Like all other parts of public life, the administration of justice and access to legal remedies and dispute resolution have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The notes series ‘Rule of Law in the time of COVID-19’ provides a perspective from the field of how the justice system has been affected by the pandemic and how national justice actors are responding and adapting to the situation. By documenting responses and practices by those working in some of the world’s most complex environments, the notes seek to provide a better understanding of opportunities and challenges for promoting the rule of law during this extraordinary time.
The notes series aims to provide an in-country snapshot from the perspective of IDLO’s country offices.
As in other contexts, an outbreak of COVID-19 in Mongolia presented a particular risk to the country’s fragile health care system and sluggish economy. Every winter, the health care system is overtaxed by the regular flu season resulting in closure of schools to reduce the number of children infected and requiring hospitalization. The economy had been experiencing a decline in growth since 2017 due to poor performance of the mining sector, decreases in commodity prices and lower quality of mineral exports.
To avoid even greater adverse impacts on these systems, the Government of Mongolia took early and immediate action which proved successful in keeping COVID-19 from spreading to the community. Thus far, Mongolia has recorded only 197 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths. Economic relief measures were implemented, and the international community provided support including US$1.2 million from the United States to strengthen COVID-19 prevention and infection control and $2.2 million from the World Bank to strengthen Mongolia’s hospital services.
Overall, the Mongolian government continued to function as normal. The State Great Khural (Parliament) began its spring session as scheduled on 6 April 2020. Some adaptations were made to legislative sessions including teleconferencing and reduced numbers of members present in person.
An unintended consequence of Mongolia’s efforts to contain transmission was the increased incidence of gender-based violence (GBV) in a country with pre-existing high rates. In a 2017 study by the United Nations Population Fund and the National Statistics Office, 57.9 per cent of ever-partnered women reported experiencing some form of GBV in their lifetime. Of these women, 31.2 per cent had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. COVID-related measures such as the closure of schools, loss of wages for certain sectors due to restrictions, and increased isolation contributed to even higher rates of GBV.
As early as 24 January 2020, the Government of Mongolia ordered the closure of all formal and non-formal educational institutions, the prohibition of public events and limitations on domestic and international travel. On 12 February 2020, the Government of Mongolia passed a resolution, tasking the Authority for Fair Competition and Consumer Protection (AFCCP) to take measures to prevent and combat excessive pricing, creating artificial scarcity, misleading advertisements, commodity overstock and speculation in an emergency situation. On 10 March 2020, the Mongolian authorities announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19. The Government of Mongolia immediately banned all international flights and entry by foreigners. These measures successfully prevented community transmission and avoided overwhelming the fragile health care system.
On 27 March 2020, the government announced that MNT 5.1 trillion (approximately US$1.83 billion) would be allocated to support the country’s weakened economy. The package included a temporary suspension of social insurance contributions for businesses for six months from April to October, and a temporary personal income tax waiver. Corporate tax exemptions were introduced for smaller businesses. The government committed to paying MNT 200,000 ($74.00) per worker per month for three months to companies retaining their employees. The emergency package also provided low-interest rate loans to the amount of MNT 300 billion ($107 million) to national clothing companies for purchasing cashmere from herders; the cashmere price was set at less than MNT 100,000 ($37.00). The monthly child allowance of MNT 20,000 ($7.40) for children under the age of 18 was raised to MNT 30,000 ($11.11) for three months and fuel prices were cut by MNT 300–400 ($0.11-0.14) starting on 15 April.
On 29 April 2020, the State Great Khural, Mongolia’s unicameral parliament, adopted a law to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the socio-economic impact. The law authorized the government to regulate quarantine, traffic movements and other public safety measures to stop the spread of the virus. The law noted that such measures must be conducted with respect for fundamental human rights. It also stipulated that costs related to evacuation from foreign countries, isolation, treatment and disinfection would be borne by private citizens and organizations.
Parliamentary elections on 24 June 2020
Parliamentary elections will take place as planned on 24 June 2020 with special precautions taken to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. A regulation was passed that requires voters to maintain a 1.5-meter distance when casting votes and the number of people in polling stations at one time will be limited. When voters arrive at polling stations, their temperature will be checked, they will be asked to use hand sanitizer and face masks will be mandatory. As a public safety measure, those in quarantine will not be allowed to vote.
Impact of COVID-19 on the justice system
Since the enactment of emergency measures, the police have been doubly taxed by enforcing public safety measures and responding to an increase in calls for domestic violence. The National Security Commission has relied on the police to enforce the use of face masks by the general public, support border enforcement, and conduct vehicle checkpoints where passenger temperatures and movements are recorded. Police have also been required to respond to an increasing number of domestic violence incidents. The overall number of domestic violence-related offenses increased by 47 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2019. This increase has led to significantly higher numbers of victims seeking shelter. In the 15 One Stop Service Centers and shelters operated by the government, there was an 89 per cent increase in clients in the first quarter of 2020 comparted to the first quarter of 2019.
Office of the Prosecutor General
The Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) is responsible, among other things, for prosecuting violations of law. The OPG has continued to operate as normal although with greater teleworking flexibility for staff. In April, the government passed a regulation requiring that all employers allow mothers of children under 12 to work from home. This regulation remains in effect and OPG staff work from home as their schedule allows.
Prisons and other detentions centers are closed to visitors, including family members. This has led to increased feelings of insecurity among the prison population. Correctional staff have reported that psychological services are in high demand for prisoners due to increased isolation and stress.
Mongolian courts continue to operate. Some judges have allowed postponements of court sessions or telephone hearings where feasible to ensure continuity of court proceedings. (Appearances via teleconference are not new and are used routinely in rural areas outside Ulaanbaatar.)
Authority for Family, Child and Youth Development Agency
Schools and other educational institutions have been closed since 27 January 2020 and children are prohibited from public places such as shopping malls and restaurants. These restrictions have adversely affected the mental health and well-being of children, as well as parents and caregivers. The Child Helpline run by the Authority for Family, Child and Youth Development Agency received a significantly higher number of calls in February and March 2020 compared to the same period last year. In March 2020, reports of child physical abuse increased by 32.9 per cent compared to the previous month, and by 46.8 per cent compared to February 2019. In February 2020, reports of emotional abuse also increased by 57.6 per cent compared to February 2019. Neglect-related calls increased by 22.5 per cent compared to February 2019. The government-operated Child Protection Shelter was overwhelmed by the increased need for child placement and as of 6 April 2020 was at 115 per cent capacity.
Mongolian civil society organizations are continuing their work on access to justice, especially for victims of GBV, but are experiencing operational difficulties. The Gender Equality Center and the National Center Against Violence (NCAV) continue to provide assistance to victims of GBV but have been temporarily unable to admit more women into shelters because of a lack of masks, disinfectants and other protective materials. Other civil society organizations have called for support to cover salaries for hotline staff and funding for masks, sanitizers and medical equipment. The prohibition against large public gatherings has limited the ability of civil society organizations to conduct training and awareness-raising events.
IDLO is assisting justice seekers and justice providers in Mongolia in dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on women and victims of GBV. Responding to requests by local stakeholders, and with the support of the Canadian government, IDLO delivered COVID-19 hygiene kits to 11 civil society and two government-operated one-stop service centers and shelters providing protection for victims of domestic violence. IDLO, in cooperation with the National Legal Institute and NCAV, held a series of live stream sessions to provide advice to victims of domestic violence in the context of the pandemic. On 23 and 24 April, IDLO convened a multi-stakeholder working group with representatives of the judiciary, prosecutors, police and correctional facilities to discuss socio-economic and legal challenges resulting from the pandemic and measures to protect citizens, including the most vulnerable.
IDLO continues to work on the development of handbooks on legal advice and assistance for victims of domestic violence, by convening small working groups that are allowed to meet under the current restrictions. This will help improve the capacity of legal aid providers to process the increasing number of requests for legal assistance on cases of domestic violence. IDLO also continues to facilitate a local forum of civil society organizations that help address GBV in the context of the pandemic. Together with its partners, IDLO launched a public legal awareness campaign on GBV and COVID-19 in print, social media, radio and TV outlets. IDLO also continues to support the Authority for Competition and Consumer Protection which has taken measures to protect consumers against price hikes introduced by companies taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis.
IDLO has been working in Mongolia since 2012 and is currently implementing two programs to strengthen the response to gender-based violence and foster free market competition through increased capacity and improved coordination.