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The year that was: Human rights in decline

The year that was: Human rights in decline


The past year has been one of political turmoil, violent conflict and escalating human rights abuses. Agencies are warning of a decline in human rights globally, both as a result of humanitarian crises across the Middle East and Africa, but also in Western countries where populist nationalism has been rising and “national security” measures see a kind of creeping authoritarianism.

A new report by CIVICUS Monitor paints an alarming picture of the state of human rights worldwide.

Findings show that 3.2 billion people live in countries where civic space is repressed or closed, while only nine countries, all of which are in Europe, are considered “open”.

The report found that most civic space violations are committed by state authorities using excessive force against peaceful protestors or detaining activists and journalists.

Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, India, Ethiopia, Turkey, Yemen and Syria were some of the worst cases of deadly attacks on civilian protestors (some of which have spiralled into outright civil war).

For example, police in Mexico shot dead 10 people as members of the teachers’ union protested education reforms in Oaxaca in late June.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recently received TIME magazine’s glossy, audience-voted “Person of the Year” title, has overseen the latest uprising in Kashmir where Indian administration is being violently protested and over 90 people have been killed with many more sustaining brutal injuries.

Amnesty International’s 2015-16 Report is even more damning and urgent, warning of an “insidious and creeping trend undermining human rights” which threatens to unravel 70 years of human rights progress.

This comes at a time when the United Nations wraps up 2016 by launching its largest ever aid appeal – $22bn – to cover the cost of humanitarian responses across the globe. Humanitarian needs have not been this great since the UN’s founding, and half of that aid target will go to just four countries alone, including Syria and Iraq.

Protests in London, 2015 (Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr)
Protests in London, 2015 (Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr)

“Not in living memory have so many people needed our support and solidarity to survive and live in safety and dignity,” said UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien.

Unimaginable humanitarian crises are also taking place in Yemen, South Sudan and Lake Chad Basin, where wide-spread starvation is worsening amidst violent conflict.

Earlier this month the UN warned of “another Rwanda” after nearly three years of fighting in South Sudan has culminated in ethnic cleansing in the country.

After five years of war in Syria, which has killed or displaced over half the pre-war population, the world’s capacity to burden-share during the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II has been tested and failed miserably.

With millions of people on the move, many of which are being denied their right to refuge, waves of anti-immigration sentiment have been captured and capitalised on by populist nationalist leaders across the West.

Austria, Hungary, Poland, France, Finland and Britain have all seen significant increases in right-wing support in recent years, according to this infographic from The New York Times.

In Hungary “irregular entry” across its borders was criminalised as a response to the global refugee crisis, receiving condemnation from human rights agencies but popular support domestically.

Despite an undoubted rise in nationalism across Europe, it is important to remember that this is happening in ways that are locally specific, somewhat fragmented and context dependent. Much of the journalism on rising nationalism in Europe has implied a kind of sweeping trend originating from a uniform source, which is not entirely accurate.

Syrians seeking asylum gather at the Greece-Macedonia border, 2015 (Credit: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres/Wikimedia Commons)
Syrians seeking asylum gather at the Greece-Macedonia border, 2015 (Credit: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres/Wikimedia Commons)

For example, nationalist sentiment has thrived in Poland and Hungary since before the Cold War and these countries’ responses to the global refugee crisis are symptomatic of these urges. Mass migration simply gives opportunistic conservative politicians capital.

These xenophobic sentiments and uneasiness over border security, compounded by deadly terrorist attacks in Europe, have given impetus to rights violations such as intrusive counter-terrorism laws, indefinite detention, mass surveillance and excessive use of force.

For the sake of “national security” the UK parliament last month passed a bill that encompasses the most extensive surveillance measures on ordinary citizens “ever set out in a democratic society”.

The bill, called “Snooper’s Charter”, will force internet and telcoms companies to keep detailed records of every single app and website accessed by UK citizens for a period of 12 months.

And who’s going to care when we’re all so terrified of perceived threats all around us?

The election of Donald Trump in the US last month, running on a protectionist, nationalist and anti-immigration agenda, who outwardly claimed to support waterboarding and other acts of torture, was symbolic of 2016’s big middle finger to the Declaration of Human Rights.

While it could be rightly argued that states apply human rights frameworks arbitrarily anyway, and that the human rights framework itself is controversial (what constitutes a human right and why should it be intrinsic?) data is showing that 2016 and more recent years have been particularly appalling for human suffering, restrictions on freedom and violent government crackdowns.

Black Lives Matter protest, US, 2015 (Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr)
Black Lives Matter protest, US, 2015 (Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr)

The CIVICUS Monitor’s report has shown that although the worst violations are occurring in the Middle East, Africa and the Americas, rights violations are rife in many Western countries while conversely, welcome progress is being made in countries like Belize and Togo.

CIVICUS Monitor states that Australia “enjoys a robust civic space”, however recent measures “aimed at curbing criticism of the treatment of refugees and damage to the environment” means our country fails to make the list of those with “open” civic spaces.

Likewise, Amnesty International’s 2015-16 Report points to Australia’s “punitive approach to asylum-seekers arriving by boat” and our disproportionate incarceration rate of Aboriginal people.

In the US, where black people are incarcerated at a rate five times that of white people, human rights continue to be violated as prisoners are detained and tortured under CIA programmes.

While the US has responded to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) that it opposes any forms of arbitrary detention or torture, Amnesty International reports that it has failed to take any action to curb its human rights abuses.

Outgoing President Obama may have the “cool guy” image down pat but a dark cloud will likely hang over his foreign policy legacy as his drone strike program – created by the White House and the CIA under former President Bush, and dramatically accelerated under Obama – has killed thousands of alleged “combatants” including US citizens, along with over 100 civilians (this is the official US tally though it is likely to be much higher).

That the US President can decide who dies, at any point, whether they’re on the battle field or not, and without opportunity for fair trial, is frightening.

Saying goodbye to 2016 will be easy, however the depth of humanitarian crises and human rights violations we’re facing are not likely to go away any time soon.

If you’re financially capable, please consider making a monetary donation to an emergency humanitarian appeal with an organisation of your choosing.


Featured image: A Kurdish boy hangs on to a fence at a camp in Sanliurfa Province, 2014 (Credit: Yannis Behrakis, Reuters/Flickr)

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Megan Giles

Communications Director at WhyDev
Megan is WhyDev's former chief editor and is the Media Coordinator at Oxfam Australia. She has an MA in International Development and a broad range of development interests, including global trade, Indigenous rights, gender equality, Middle Eastern politics and the representation of Islam and terrorism in media discourse. She tweets at @Megan_Giles_ Any of her views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of her employers.

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