general standards that apply to emergency restrictions: being limited to the situation and being proportionate; being consistent with other legal obligations; and being non-discriminatory in nature. The importance of emergency measures being limited in duration was also underlined.

“This is not a time to make dramatic permanent changes limiting the rights of individuals,” stressed Abramowitz, who particularly highlighted concerns related to violations of freedom of expression, the holding of elections, and surveillance. “With the functioning of parliaments limited, and the ability of political actors to campaign and engage less than the normal times, it is inappropriate to take permanent steps criminalizing false information or permanent changes to laws on assembly.”

Participants noted that some limited restrictions on rights, such as freedom of assembly, were understandable given the requirements of social distancing. However, several parliamentarians raised the danger of abuse of extraordinary powers by governments. The powers of the parliamentary minority to provide oversight must be protected particularly under these circumstances, it was stressed.

Freedom of expression was raised as being particularly vulnerable during states of emergency, and the criminalization of ‘false information’ in some OSCE countries was highlighted as being of concern. Parliamentarians also stressed civil society’s continued role as a watchdog as necessary under current circumstances.

HenriksenKari HenriksenOSCE PA Vice-President and Rapporteur of the human rights committee Kari Henriksen (MP, Norway) closed the webinar with remarks focusing on messages of hope, stressing that after the coronavirus crisis, there will be opportunities to strengthen democracies. Societies must move forward with a focus on how to rebuild with increased respect for human rights to ensure they are more sustainable and can better address future crises, she said.

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli (MP, Georgia) welcomed participants to the event, which included parliamentarians and staff from Albania, Andorra, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a range of OSCE experts and others.

The webinar was the second in a series of Parliamentary Web Dialogues planned by the OSCE PA, with more to come in the coming months focused on various aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. It was moderated by OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

For photos of the event, please click here.

Video of the event is available here.

For more on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, please click here.



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

Office: +45 33 37 80 55
Mobile: +45 60 10 81 77
Email: [email protected]

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