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HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH — WORLD REPORT 2019 / “In some ways this is a dark time for human rights”

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH — WORLD REPORT 2019 / “In some ways this is a dark time for human rights”


World’s Autocrats Face Rising Resistance

By Ken­neth Roth, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Human Rights Watch In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Yet while the auto­crats and rights abusers may cap­ture the head­lines, the defend­ers of human rights, democ­ra­cy, and the rule of law are also gain­ing strength. The same pop­ulists who are spread­ing hatred and intol­er­ance are spawn­ing a resis­tance that keeps win­ning its share of bat­tles. Vic­to­ry in any giv­en case is nev­er assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to sug­gest that the excess­es of auto­crat­ic rule are fuel­ing a pow­er­ful coun­ter­at­tack. Unlike tra­di­tion­al dic­ta­tors, today’s would-be auto­crats typ­i­cal­ly emerge from demo­c­ra­t­ic set­tings. Most pur­sue a two-step strat­e­gy for under­min­ing democ- racy: first, scape­goat and demo­nize vul­ner­a­ble minori­ties to build pop­u­lar sup- port; then, weak­en the checks and bal­ances on gov­ern­ment pow­er need­ed to pre­serve human rights and the rule of law, such as an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry, a free media, and vig­or­ous civic groups. Even the world’s estab­lished democ­ra­cies have shown them­selves vul­ner­a­ble to this dem­a­goguery and manip­u­la­tion. Auto­crat­ic lead­ers rarely solve the prob­lems that they cite to jus­ti­fy their rise to pow­er, but they do cre­ate their own lega­cy of abuse. At home, the unac­count­able gov­ern­ment that they lead becomes prone to repres­sion, cor­rup­tion, and mis- man­age­ment. Some claim that auto­crats are bet­ter at get­ting things done, but as they pri­or­i­tize per­pet­u­at­ing their own pow­er, the human cost can be enor­mous, such as the hyper­in­fla­tion and eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion in once oil-rich Venezuela, the spree of extra­ju­di­cial killings as part of the “drug war” in the Philip­pines, or China’s mass deten­tion of upwards of 1 mil­lion Tur­kic Mus­lims, pri­mar­i­ly Uyghurs. Because they dis­like human rights scruti­ny, auto­crat­ic lead­ers also tend to re- treat from the defense of human rights beyond their bor­ders. This retrench­ment has made it eas­i­er for bru­tal lead­ers to get away with large-scale atroc­i­ties, such as Syria’s war on civil­ians in areas held by anti-gov­ern­ment forces, the Sau­di-led coalition’s indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing and block­ade that are killing and starv­ing Yemeni civil­ians, and the Myan­mar army’s mass mur­der, rape, and arson against Rohingya Muslims.

In response to these dis­turb­ing trends, new alliances of rights-respect­ing gov- ern­ments, often prompt­ed and joined by civic groups and the pub­lic, have mount­ed an increas­ing­ly effec­tive resis­tance. Polit­i­cal lead­ers decide to vio­late human rights because they see advan­tages, whether main­tain­ing their grip on pow­er, padding their bank accounts, or reward­ing their cronies. This grow­ing re- sis­tance has repeat­ed­ly raised the price of those abu­sive deci­sions. Because even abu­sive gov­ern­ments weigh costs and ben­e­fits, increas­ing the cost of abuse is the surest way to change their cal­cu­lus of repres­sion. Such pres­sure may not suc­ceed imme­di­ate­ly, but it has a proven record over the long term. Much of this push­back has played out at the Unit­ed Nations—a note­wor­thy de- vel­op­ment because so many auto­crats seek to weak­en this mul­ti­lat­er­al insti­tu- tion and under­mine the inter­na­tion­al stan­dards that it sets. The UN Human Rights Coun­cil, for exam­ple, took important—sometimes unprecedented—steps in the past year to increase pres­sure on Myan­mar, Sau­di Ara­bia, and Venezuela. The oppo­nents of human rights enforce­ment, such as Chi­na, Rus­sia, Egypt, and Sau­di Ara­bia, tra­di­tion­al­ly car­ry con­sid­er­able weight in these set­tings, so it was impres­sive to see how often they lost this past year. Giv­en the recent reluc­tance of many large West­ern pow­ers to pro­mote human rights enforce­ment, the lead- ers of this resis­tance were often coali­tions of small­er- and medi­um-sized states, includ­ing some non-tra­di­tion­al allies. Sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure in defense of rights was also assert­ed out­side the UN. With­in the past year, that includ­ed efforts to pre­vent a blood­bath in Syr­ia, to re- sist auto­crat­ic trends in Europe, to defend the long­stand­ing ban on chem­i­cal weapons, to con­vince an African pres­i­dent to accept con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­its on his reign, and to press for a full inves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­der of Sau­di jour­nal­ist Jamal Khashog­gi. This mount­ing pres­sure illus­trates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of defend­ing human rights—in- deed, the respon­si­bil­i­ty to do so—even in dark­er times. The promise of rights-re- spect­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic rule—of account­able gov­ern­ments that answer to the needs of their cit­i­zens rather than the pow­er and wealth of high-lev­el officials—remains a vital, mobi­liz­ing vision. The past year shows that bat­tles in its defense remain very much worth waging.


The Dark Side of Auto­crat­ic Rule 

Despite the mount­ing resis­tance, the forces of autoc­ra­cy have been on the rise. For exam­ple, Brazil elect­ed as pres­i­dent Jair Bolsonaro—a man who, at great risk to pub­lic safe­ty, open­ly encour­ages the use of lethal force by the mil­i­tary and po- lice in a coun­try already wracked by a sky-high rate of police killings and more than 60,000 homi­cides per year. Estab­lished auto­crats and their admir­ers con­tin­ued their dis­re­gard for basic rights. Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s Pres­i­dent Abdel Fat- tah al-Sisi per­sist­ed in silenc­ing inde­pen­dent voic­es and civic groups and lock- ing up thou­sands for their pre­sumed polit­i­cal views. Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Rodri­go Duterte encour­aged more sum­ma­ry exe­cu­tions, sup­pos­ed­ly of drug sus- pects, but often of peo­ple guilty of no more than being poor young men. Hun- gary’s Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orbán imple­ment­ed his brand of “illib­er­al democ­ra­cy.” Poland’s de fac­to ruler, Jarosław Kaczyńs­ki, sought to stack his country’s courts with his pre­ferred judges, under­min­ing the judiciary’s inde- pen­dence. Italy’s inte­ri­or min­is­ter and deputy prime min­is­ter, Mat­teo Salvi­ni, closed ports to refugees and migrants, scut­tled efforts to save migrants’ lives at sea, and stoked anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment. India’s Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi failed to halt the demo­niz­ing of Mus­lims while attack­ing civic groups that criti- cized his rights record or envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies. The Cam­bo­di­an prime min­is­ter, Hun Sen, tight­ened his grip on pow­er by hold­ing sham elec­tions from which the oppo­si­tion par­ty was banned. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dis­par­aged immi- grants and minori­ties and tried to bul­ly judges and jour­nal­ists whom he deemed to stand in his way. Rus­sia under Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin con­tin­ued its mul­ti- year crack­down on inde­pen­dent voic­es and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. Chi­na closed off any pos­si­bil­i­ty of orga­nized oppo­si­tion to the increas­ing­ly one-man rule of Xi Jin- ping. Beyond the imme­di­ate vic­tims, some of the eco­nom­ic costs of auto­crat­ic rule be- came more vis­i­ble over the course of the year. Oil-rich Venezuela once enjoyed one of Latin America’s high­est stan­dards of liv­ing but today, under the auto­crat­ic rule of Pres­i­dent Nicolás Maduro, Venezue­lans suf­fer severe short­ages of food and med­i­cine, caus­ing mil­lions to flee the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Erdo­gan, per­sist­ing with large-scale build­ing projects that often ben­e­fit­ed his allies, over­saw a plum- met­ing cur­ren­cy and a sky­rock­et­ing cost of liv­ing in Turkey. Mozam­bique dis­cov­ered that $2 bil­lion in gov­ern­ment funds had dis­ap­peared from its treasury.

China’s much-tout­ed “One Belt, One Road” ini­tia­tive to devel­op trade infra­struc- ture fos­tered auto­crat­ic mis­man­age­ment in oth­er coun­tries. In keep­ing with Bei- jing’s long­stand­ing prac­tice, Belt and Road loans come with no vis­i­ble con­di­tions, mak­ing Bei­jing a pre­ferred lender for auto­crats. These unscru­ti­nized infu­sions of cash made it eas­i­er for cor­rupt offi­cials to pad their bank accounts while sad­dling their peo­ple with mas­sive debt in the ser­vice of infra­struc­ture projects that in sev­er­al cas­es ben­e­fit Chi­na more than the peo­ple of the in- debt­ed nation. In Malaysia, Prime Min­is­ter Mahathir bin Mohamad can­celled three major infra- struc­ture projects financed by Chi­nese loans amid con­cerns that his pre­de­ces- sor, Najib Razak, had agreed to unfa­vor­able terms to obtain funds to cov­er up a cor­rup­tion scan­dal. Unable to afford its enor­mous debt bur­den, Sri Lan­ka was forced to sur­ren­der con­trol of a port to Chi­na, built with Chi­nese loans but with- out an eco­nom­ic ratio­nale in the home dis­trict of for­mer Pres­i­dent Mahin­da Ra- japak­sa. Kenya came to rue a Chi­nese-fund­ed rail­road that offered no promise of eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty. Pak­istan, Dji­bouti, Sier­ra Leone, and the Mal­dives all ex- pressed regret at hav­ing agreed to cer­tain Chi­nese-fund­ed projects. Talk of a Chi- nese “debt trap” became common.

The Push­back

The grow­ing push­back against auto­crat­ic rule and the cor­rup­tion it fre­quent­ly fu- eled took var­i­ous forms over the past year. Some­times elec­tions or pub­lic pres- sure were the vehi­cle. Malaysian vot­ers oust­ed their cor­rupt prime min­is­ter, Najib Razak, and the rul­ing coali­tion in pow­er for almost six decades, for a coali- tion run­ning on an agen­da of human rights reform. Mal­dives vot­ers reject­ed their auto­crat­ic pres­i­dent, Yameen Abdul­la Gay­oom. In Arme­nia, whose gov­ern­ment was mired in cor­rup­tion, Prime Min­is­ter Serzh Sargsyan had to step down amid mas­sive protests. Czech Prime Min­is­ter Andrej Babis faced grow­ing protests against his alleged cor­rup­tion. Ethiopia, under pop­u­lar pres­sure, replaced a long-abu­sive gov­ern­ment with a new one led by Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed, who embarked on an impres­sive reform agen­da. US vot­ers in the midterm elec­tions for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives seemed to rebuke Pres­i­dent Trump’s divi­sive and rights-averse policies.

Some­times inde­pen­dent insti­tu­tions of gov­ern­ment resist­ed the over­reach of their country’s lead­ers. Poland’s inde­pen­dent judges refused to aban­don their jobs in the face of Kaczyński’s efforts to purge them; the Euro­pean Court of Jus- tice lat­er backed their refusal. Guatemala’s Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court reversed Pre­si- dent Jim­my Morales’s attempt to bar from the coun­try the chief inves­ti­ga­tor of a UN-backed anti-cor­rup­tion body after it start­ed prob­ing his own alleged finan­cial wrong­do­ing. US Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, appoint­ed by for­mer Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, pub­licly berat­ed Pres­i­dent Trump for dis­parag­ing “an Oba­ma judge” who had ruled against Trump’s efforts to lim­it migrants’ right to seek asy- lum. In many cas­es, the pub­lic led the resis­tance in the streets. Large crowds in Bu- dapest protest­ed Orbán’s moves to shut Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty, an aca- dem­ic bas­tion of lib­er­al inquiry and thought. Tens of thou­sands of Poles repeat­ed­ly took to the streets to defend their courts from the rul­ing party’s at- tempts to under­mine their inde­pen­dence. Peo­ple across the Unit­ed States and dozens of com­pa­nies protest­ed Trump’s forcible sep­a­ra­tion of immi­grant chil- dren from their parents.

Mul­ti­lat­er­al Resistance 

New gov­ern­ments had to pick up the defense of human rights because sev­er­al impor­tant gov­ern­ments fal­tered. Pres­i­dent Trump pre­ferred to embrace auto­crats whom he viewed as friend­ly, even if parts of the US gov­ern­ment often tried to work around the White House. The British gov­ern­ment, wor­ried about Brex­it, ap- peared will­ing to pub­licly advo­cate for human rights main­ly in coun­tries where British trade or com­mer­cial inter­ests were lim­it­ed. French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron defend­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues rhetor­i­cal­ly, but too often found rea­sons to avoid apply­ing those prin­ci­ples when they impli­cat­ed efforts to curb migra­tion, fight ter­ror­ism, or secure com­mer­cial oppor­tu­ni­ties. Germany’s Chan­cel­lor An- gela Merkel spoke against anti-rights poli­cies ema­nat­ing from Moscow and Wash­ing­ton but was often beset by polit­i­cal chal­lenges at home. Chi­na and Rus- sia did all they could to under­mine glob­al rights enforce­ment, while at home they imposed the most repres­sive rule in decades.

UN Human Rights Council 

Against this chal­leng­ing back­drop, a crit­i­cal mass of human rights sup­port­ers has reg­u­lar­ly risen to the occa­sion. The 47-mem­ber UN Human Rights Coun­cil was an espe­cial­ly impor­tant venue. It proved sig­nif­i­cant even though the Trump admin­is­tra­tion ordered the Unit­ed States to with­draw from it—the first coun­try ever to do so—in a failed effort to dis­cred­it the council’s reg­u­lar crit­i­cism of Is- rael. Wash­ing­ton object­ed to the council’s focus on Israel, which occurs in part because many US admin­is­tra­tions, includ­ing that of Pres­i­dent Trump, use the US veto at the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil to shield Israel from any crit­i­cism there. The Human Rights Coun­cil has repeat­ed­ly tak­en impor­tant steps to defend rights in North Korea, Syr­ia, Myan­mar, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Burun­di, and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Congo—all coun­tries with deeply prob­lem­at­ic human rights records that the US gov­ern­ment has long said it wants addressed. Yet Pres­i­dent Trump was will­ing to jeop­ar­dize that in the name of weak­en­ing the coun­cil because it denounces such Israeli poli­cies as the crip­pling clo­sure of Gaza and the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and ille­gal set­tle­ment regime in the West Bank. The Human Rights Coun­cil made major advances despite—and in one case ar- guably because of—the US absence. For exam­ple, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Chi­nese, Russ­ian, or even Amer­i­can veto at the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil appeared to doom any effort to refer Myan­mar to the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court (ICC) for its army’s mass atrocities—foremost the crimes against human­i­ty that sent 700,000 Ro- hingya flee­ing for their lives to Bangladesh. In response, the Human Rights Coun­cil, where there is no veto, stepped in to cre­ate a semi-pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al inves- tiga­tive mech­a­nism to pre­serve evi­dence, iden­ti­fy those respon­si­ble, and build cas­es for the day when a tri­bunal becomes avail­able to judge these crimes. That effort won over­whelm­ing­ly, with 35 in favor and only 3 against (7 abstained), send­ing the sig­nal that these atroc­i­ties can­not be com­mit­ted with impuni­ty, even as senior leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the army con­tin­ued to deny they oc- curred. The Euro­pean Union co-pre­sent­ed the council’s res­o­lu­tion on the Rohingya along with the Organ­i­sa­tion of Islam­ic Coop­er­a­tion (OIC), which until Myanmar’s attacks on the Rohingya had opposed all res­o­lu­tions crit­i­ciz­ing any par­tic­u­lar coun­try oth­er than Israel. And in what may be an alter­na­tive route to the Inter­na- tion­al Crim­i­nal Court (ICC) that does not depend on the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, the ICC pros­e­cu­tor opened a pre­lim­i­nary exam­i­na­tion into the alleged depor­ta­tion of Ro- hingya from Myan­mar, using for juris­dic­tion the fact that the crime was com- plet­ed when the Rohingya were pushed into Bangladesh, an ICC mem­ber state.

With the Nether­lands, Bel­gium, Lux­em­bourg, Ire­land, and Cana­da tak­ing the lead, the Human Rights Coun­cil also reject­ed a heavy-hand­ed Sau­di effort to avoid scruti­ny of war crimes in Yemen, such as the Sau­di-led coalition’s repeat­ed bomb­ing and dev­as­tat­ing block­ade of Yemeni civil­ians that have left mil­lions on the brink of star­va­tion in what UN offi­cials describe as the world’s worst humani- tar­i­an cri­sis. One month before the vote, appar­ent­ly to sig­nal the pos­si­bil­i­ty of broad­er retal­i­a­tion, Sau­di Ara­bia lashed out at and imposed sanc­tions on Cana­da for For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Freeland’s whol­ly jus­ti­fied crit­i­cism of its crack­down on women’s rights activists. (Sau­di Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, pre­ferred to por­tray his con­ces­sions on women’s rights, such as grant­i­ng the right to dri­ve though not lift­ing the “guardian­ship” rules that treat women as chil­dren, as mat­ters of roy­al grace rather than as acqui­es­cence to pop­u­lar demand). Yet the Human Rights Coun­cil resolved to con­tin­ue an inter­na- tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion start­ed last year of war crimes in Yemen by a vote of 21 to 8 with 18 absten­tions. For the first time, the Human Rights Coun­cil con­demned the severe repres­sion in Venezuela under Pres­i­dent Maduro. A res­o­lu­tion, led by a group of Latin Ameri- can nations, won by a vote of 23 to 7 with 17 absten­tions. This fol­lowed the US government’s depar­ture from the coun­cil, mak­ing it eas­i­er for res­o­lu­tion spon- sors to show they were address­ing Venezuela as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple rather than as a tool of Washington’s ide­ol­o­gy. In addi­tion, five Latin Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments and Cana­da urged the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court to open an inves­ti­ga­tion of crimes in Venezuela—the first time that any gov­ern­ments have sought an ICC inves­ti­ga­tion of crimes that took place entire­ly out­side their ter­ri­to­ry. Oth­er gov­ern­ments, includ­ing France and Ger- many, sup­port­ed the move. A group of Latin Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments led by Ar- gen­ti­na also orga­nized in the con­text of the Human Rights Coun­cil the first joint state­ment, signed by 47 coun­tries, on the wors­en­ing repres­sion in Nicaragua, as Pres­i­dent Daniel Orte­ga respond­ed with vio­lence to grow­ing protests against his repres­sive rule.

Euro­pean Insti­tu­tions and the Chem­i­cal Weapons Agency 

Beyond the Human Rights Coun­cil, gov­ern­ments mount­ed impor­tant defens­es of human rights in oth­er venues as well. One was the Organ­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hibi- tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW), which had been empow­ered to deter­mine in any giv­en case only whether chem­i­cal weapons have been used, not who used them. Rus­sia opposed empow­er­ing any inter­na­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion to attribute respon­si­bil­i­ty, giv­en its back­ing of and cov­er for the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment as it re- peat­ed­ly used chem­i­cal weapons, and its own appar­ent use of the Novi­chok nerve agent in an attempt­ed assas­si­na­tion of a for­mer spy in Britain. For exam- ple, Moscow vetoed renew­al in the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil of a sep­a­rate inves­ti­ga- tion that could iden­ti­fy per­pe­tra­tors, the UN-OPCW Joint Inves­tiga­tive Mech­a­nism on Syr­ia. The push­back came in an ini­tia­tive led by France and Britain, over the oppo­si­tion of Rus­sia, which result­ed in the mem­ber states of the OPCW vot­ing 82 to 24 to grant it the man­date to begin iden­ti­fy­ing the users of chem­i­cal weapons. A Russ­ian effort to block fund­ing for this new man­date was also reject­ed. In the Euro­pean Union, in response to the Pol­ish government’s efforts to under- mine the inde­pen­dence of the judi­cia­ry and Orbán’s imple­men­ta­tion of his “illib- eral democ­ra­cy” in Hun­gary, the EU launched a process that could end with the impo­si­tion of polit­i­cal sanc­tions under arti­cle 7 of the EU Treaty; the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion act­ed in the case of Poland and a two-thirds major­i­ty of the Euro- pean Par­lia­ment act­ed in the case of Hun­gary. Although Poland and Hun­gary have the pow­er under una­nim­i­ty rules to shield each oth­er from the actu­al impo- sition of such sanc­tions, the arti­cle 7 process lays the ground­work for using the lever­age pro­vid­ed by the EU’s next five-year bud­get, which should be adopt­ed by the end of 2020. Poland is the largest recip­i­ent of EU funds, and Hun­gary is among the largest per capi­ta recip­i­ents. Both the Pol­ish and Hun­gar­i­an gov­ern- ments have used these funds to their polit­i­cal advan­tage, so it is rea­son­able to ask whether the EU should con­tin­ue to gen­er­ous­ly fund their attacks on the EU’s core demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues. Europe’s top inter­gov­ern­men­tal human rights body, the Coun­cil of Europe, pushed back against attempts by Azerbaijan’s author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment to im- prop­er­ly influ­ence mem­bers of the council’s Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly (PACE) to soft­en crit­i­cism of the country’s human rights record. Fol­low­ing reports by jour­nal­ists and activists, the Coun­cil of Europe launched an inves­ti­ga­tion that found “a strong sus­pi­cion” of “activ­i­ty of a cor­rup­tive nature” by cer­tain cur­rent and for­mer PACE mem­bers due to illic­it Azer­bai­jani gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing. The investi- gation led to res­ig­na­tions, var­i­ous penal­ties, and the intro­duc­tion of new lob­by- ing rules.

Syr­ia and Sau­di Arabia 

The mul­ti­lat­er­al action that may have saved the most lives over the past year fo- cused on Syr­ia. In recent years, as the Syr­i­an military—with back­ing from Rus­sia, Iran, and Hezbollah—gradually retook one enclave after anoth­er held by anti- gov­ern­ment forces, many of the res­i­dents who feared retal­i­a­tion or deten­tion in the government’s noto­ri­ous tor­ture and exe­cu­tion cham­bers were giv­en the op- tion of mov­ing to Idlib province and sur­round­ing areas in north­west Syr­ia, where anti-gov­ern­ment forces retained con­trol. Today, an esti­mat­ed three mil­lion peo- ple live there, at least half of them dis­placed from else­where in Syr­ia. But with Turkey hav­ing closed its bor­der (after hav­ing received 3.5 mil­lion Syr­i­an refugees) and the Syr­i­an-Russ­ian mil­i­tary alliance threat­en­ing an offen­sive against Idlib, a blood­bath seemed like­ly, giv­en the indis­crim­i­nate way that the Syr­i­an and Russ­ian mil­i­taries have fought the war to date. The Krem­lin held the keys to whether this feared slaugh­ter of civil­ians pro­ceed­ed because the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary was inca­pable of sus­tain­ing an offen­sive with­out Russ­ian aer­i­al sup­port. Inten­sive inter­na­tion­al pres­sure on the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment ulti­mate­ly per- suad­ed Pres­i­dent Putin to agree with Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Erdo­gan to a cease­fire in Idlib, begin­ning in Sep­tem­ber. Whether that cease­fire fails, as oth­ers have, or holds remains to be seen at time of writ­ing in ear­ly Decem­ber, but its exis­tence shows that even in as com­pli­cat­ed a sit­u­a­tion as wartime Syr­ia, con­cert­ed pres- sure can save lives. The after­math of the Sau­di government’s grue­some mur­der of Jamal Khashog­gi at its Istan­bul con­sulate pro­vid­ed anoth­er exam­ple of wide­spread though still selec­tive mul­ti­lat­er­al pres­sure. It is unfor­tu­nate that it took the killing of a pro­mi- nent jour­nal­ist, rather than of count­less unknown Yemeni civil­ians, to mobi­lize glob­al out­rage at Riyadh’s human rights record, but this sin­gle mur­der turned out to be gal­va­niz­ing. The Sau­di gov­ern­ment advanced a series of chang­ing cov­er sto­ries, each refut­ed with evi­dence released piece-by-piece by the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment (which con­tin­ued to per­se­cute its own jour­nal­ists, activists, aca- demics, and politi­cians who dared to crit­i­cize Pres­i­dent Erdogan).

Grad­u­al­ly, the Unit­ed States and Cana­da imposed tar­get­ed sanc­tions against many of the Saud­is impli­cat­ed in the mur­der. In Europe, Ger­many took the un- prece­dent­ed step of bar­ring 18 Sau­di offi­cials from enter­ing the 26-nation Schen­gen Zone, while Ger­many, the Nether­lands, Den­mark, and Fin­land stopped arms sales to the king­dom. Yet Pres­i­dent Trump point­ed­ly refused to endorse the CIA’s report­ed find­ing that the Sau­di crown prince had like­ly ordered Khashoggi’s mur­der, offer­ing a cav­a­lier and effec­tive­ly excul­pa­to­ry, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump, like his British and French coun­ter­parts, re- fused to stop lucra­tive arms sales to Sau­di Ara­bia, as if an inde­ter­mi­nate num- ber of domes­tic jobs out­weighed the large-scale loss of Yemeni civil­ian lives. Many mem­bers of the US Con­gress from both parties—along with mem­bers of the US media and public—denounced this cal­lous calculation.


Pres­sure from a group of African states was key to final­ly per­suad­ing Pres­i­dent Joseph Kabi­la of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go to sched­ule elec­tions for his suc­ces­sor. Barred from seek­ing re-elec­tion by con­sti­tu­tion­al term lim­its yet re- luc­tant to give up pow­er, Kabi­la had deployed secu­ri­ty forces to detain and even fire upon pro-democ­ra­cy activists. He relent­ed only after coor­di­nat­ed pres­sure from African states—foremost Ango­la and South Africa—as well as such West­ern gov­ern­ments as the Unit­ed States and Bel­gium. At time of writ­ing, it was unclear whether the elec­tions sched­uled for Decem­ber 23 would take place and whether con­di­tions would be free and fair. The threat of mass African with­draw­al from the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court con- tin­ued to ebb in the wake of push­back from African gov­ern­ments and civic groups sup­port­ing the ICC. To date, the only African state to have with­drawn is Burun­di, whose pres­i­dent, Pierre Nku­run­z­iza, hopes to avoid crim­i­nal charges for his bru­tal repres­sion of oppo­si­tion to his amend­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al term lim­its on his tenure. The UN Human Rights Coun­cil repu­di­at­ed Nkurunziza’s quest for immu­ni­ty by reaf­firm­ing UN scruti­ny of Burundi’s rights record by a vote of 23 to 7 with 17 abstentions.


Mul­ti­lat­er­al pres­sure also began build­ing on the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, which rep­re­sents a dan­ger­ous chal­lenge to human rights not only because of the sev­er- ity of its repression—the worst since the vio­lent sup­pres­sion of the Tianan­men Square democ­ra­cy move­ment of 1989—but also because it rep­re­sents an auto- crat’s dream: the prospect of long-term pow­er and eco­nom­ic gain with­out human rights, democ­ra­cy, or the rule of law. But the last year saw greater scruti­ny of the down­side of such unac­count­able gov­ern­ment. Some crit­ics focused on Chi­nese author­i­ties’ mass-sur­veil­lance am- bitions—the deploy­ment of sys­tems that use facial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware, arti­fi- cial intel­li­gence, and big data to more effec­tive­ly mon­i­tor the pop­u­la­tion and pre­dict, among oth­er things, polit­i­cal loy­al­ty. Inter­na­tion­al busi­ness­es also came under grow­ing pres­sure not to become com­plic­it in these intru­sive prac- tices. The issue receiv­ing the most atten­tion was the Chi­nese government’s mass arbi- trary deten­tion for “re-edu­ca­tion” of upwards of 1 mil­lion Mus­lims in the Xin­jiang region, most­ly eth­nic Uyghurs, to force them to dis­own their Mus­lim faith and eth­nic iden­ti­ty. This brain­wash­ing effort is not lim­it­ed to China’s bur­geon­ing de- ten­tion facil­i­ties: the gov­ern­ment has deployed some 1 mil­lion offi­cials to live in Mus­lims’ homes and spy on them to ensure their polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al loy­al­ty. In response, Chi­na faced tough ques­tions from many coun­tries dur­ing a peri­od­ic review at the UN Human Rights Coun­cil, and a coali­tion of 15 West­ern ambas­sa- dors, spear­head­ed by Cana­da, sought to chal­lenge Xinjiang’s par­ty sec­re­tary, Chen Quan­guo, over these abus­es. Speak­ing to the Human Rights Coun­cil just one week after her appoint­ment, the new UN high com­mis­sion­er for human rights, for­mer Chilean Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet, expressed con­cern at the crack­down on Uyghurs and called for access to the region. How­ev­er, hav­ing come to the defense of Mus­lims per­se­cut­ed by Myan­mar, the 57 Mus­lim-major­i­ty coun­tries of the OIC at time of writ­ing had yet to speak out in defense of China’s Mus­lims, oth­er than Turkey rais­ing the issue at the UN and Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the country’s rul­ing coali­tion, speak­ing pub­licly about it.

Immi­gra­tion and Asylum 

In the West, the most divi­sive issue seized upon by auto­crat­ic politi­cians was im- migra­tion, even in such places as Poland and east­ern Ger­many that have rela- tive­ly few immi­grants. Some cen­trist politi­cians cal­cu­lat­ed that the best way to defeat this auto­crat­ic threat was to ape it, even at the cost of main­stream­ing its rhetoric of hate and divi­sive­ness. That strat­e­gy failed mis­er­ably, for exam­ple, for Germany’s inte­ri­or min­is­ter, Horst See­hofer, whose Chris­t­ian Social Union fared poor­ly in elec­tions in its Bavar­i­an home, while the far right gained. By con­trast, the most out­spo­ken Ger­man oppo­nents of the far right, the Greens, enjoyed un- prece­dent­ed suc­cess. The results of local elec­tions in the Nether­lands and Bel- gium and gen­er­al elec­tions in Lux­em­bourg sent sim­i­lar mes­sages. But the push­back against the xeno­pho­bic response to immigration—and the Is- lam­o­pho­bia that often accom­pa­nied it—was not as strong as need­ed. Euro­pean gov­ern­ments, for exam­ple, have expend­ed too lit­tle ener­gy assess­ing poli­cies that have poor­ly inte­grat­ed long­stand­ing immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. That fail­ure, in turn, facil­i­tates the demo­niz­ing of new­com­ers. Instead, Euro­pean lead­ers sought to close their bor­ders even to asy­lum seek­ers, who are enti­tled to an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the case that they deserve pro­tec­tion. They also sought to make it eas­i­er to deny asy­lum even to those who do arrive, on the grounds they could have sought pro­tec­tion in a coun­try out­side the EU that it con­sid­ers “safe,” even though many lack the capac­i­ty to process asy­lum claims or to pro­vide effec­tive pro­tec­tion. And the depor­ta­tions of migrants who arrived seek­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, who most­ly have no right to enter or re- main, were often not con­duct­ed humane­ly or safe­ly. Hun­gary, Bul­gar­ia, Croa­t­ia, Poland, Spain, and Greece forced peo­ple back to non-EU coun­tries, in some cas­es vio­lent­ly. Italy led efforts to get the Libyan Coast Guard to return migrants to night­mar­ish con­di­tions of deten­tion in Libya and blocked human­i­tar­i­an res- cue efforts in the Mediter­ranean Sea, appar­ent­ly with the cal­lous hope that more drown­ings at sea would deter fur­ther migra­tion. The EU also enlist­ed prob­lem- atic gov­ern­ments such as Sudan and Mali to reduce the num­ber of migrants and asy­lum seek­ers reach­ing Europe. In the Unit­ed States, Pres­i­dent Trump used the per­ceived threat of a car­a­van of asy­lum seek­ers flee­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­can vio­lence to mobi­lize his polit­i­cal base just before the US con­gres­sion­al elec­tions. He went so far as to deploy 5,000 US troops along the Mex­i­can bor­der in a waste­ful polit­i­cal stunt. He also ordered the sep­a­ra­tion of immi­grant chil­dren from their par­ents and ille­gal­ly restrict­ed the right of asy­lum seek­ers to present their case upon arrival at the border.

Despite wide­spread crit­i­cism of the fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion pol­i­cy, Trump’s polit­i­cal oppo­nents large­ly failed to artic­u­late an alter­na­tive pos­i­tive vision on immi­gra- tion—for exam­ple, one that dis­tin­guish­es between long-time immi­grants who have effec­tive­ly become Amer­i­cans in all but papers (often with US cit­i­zen chil- dren and spous­es and estab­lished places in the work­place and the com­mu­ni­ty) and recent arrivals who are not seek­ing asy­lum and typ­i­cal­ly have no strong claim to stay. Despite the divi­sive­ness of US pol­i­tics, a broad con­sen­sus for immi­gra­tion re- form has been forged in the past, so it should be pos­si­ble to artic­u­late a vision that facil­i­tates strong bor­der enforce­ment while respect­ing asy­lum for refugees and the human equi­ties that should pro­tect most long-term immi­grants from de- portation.
Beyond an Anniversary 
The chal­lenges of the past year arose as the world cel­e­brat­ed the 70th anniv­er- sary of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights—as well as the 20th anniv­er- sary of the treaty found­ing the ICC and the 40th anniver­sary of Human Rights Watch. Clear­ly this is no moment for com­pla­cen­cy. Just as human rights stan- dards have become deeply entrenched as a way of mea­sur­ing how gov­ern­ments treat their peo­ple, human rights are under threat. Despite the unfa­vor­able winds, the past year shows that defend­ing human rights remains a wor­thy imper­a­tive. When gov­ern­ments see polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic ad- van­tage in vio­lat­ing rights, rights defend­ers still can raise the price of abuse and shift the cost-ben­e­fit cal­cu­lus to con­vince gov­ern­ments that repres­sion does not pay. The ter­rain for the fight has shift­ed, with many long-time par­tic­i­pants miss- ing in action or even switch­ing sides. But effec­tive coali­tions have emerged to oppose gov­ern­ments that are not account­able to their peo­ple and respect­ful of their rights. With this report, Human Rights Watch seeks to expand this re-ener- gized glob­al defense of a rights-respect­ing future. 







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