Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that human rights are increasingly in danger as strongman leaders in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and China step up their repression of dissent and populist parties rise in the West.
The international rights group says in its World Report 2017 that the past 12 months have seen many authoritarian rulers further roll back the rule of law by tightening bans on protests and increasing controls over free speech.
At the same time, HRW says, 2016 saw the rise of populist leaders in the West who “treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will.”
In an introduction to the report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth cites “dangerous rhetoric” by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump during his successful campaign that Roth says “breached basic principles of dignity and equality.”
“The rise of Western populists seems to have emboldened several leaders to intensify their flouting of human rights,” Roth writes.
He says that the Kremlin, for example, “has eagerly defended President Vladimir Putin’s rule as no worse than the West’s increasingly troubled human rights record.”
HRW warns that Putin tightened control in the past year over an “already shrinking space for free expression, association and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics.”
“What’s happening in Russia in terms of this general crackdown is not exactly new, of course, it really started around 2011, 2012, but the net for who the regime sees as its enemies has been widening,” says Andrew Stroehlein, a spokesman for HRW in Brussels. “The list of so-called foreign agents, which is pretty much anyone the Justice Ministry does not like, has increased, and I think we are up to almost 150 nongovernmental organizations, so each year it compounds and increases.”
Moscow began tightening controls on critics, opposition figures, and NGOs following antigovernment protests in Moscow and other cities over vote fraud during the 2011 State Duma elections and the 2012 presidential vote. The 2012 vote returned then-Prime Minister Putin to the presidency for a third term.
The HRW report notes that in Central Asia 2016 saw a brief flicker of hope that the death of long-term authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in September might lead to an easing of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. But HRW says new President Shavkat Mirziyaev has maintained the authoritarian structures set up by Karimov despite his early promises to make improving the life of average citizens a priority.
“It is still an incredibly repressive place and torture is endemic [for prisoners] in custody of the security services,” says Stroehlein. “You still have the incredibly abusive cotton harvest every year, you still have a security apparatus that causes absolute fear throughout the country, and it doesn’t look like that will be disappearing anytime soon with the new leadership.”
‘Turning Toward The Dark Side’
HRW says the situation for human rights in Tajikistan has deteriorated sharply over the past 12 months.
“The authorities are really cracking down on the main opposition party, giving its senior leadership seriously lengthy prison terms, they went after human rights lawyers, they went after other people they perceived as their critics, and that is a significant turn toward the dark side in Tajikistan,” Stroehlein says.
The government of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in June sentenced two leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (HNIT) to life imprisonment while several others received lengthy prison terms.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the rights group says both sides in the conflict in the east of the country disregard human rights as sporadic fighting continues there despite the 2015 Minsk agreement to create a lasting cease-fire and take steps toward a political settlement.
“It’s worrying that the Ukrainian government authorities and the Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine are both kind of doing the same thing in detaining civilians for collaborating with the other side and they hold them in this prolonged arbitrary detention, they deprive them of contact with lawyers, family, there is evidence of torture when people are held in this arbitrary detention as well, and that’s both sides,” Stroehlein says.
‘Crushing Opposition Voices’
Surveying more than 90 countries, the report also notes that in Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “took advantage of a coup attempt to crush opposition voices” and arrest thousands as he blamed supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for a July coup attempt.
And in China, HRW says, President Xi Jinping “has pursued the toughest crackdown on critical voices in two decades” as Beijing worries popular discontent could rise as economic growth has slowed.
HRW’s report argues that the rise of populism in the West could weaken global support for human rights just as strongman leaders elsewhere are stepping up their assaults on individual freedoms.
Roth argues that Trump’s campaign rhetoric in the United States set forth a “policy of intolerance.” He writes that Trump “stereotyped migrants, vilified refugees, attacked a judge for his Mexican ancestry, mocked a journalist with disabilities, dismissed multiple allegations of sexual assault, and pledged to roll back women’s ability to control their own fertility.”
Mounting Public Discontent
Since winning the vote in November, Trump and his cabinet nominees have sent mixed signals on whether the new administration might walk back some of the candidate’s proposals, including a “great, great wall” he pledged to build on the Mexican border and a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Roth says that the appeal of populist political parties in several European countries and the United States “has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo” as many voters blame open trade and open border policies for their economic difficulties.
“In the United States and Europe, the perceived threat at the top of the list is migration, where concerns about cultural identity, economic opportunity and terrorism intersect,” he writes. “If the majority wants to limit the rights of refugees, migrants, or minorities, the populists suggest, it should be free to do so.”
But Roth warns that “rights by their nature do not admit an à la carte approach.”
“You may not like your neighbors, but if you sacrifice their rights today, you jeopardize your own tomorrow, because ultimately rights are grounded on the reciprocal duty to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself,” he says.