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Human Rights Watch report highlights dissent against rising populism

Human Rights Watch released its annual report in January 2018, providing a summary of the key human rights issues investigated from late 2016 to November 2017 in over 90 countries and territories. As with previous years, the bulk of the document was dedicated to the examination of grave human rights abuses by individual countries and the international response by regional and global actors and organizations.

The introduction by Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth underlined emerging public dissent against the political trend of surging populism, lending the report a more hopeful and forward-looking tone than that of the previous year. Roth distances the bleak environment of authoritarian human rights violations and skepticism of democratic institutions from a mobilizing popular reaction against what he names a “message of hate and exclusion”. In many countries people took to the streets in large numbers to protest democratic backslide, corruption or autocratic governments.

Mid-sized countries have taken on the lead

According to Roth, smaller and mid-sized countries like France, the Netherlands, and even Liechtenstein have assumed responsibility for defending human rights internationally, buffered in part by domestic public support and leaders willing to take up the mantle. By forming coalitions on issues unheeded and stymied by major powers, smaller countries have demonstrated major clout in the human rights arena, though Roth dismisses the idea that they can permanently replace the vacuum left by traditional defenders.

An example that pushing back can work includes support by civic groups in Africa for the International Criminal Court that helped to persuade most African governments to continue to stand behind the court despite calls by anti-rights autocrats for an African “mass exodus”. Another example is the decision of the UN General Assembly, adopted with 105 to 15 votes, to establish a mechanism to collect evidence and build cases for prosecution of mass atrocities committed on the territory of Syria following vetoes that stopped the UN Security Council from taking action.

The US, UK and Germany have largely stepped away

The US, UK, and Germany, among others, have largely stepped away and even regressed from their traditional stance on the defense of human rights due to domestic capitulation to populist advances on issues of racism and diminishment of the rights of refugees.

Consequently, China and Russia have sought full ascendancy to their role in promoting an anti-rights agenda by aligning themselves with autocratic regimes and quashing national dissent. In the void, continued instances of mass cruelties have sprouted and escalated on the front of a multitude of countries, including Yemen, Syria, Burma, South Sudan, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

WJP’s Rule of Law Index measures decline in fundamental rights

A quantitative measurement of the state of human rights was provided in the recent report of The World Justice Project (WJP) which features a Rule of Law Index. The report testifies to the downturn of the majority of the world’s countries in the categories of human rights, governmental restraint of authority, and civil and criminal justice. Using eight factors to measure data taken from expert and household surveys in 113 countries, the 2017-18 index showed the greatest decline in the areas of fundamental rights (71 countries decreased in score) and of constraints on governmental powers (64 countries decreased). Globally speaking, 34% of countries’ overall rule of law score declined over a 29% improvement, a downward departure from the previous index, a trend the WJP qualifies as “troubling”.

Human rights situation is a call to action 

Lack of pushback by international institutions or domestic involvement due to populist influence creates an environment for authoritarian regimes to flourish and rule of law to be neglected at home and abroad, stated the HRW world report. However, Roth, maintaining a sanguine tone despite grave concerns, concluded that “a fair assessment of global prospects for human rights should induce concern rather than surrender—a call to action rather than a cry of despair.”

Image: Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, by Mark Dixon, CC-BY-2.0

Jessica Lee
Jessica studies human rights at Columbia University. She is the Spring 2018 Intern of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly and Democracy Without Borders hosted by the World Federalist Movement in New York
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