The politics of fear led governments around the globe to roll back human rights during 2015.
In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.
“Fear of terrorist attacks and mass refugee flows are driving many Western governments to roll back human rights protections,” Roth said. “These backward steps threaten the rights of all without any demonstrated effectiveness in protecting ordinary people.”
Significant refugee flows to Europe, spurred largely by the Syrian conflict, coupled with broadening attacks on civilians in the name of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), have led to growing fear-mongering and Islamophobia, Human Rights Watch said. But as European governments close borders, they are reviving old patterns of shirking responsibility for refugees by passing the problem to countries on Europe’s periphery that are less equipped to house or protect refugees. The emphasis on the potential threat posed by refugees is also distracting European governments from addressing their homegrown terrorist threats and the steps needed to avoid social marginalization of disaffected populations.
World Report 2016 summarizes key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide.
Policymakers in the United States have used the terrorism threat to try to reverse recent modest restrictions on intelligence agencies’ ability to engage in mass surveillance, while the United Kingdom and France have sought to expand monitoring powers. That would significantly undermine privacy rights without any demonstrated increase in the ability to curb terrorism. Indeed, in a number of recent attacks in Europe, the perpetrators were known to law enforcement authorities, but the police were too overwhelmed to follow up, suggesting that what’s needed is not more mass data but more capacity to pursue targeted leads, Human Rights Watch said.
“The tarring of entire immigrant or minority communities, wrong in itself, is also dangerous,” Roth said. “Vilifying whole communities for the actions of a few generates precisely the kind of division and animosity that terrorist recruiters love to exploit.”
Europe’s response to the influx of refugees has also been counterproductive. The effect of leaving most asylum seekers little choice but to risk their lives on rickety boats at sea to reach Europe has created a chaotic situation that would-be terrorists can easily exploit.
“Creating a safe and orderly way for refugees to make their way to Europe would reduce lives lost at sea while helping immigration officials to screen out security risks, increasing security for everyone,” Roth said.
Popular movements launched by civil society organizations with the aid of social media left many authoritarian governments running scared. The precedents of the Arab uprisings, Hong Kong’s “umbrella protests,” and Ukraine’s Maidan movement sparked a determination among many autocrats to prevent people from banding together to make their voices heard.
Abusive governments have tried to smother civic groups by enacting laws that restrict their activities and cut off their needed international funding. Russia and China are among the worst offenders. Repression of this intensity – including shuttering critical groups in Russia and arresting rights lawyers and activists in China – has not been seen in decades, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey’s ruling party has presided over an intense crackdown, targeting activists and media critical of the government.
Ethiopia and India, often using nationalistic rhetoric, have restricted foreign funding to fend off independent monitoring of government rights violations. Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Morocco, Sudan, and Venezuela have enacted vague and overly broad laws to rein in activists and undermine independent groups’ ability to operate. Western governments have been slow to speak out against these global threats.
Despite these enormous threats to rights, 2015 also brought positive developments. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, who are often subject to abusive laws and violent attacks, made great strides towards equality with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland, Mexico, and the US, and the decriminalization of homosexuality in Mozambique. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, a statement by 72 countries affirmed a commitment to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Landmark elections in Burma passed off peacefully in November, and Nigerians also celebrated the peaceful transfer of power to the opposition. In September, the UN adopted 17 ambitious development goals that for the first time are universal and grounded in human rights; they include goals to achieve gender equality and to provide access to justice for all. At the UN climate summit in Paris, governments agreed for the first time to “respect, promote and consider” human rights in their response to climate change, especially with regards to indigenous people, women, children, migrants, and others in vulnerable situations.
The failure of punitive approaches to drug use has prompted increased dialogue and steps towards decriminalization in many places, including Canada, Chile, Croatia, Colombia, Jamaica, Jordan, Ireland, Tunisia, and the US. And victims cheered the trial of Hissene Habre, the former Chad dictator prosecuted in Senegal for crimes against humanity during his rule in the 1980s – the first trial of a former head of state by the courts of another country.
“The wisdom enshrined in international human rights law provides indispensable guidance to governments that seek to keep their nation safe and serve their people most effectively,” Roth said. “We abandon it at our peril.”