The outbreak of COVID-19 is proving to be an unprecedented global crisis which is causing virtually all public institutions and authorities to respond and to act. Our experience with the Human Rights and Gender Equality Network of Committees in the Western Balkan (HUGEN) shows that parliaments are no exception as they employ their capacities to continue to function during this crisis and at the same time maintain their positions as cornerstones of democracy.
HUGEN project prepared a second report that presents how eight parliaments from the region continued to respond to the COVID-19, after the initial period when the first COVID-19 cases were registered and strict measures and restrictions were imposed in Western Balkans. Compared to April and May, parliaments were able to continue as much as possible with their ordinary activities. Following the almost complete suspension of parliamentary work in March and April, all eight parliaments subsequently organised regular plenary and committee sessions. Some parliaments even organised special oversight activities related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Oversight hearings, ad hoc committees, field visits, official committee meetings with representatives from independent institutions and competent ministries, and requests for information related to the impact of COVID-19 on a variety of human rights suddenly started to be a big part of the parliamentary response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
This period also proved that parliaments are in the position to pass or amend important legislation during times of crisis. For instance, the Parliament of Montenegro adopted the Law on Same-sex Life Partnerships (a first in the Western Balkans), the Parliament of Albania amended the Criminal Code to, among other things, increase prison sentences for domestic violence cases, while the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo adopted the Law on Preventing and Combating the COVID-19 Pandemic which included important mechanisms for successfully managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, the second report also recorded that in two instances relevant governmental decisions were not in line with constitutions or ratified international treaties. The Constitutional Court of Montenegro declared that a decision to publish a list of all persons subject to self-isolation violated the constitutional right to privacy. The Constitutional Court of Serbia annulled a government decision which could have authorised double punishment in both criminal and misdemeanour proceedings for the same violation of the restriction on freedom of movement.
Since the early period in March and April when relevant government response trackers placed the Western Balkans as one of the regions with the most severe measures and restrictions, the process of relaxation of measures have started in the entire region. Relaxation of measures have in some cases triggered: national parliamentary elections which were initially postponed due to COVID-19 (Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro), massive outdoor gatherings such as a football match with more than 15,000 spectators, the opening of the hospitality industry and the opening of borders etc. Unfortunately, the relaxation of measures has led to the reinstatement of particular measures which were in force previously. The reinstatement of measures in some cases started in July and included some important human rights restrictions on the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly.
Despite the sharp increase in parliamentary activities, in the majority of cases, the need for effective parliamentary oversight remains. The need for an adequate balance between necessary health regulations and relevant human rights restrictions is still important throughout the Western Balkans having in mind the fact that no additional changes were recorded in the second report, which could allow massive parliamentary work to be carried out online. As some parts of Europe are going in another lockdown period a very significant question remains: Will parliaments be in a position to continue their oversight activities during the second wave of COVID-19 and another possible lockdown throughout the region?