Europe stands trembling as COVID-19 affects all sectors of our societies. The risks of the disease spreading come at a high price as the pandemic puts enormous pressure on the health care systems throughout the European continent. But the consequences of the crisis following the outbreak of COVID-19 cannot be counted in mere numbers of infections, deaths or its impact on the global economy. The crisis is also a threat to democracy and to the European Security Order.
The perception of a normal situation depends on and changes with the societal circumstances. Due to the ongoing pandemic, some restrictions of our everyday lives that would have appeared bizarre otherwise is now necessary to hinder any further spread of the disease and therefore considered as part of the new normal. But adjusting to the new situation does not imply that we should set democratic principles aside and let the Security Order be trampled on.
If permanent and pervasive measures are adopted in times of crisis, risks are that the world we return to after the crisis is less democratic than we are used to.
The European Security Order, as it is stipulated in the Helsinki Final Act from 1975, is based on principles of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and emphasizes the importance of territorial integrity and sovereign equality.
The declaration, which was signed by the nations of Europe, the US, UK, Canada, and the Soviet Union, acknowledges that conflicts should be settled in a peaceful way, that people have equal rights and that they are free to determine the political status of their country without interference.
Due to COVID-19, principles of the Helsinki Final Act are put to the test as countries are forced to take measures to deal with the virus. European countries have put restrictions on the freedom of assembly and increased surveillance of its citizens.
The separation of powers has been set aside in favour of the governments in order to act forcefully in response to the crisis, and national elections have been postponed to hinder the virus spreading. Basically, coronavirus and the related crisis has put the democratic based world order under pressure.
It is no secret that authoritarian leaders often take advantage of emergencies – whether they be wars, natural disasters, terrorist attacks or in this case, a pandemic. Cases of this opportunistic approach have already been demonstrated in Europe, as leaders in Hungary and Poland have used COVID-19 as a pretext to strengthen their authorities.
Russia shows another prominent example; while most of the world and the Russian population were occupied with the coronavirus pandemic, proposed amendments to the Russian constitution which allows for President Vladimir Putin to rule the country until 2036 were approved by the Constitutional Court and adopted by the State Duma.
The European Security Order was brought under intense pressure when Russia illegally annexed the Crimea peninsula, hence sidelining the principles of respect for territorial integrity. The response to the deployment of Putin’s “little green men” (Russian special troops) from the international community was clear: the actions that were taken by Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine were illegal and must be condemned.
Looking back, it is clear that the efforts to monitor the conflict and to call attention to Russia’s violation of the principles of territorial integrity and sovereign equality have been crucial to hinder any further attempts to gain ground in Lugansk and Donetsk. Essentially, what the international community pointed out in 2014, was that the European Security Order must be protected.
Armed conflicts in Europe continue, despite the ongoing pandemic. Regrettably, less attention is brought to the conflict areas as news agencies, politicians and international organisations are occupied with COVID-19 and the measure related to the pandemic. As a result of this, conflicts are at risk of growing uncontrollable while the humanitarian situation in the conflict areas is worsening significantly. The efforts taken by OSCE and the UN to demand a ceasefire and to promote peace in eastern Ukraine must, therefore, continue during these challenging times.
Protecting the European Security Order is a matter of guarding the principles and values crucial to our political system and everyday life. The international co-operation, the efforts to end conflicts and the important strivings to promote human rights must proceed. Measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus, nationally as well as internationally, must be well-considered and, like the Helsinki Final Act, be based on fundamental human rights. The international community must act to protect the Security Order in every case where the pandemic is used as a pretext to deprive people of their rights.
Fighting the pandemic is now naturally a fundamental part of what we now regard as a normal, yet exceptional, situation. The exceptional situation does not, however, imply that principles of territorial integrity, human rights and fundamental freedoms could be overridden. The word echoing from 2014 applies today as well: the European Security Order must be protected.
Protecting the Security Order in times of crisis is ultimately about protecting the world we are to return to once the crisis is over.