Two 2Ls Help Create ‘Civic Freedom Tracker’ Reporting on Worldwide COVID-19 Responses

April 7, 2020

When Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin reached out to her research assistants and asked who would be interested in helping to develop a worldwide tracker of governmental responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, 2Ls Abby Oakland and Seiko Shastri jumped at the opportunity.

Launched last month, the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker was designed to ensure governments are held accountable for how they use the extraordinary powers that many have been granted to deal with the current health crisis. A product of a collaborative effort by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), the tracker was built with the support of Ní Aoláin in her capacity as U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. 

Governments can use a crisis as a pretext to infringe rights, observes Ní Aoláin in explaining the need for the tracker. “States and security sector institutions will find emergency powers attractive because they offer shortcuts,” and such powers will, therefore, tend to “persist and become permanent.” 

The tracker, which will be updated regularly, aims to bring transparency to the worldwide resort to extraordinary powers to deal with the pandemic.  

Keeping Track of Government Power
After Oakland and Shastri volunteered for the project, Ní Aoláin connected them with the two NGOs, which immediately deployed them in doing the research necessary to keep the tracker up to date.

“We researched actions taken by governments around the globe and tracked down primary sources and media reports on the measures,” Oakland says. “We then entered and updated changing information into a collective database, which was and is being used to create the public-facing global tracker.”

The students track down information on the measures different countries have adopted through sources such as government websites and news articles. They then summarize these actions so that they can be shared on the online tracker. They work with Elly Page, a legal advisor at ICNL, to coordinate information going into the tracker.

Shastri soon began noticing significant differences in approaches that governments are taking. “Some country leaders have made executive proclamations and decrees that restrict certain human rights in an effort to stem the virus in their countries, while other countries have passed emergency laws. Some countries have even notified international human rights treaty partners of their intention to derogate from their responsibilities.”

The students believe the tracker has a crucial role to play in protecting human rights at a time when governments are taking on sweeping powers to deal with the COVID-19 situation.

“The tracker is an important tool to track the real-time variations in government responses to the crisis, particularly in how state actions implicate human rights issues,” Shastri explains. “It will also be valuable in the future to evaluate the extent to which states reaffirm their human rights responsibilities or use their emergency powers as an excuse to suspend these duties.”

Oakland calls the tracker “an important first step” in monitoring, evaluating, and responding to governmental actions designed to combat the pandemic. “Emergency measures, while sometimes necessary, are a challenging space for human rights protections,” she says. “Understanding the scope and impacts of these measures will play an important part in allowing human rights mechanisms and defenders to hold governments accountable to complying with their human rights obligations. The tracker specifically allows for parties to view real-time information on the measures taken by particular governments.”

A Great Learning Experience
Shastri and Oakland are grateful to Ní Aoláin for connecting them with the project and supporting their efforts to help make the tracker’s launch successful.

The connection to the NGOs and information provided by Ní Aoláin played an essential role in ensuring that the students could contribute in a meaningful way to the effort, says Oakland, who would like to one day practice international law. “Professor Ní Aoláin has a particularly insightful view of governmental actions and their potential long-term impacts on human rights.”

Shastri, who intends to pursue a public interest career focused on human rights, says while it’s “always a pleasure working with Professor Ní Aoláin,” this project in particular has proved a great learning experience because it is fast-paced and constantly evolving as different governments change their approaches to containing COVID-19.

“It has also been a great way to feel engaged and helpful in some way at a time when legal knowledge does not feel particularly useful for tackling the current public health crisis,” Shastri adds. 

-By Mark A. Cohen

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Abby Oakland and Seiko Shastri, 2Ls
Abby Oakland and Seiko Shastri, 2Ls

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