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The State of Exception during the Pandemic | Human Rights between Reality and Consequences
Ziad Hmaidan 
22، Jun 2021


The current corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic overshadowed the daily lives of individuals and threatened the economic, social, cultural integrity of entire States and communities. In the history of humanity, and its by-products, COVID-19 is the first pandemic that has forced a halt in activity, thwarted initiatives, and brought the contemporary world to standstill. 

Download: The State of Exception during the Pandemic  Human Rights between Reality and Consequences (Arabic)


Against this backdrop, an examination of the pandemic and its grave consequences on human rights, as a major guarantee of human existence and dignity, is absolutely necessary. It manifests itself to any human rights researcher, activist, or defender if they wish to be an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense. 

The focus of this paper is on the political and legal effects of COVID-19 on human rights. It intersects with economic, social and cultural dimensions as areas that reflect human rights. There can be no question of human rights beyond these three dimensions, which provide a standard to measure the applicability and respect for “human rights” on the ground. Based on this interrelationship, objectivity requires that the link between these dimensions be exposed. Changes caused by new consequences to prohibited and permitted acts in the day-to-day lives of individuals are also taken into account. 

To examine and analyse the validity of its hypotheses, this research paper consists of the following components: 

  1. Chapter 1 presents on the socio-historical contexts, in which human rights abuses have been mainstreamed or globalised. 
  2. Chapter 2 addresses the link between COVID-19 in a public space and State domination over citizens’ private and public lives. 
  3. Chapter 3 explores the relationship between biopolitics and man’s return to the cave and law of the jungle. 
  4. Chapter 4 discusses the link between COVID-19 and the human rights situation within the context of the State authority and community reaction. 

Research problem 

Within the framework of the humanity of man and human rights during the pandemic, this research paper questions and compares the perceptions and principles, on which laws are premised, with the reality taking place on the ground. The latter is the key criterion to test the validity and credibility of theory and ideology, which may rise above the status quoto reshape the awareness of that reality. To this end, it portrays a different picture from the meaning of its reasons and composition of its elements. 

Based on the questioning of the new COVID-19 reality in relation to human rights, research questions are divided into four main components that represent different, but at the same time overlapping and integrated, aspects to understand and explain the research problem. 

  1. In what socio-historical contexts are human rights suspended or violated internationally? 
    • Can a globalised suspension or abuse of human rights and freedoms during the pandemic be viewed as circumstantial? Can laws, rights, and freedoms then return to normality?  
  2. How has the State used COVID-19 as a mechanism to restore its domination and ability to exercise its near-absolute authority?
  3. How has the pandemic been politically used to undermine human rights, freedoms, and dignity? 
    • How has biopolitics brought man back to the cave and law of the jungle? 
    • How has the immoral management of the COVID-19 crisis verged on racism? 
  4. What social representations and positions have been produced by the COVID-19 situation towards the State agency? 
    • How have panic and uncertainty divulged selfish and immoral positions and behaviours by individuals in different countries around the world? 
    • How have panic and distrust affected international relations and laws and driven each State to become self-absorbed within their own national borders? 

The main research hypothesis is grounded in independent, dependent, and intermediate variables. Relations between variables are approached and investigated by deconstructing interlinked elements into secondary hypotheses. 

Research hypothesis 

Due to its circumstantial nature, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only put rights and freedoms on hold, but it has also led to an open and systematic violation of human rights that has bolstered the State authority. While the international system has been in limbo in terms of exercising or complying with the International Bill of Human Rights; the pandemic has exposed the structural imbalances and lack of an effective and non-politicised mechanism to ensure compliance with International Law. 

Theoretical and methodological approach 

Theoretical approach 

In the context of available field data and some short-term projections, two main concepts help deconstruct and analyse the research problem, namely the “state of exception” of Giorgio Agamben and “biopolitics” of Michel Foucault. These are central to understanding and accounting for the changes that have affected, or rather intended to affect, social representations of the structure of the “pandemic elements”. This structure has been utilised to justify every breach or violation of human rights principles. As a cornerstone of this research paper, an investigation of human rights principles necessarily requires that they be linked to the concept of the “State”. One cannot speak of these principles beyond the scope of the State, which legalises them in relevant constitutions and legislation. Thanks to human rights principles, the State gains legitimacy to exercise its authority. The State intended in this research paper is that of the “neoliberal”. 

Methodological approach 

In its political, legal, health, and psychological dimensions, the COVID-19 pandemic requires a multidimensional approach, involving a historical methodology with a view towards monitoring the forms and motivations for human rights abuses. A comparison is also maintained to precisely identify the characteristics of this phenomenon and gauge how distinctive its context is in relation to the pandemic. Certain political, psychological, and psychosocial disciplines also inform the analysis of documents and news of a scientific and ideological nature. In connection with International Law and human rights discourse, reference is made to this input in order to provide the needed field and documentary data for the purpose of this research. 

Research findings 

By deconstructing and analysing correlations between variables of the research hypotheses, the research paper establishes that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the following: 

  • The relationship between the State and its citizens has seen an abrupt shift. The State has used the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen its authority over, and interference in, minute details of citizens’ daily lives. To this end, intermediate variables have been used as a means to intimidate and force citizens to abandon their rights so that the State protects public health and safety. 
  • The fact that the State has employed scientific discourse and had privileged access to information has played a role in intimidating citizens. The State’s ideology has prevailed over opposing, including religious and confessional, ideologies. Using the fear instilled by the World Health Organisation and subsequently by the State institutions through mass and social media, uncertainty and intimidation have been employed as a weapon to cripple opponents and seize their rights. 
  • The negative impacts of COVID-19 have unveiled how vulnerable the social representations of human rights are among countries around the world, as well as among the general public at a global level. Reducing the impact of the global pandemic can only take place through international engagement approving the needed resolutions and response measures. Ideally, this requires the sharing of information, know-how, expertise, cooperation between States, consolidated coordination by means of new collaborative laws, and provision of assistance by the rich to the poor. In reality, however, international relations in response to the pandemic have resulted in other scenarios. Some States have impinged on international laws and conventions on the export and import of medical supplies. Some robbed medical cargo on aircraft in transit to other destinations. The drive by States to rethink their sovereign strategies forewarns that the world is heading towards a profound strategic transformation in power relations between States. 
  • The sanctity of human life and rights is compromised in favour of the priority given to the protection of the economy. An extensive set of fundamental human rights have been abrogated during the pandemic as a state of exception. It has been publicly announced that States would not be held responsible for these rights for fear of economic collapse. 
  • At a global scale, decline has affected both the State and society. The pandemic has laid bare the illusion of scientific and technological supremacy as well as deep-rooted problems affecting the human rights movement and discourse from a liberal perspective. 
  • The pandemic raises significant concerns for the future. These are the result of, inter alia, the adoption of serious biopolitical approaches by States that advocates for human rights. This is a negative indicator of the post-pandemic situation with regard to rights and law. It also reflects the vulnerability of the “international community”, which has engaged in negative competition, as every State has been self-absorbed within its own national borders. 
  • The ability of the human rights movement to act continues to be controlled by the neoliberal political, economic, social and cultural limits. At a global level, the human rights movement and discourse should overcome neoliberal interests by engaging in the liberation struggle of communities. Without a more radical and serious performance, human rights will remain a phenomenon that is confined to a linguistic or vocal discourse. The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath may give rise to economic trends and systems, which need to be seriously defied. The challenge will be to adopt human rights through post-pandemic norms, which rise above many economic and political considerations. 

The “anti-globalisation movement” has provided an open space for the human rights discourse to reproduce tools and redefine its position in social and political practice and thought. However, as the movement has dwindled, the lack of real pillars of human rights, has neither allowed a serious debate over, nor opened a new horizon for, this predicament. Such debate would address a current question that has become more problematic than ever before: Beyond present perceptions of the State institution, can a new approach be devised in the context of the dichotomy of rights and obligations without relapsing into a regime of authoritarianism and totalitarianism? Given this significant and unique human lesson, what changes should be made by human rights defenders at the level of practice and discourse?