Human Rights Watch

Globally, basic human rights are under serious threat

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The global human rights system and its key institutions, like the International Criminal Court (ICC), are under serious threat from developments across the full spectrum of states, from the most developed to the backwaters of Africa.

This is the clear message from Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) just-released 687-page World Report 2017. And finger-pointing by the so-called ‘developed word’ including the West and/or the United States won’t wash.

Introducing its report, the HRW sets the tone by writing: “The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world.”

The global human rights system, as it developed in the more than 70 years since the end of World War II is at risk, due to “Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights,” HRW writes.

ICC’s position

About the ICC as institution for the protection of basic human rights, Kenneth Roth, the WHR’s Executive Director, in an introductory essay writes: “The ICC, which through 2015 had focused its investigations on only African victims, is challenged by the failure of powerful states, including the United States, China, and Russia, to have joined the court.

“As of November 2016, it had yet to open formal investigations in several important non-African situations that it had under preliminary examination, such as those implicating US officials for unprosecuted torture in Afghanistan or Israeli officials for their policy of illegally transferring Israelis to settlements in the occupied West Bank.

However, especially African states including South Africa, which started an African ICC-walkout, should also take note of Roth’s observation that:

“If the opponents of the court really want equitable justice, they should lead efforts to encourage completion of these investigations, or to press Russia and China to stop using their veto at the UN Security Council to block ICC jurisdiction over the atrocities being committed in Syria. Their silence on this broader quest for justice reveals their main concern – undermining prospects for justice at home.”

Wider perspective

While populism is on the rise in Europe, the report, which reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries, notes that in the meanwhile, strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security.

“These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality,” HRW said.

A new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will, Roth writes.

“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights. Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism.

“They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”

Roth also cited Trump’s presidential campaign in the US as a vivid illustration of the politics of intolerance. He said that Trump responded to those discontented with their economic situation and an increasingly multicultural society with rhetoric that rejected basic principles of dignity and equality.

His campaign flouted proposals that would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women’s rights and media freedoms, and to use torture.

“Unless Trump repudiates these proposals, his administration risks committing massive rights violations in the US and shirking a longstanding, bipartisan belief, however imperfectly applied, in a rights-based foreign policy agenda,” HRW reports.

Europe         

In Europe, a similar populism sought to blame economic dislocation on migration. The campaign for Brexit was perhaps the most prominent illustration, Roth said.

Instead of scapegoating those fleeing persecution, torture and war, governments should invest to help immigrant communities integrate and fully participate in society.

Public officials also have a duty to reject the hatred and intolerance of the populists while supporting independent and impartial courts as a bulwark against the targeting of vulnerable minorities, Roth said.

The populist-fuelled passions of the moment tend to obscure the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule.

Further afield

In Russia, Vladimir Putin responded to popular discontent in 2011 with a repressive agenda, including draconian restrictions on free speech and assembly, unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and laws severely restricting independent groups.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, concerned about the slowdown in economic growth, has embarked on the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen era.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, has honed a war-crime strategy of targeting civilians in opposition areas, flouting the most fundamental requirements of the laws of war.

Forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have also routinely attacked civilians and executed people in custody while encouraging and carrying out attacks on civilian populations around the globe.

Plight of refugees

More than five million Syrians fleeing the conflict, have faced daunting obstacles in finding safety. Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are hosting millions of Syrian refugees but have largely closed their borders to new arrivals. European Union leaders have failed to share responsibility fairly for asylum seekers or to create safe routes for refugees. Despite years of US leadership on refugee resettlement, the US resettled only 12,000 Syrian refugees last year, and Trump has threatened to end the program.

In Africa, a disconcerting number of leaders have removed or extended term limits – the “constitutional coup” – to stay in office, while others have used violent crackdowns to suppress protests over unfair elections or corrupt or predatory rule. Several African leaders, feeling vulnerable to prosecution, harshly criticised the International Criminal Court and three countries announced their withdrawal.

This global attack needs a vigorous reaffirmation and defence of the human rights values underpinning the system, Roth said.

Yet too many public officials seem to have their heads in the sand, hoping the winds of populism will blow over. Others emulate the populists, hoping to pre-empt their message but instead reinforcing it.

Governments ostensibly committed to human rights should defend these principles far more vigorously and consistently, including democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that support broad initiatives at the United Nations but rarely take the lead in responding to countries in crisis, Roth said.

Conclusion

In an article of July last year we wrote: “… one must expect anger levels around the globe to rise. For many societies it will pose massive challenges to prevent the transition to new dispensations from morphing into full-blooded revolutions.”

Roth’s conclusion seems to be in line with this narrative, when he concludes: “A strong popular reaction, using every means available – civic groups, political parties, traditional and social media – is the best defence of the values that so many still cherish.

“We forget at our peril the demagogues of the past: the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as obstacles to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda.”

by Piet Coetzer

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