Far-reaching powers impinging on human rights that are enacted by governments in the name of responding to coronavirus will be difficult to wind back, a world-leading lawyer has warned.
"The current health crisis has only served to exacerbate what was an existing human rights crisis," British human rights barrister Amal Clooney told a parliamentary committee.
"Abuses as you know, thrive when no one is watching, and new powers seized by autocratic governments in the name of the pandemic are unlikely to be rescinded when it has passed."
"Yet in the last two months, we've seen more than 80 governments rush through emergency laws that grant them sweeping new powers over their people. Governments have criminalised so-called fake news on the pandemic and had scores of journalists arrested while deadly untruths have spread."
Specialising in international and human rights at London's Doughty Street Chambers, Ms Clooney was giving evidence to the committee encouraging the introduction of "Magnitsky laws" in Australia, which target human rights abusers through freezing assets and banning visas.
The Magnitsky Act was first introduced in the United States, named after a lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after uncovering government-linked fraud in Russia and died in prison.
"It seems at times there is so much bad news in the world that our moral nerve endings have been deadened, meaning abuses will thrive and impunity will remain the norm," Ms Clooney said.
Australia was in a strong position to introduce such legislation, Ms Clooney said, which is designed to remove safe havens for human rights abusers, blocking their ability to travel or spend money in countries that have the laws.
"When it seeks to engage [on human rights issues] Australia should be able to go beyond the rhetoric of condemnation and actually impose a cost on behaviour that it deplores."
The United States, United Kingdom and Canada already have such laws, and Ms Clooney said Australia could introduce a law that could serve as a model for other nations.
An independent expert committee should be responsible for making decisions on sanctions, the leading barrister said, meaning even countries that were allies or trading partners could be sanctioned.