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Human rights at risk across the globe – report

5 February 20240 comments

Last year saw unprecedented suppression of human rights as well as wartime atrocities and cynical transactional diplomacy that had negative impacts on vulnerable people across the globe, according to the latest annual report from NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In her introduction to the report, HRW Executive Director Tirana Hassan said 2023 was “a formidable year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal”.

“Renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas and in Sudan caused tremendous suffering, as did ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and the Sahel. Governments struggled to deal with the hottest year on record and the onslaught of wildfires, drought, and storms that wreaked havoc on millions of people in Bangladesh, Libya, and Canada,” Mr Hassan said.

The report says economic inequality rose around the world, as well as anger about the policy decisions that have left many people struggling to survive.

The rights of women and girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people faced harsh backlashes in many places, exemplified by the Taliban’s gender persecution in Afghanistan, it says.

The report sheets home some of the blame for this to cynical transactional diplomacy

“The drivers of these human rights crises and their consequences often transcend borders and cannot be solved by governments acting alone,” Ms Hassan said.

“Understanding and responding to these threats needs to be rooted in universal principles of international human rights and the rule of law.

“These ideas built on shared human histories agreed upon by nations across all regions 75 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the basis for all contemporary human rights conventions and treaties.”

Ms Hassan said international solidarity was needed to protect human rights.

“Governments that could play a role in helping to improve human rights frequently adopt double standards in applying the human rights framework, which chips away at trust in the institutions responsible for enforcing and protecting rights.

“Governments that are vocal in condemning Israeli government war crimes against civilians in Gaza but silent about Chinese government crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, or demand international prosecution for Russian war crimes in Ukraine while undermining accountability for past US abuses in Afghanistan, weaken the belief in the universality of human rights and the legitimacy of the laws designed to protect them,” she said.

Ms Hassan said governments have found it easier to disregard human rights issues in the international arena in part because the international community is not challenging their violations of human rights at home.

“Across regions, autocrats have worked to erode the independence of key institutions vital for protecting human rights and shrink the space for expressions of dissent with the same end game in mind: to exercise power without constraint,” she said.

“But just as these threats are interconnected, so too is the power of the human rights framework to deliver on the promise of protecting people’s freedom and dignity, no matter who they are or where they live. The protection of human rights has advanced on multiple fronts.”

But the report found some reason for optimism.

“After three years of diplomatic negotiations and a decade of campaigning by civil society groups, 83 countries adopted a political declaration to better protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas during armed conflict,” it said.

“The international pledge is the first to formally address the long-standing practice of warring parties to use aerial bombing, artillery, rockets, and missiles in villages, towns, and cities – the leading cause of civilian casualties in armed conflict around the world.”

The report says six of the world’s top eight arms exporters – the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and South Korea – have adopted the declaration, as well as 25 of 31 NATO member states.

And a number of countries have addressed the rights of long-marginalized communities.

After years of civil society pressure, the Japanese parliament passed its first law to protect LGBT people from “unfair discrimination.”

Nepal’s Supreme Court instructed authorities to recognize same-sex marriages while it considers a case demanding full marriage equality rights.

In Mexico, a civil society coalition persuaded Congress to pass a law establishing full legal capacity and the right to supported decision-making for everyone over 18, benefiting millions of people living with disabilities and older people, while the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Congress must eliminate federal criminal penalties for abortion.

The report had a particular focus on the conflict in Gaza.

“The October 7 attacks by Hamas-led fighters on Israel were a terrifying assault on civilians. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups deliberately killed hundreds of civilians, shot families in their homes, and took more than 200 people hostage, including children, people living with disabilities, and older people,” it said.

“Palestinian armed groups launched thousands of rockets toward Israeli communities. Many countries quickly and justifiably condemned these horrific acts.

“Israel’s government responded by cutting water and electricity to Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians and blocking the entry of all but a trickle of fuel, food, and humanitarian aid – a form of collective punishment that is a war crime. The Israeli military ordered more than a million people in Gaza to evacuate their homes and bombarded densely populated areas with heavy weapons, killing thousands of civilians, including children, and reducing entire blocks to rubble.

“Attacks on populated areas using explosive weapons with wide area effects raise grave concerns of indiscriminate attacks, which are apparent war crimes. Israel used white phosphorus, a chemical that burns human flesh and can cause lifelong suffering, in both Gaza and southern Lebanon.

“Many of the governments that condemned Hamas’ war crimes have been reserved in responding to those by the Israeli government. These governments’ unwillingness to call out Israeli government abuses follows from the refusal by the US and most European Union member countries to urge an end to the Israeli government’s 16-year unlawful closure of Gaza and to recognize the ongoing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians,” the report said.

The report gives an analysis of each country’s human rights record.

Among the most criticised are Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.

The report says: “killings by Saudi Arabian forces of at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers at the Yemen-Saudi border may amount to crimes against humanity. Saudi Arabian authorities conducted arrests of peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and human rights activists and sentenced people to decades-long prison terms or death sentences for social media posts. Abusive practices in detention centres, including torture and ill-treatment, prolonged arbitrary detention, and asset confiscation without any clear legal process, remain pervasive.”

Of China, it says: “ten years into President Xi Jinping’s rule, repression deepens across the country. The Chinese government continues its abusive policies against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which amount to crimes against humanity. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, those who contact family and friends abroad, or who advocate for their culture, language, and religion, risk being treated as ‘separatists’ and have been given harsh prison sentences. Across China, the government is further tightening social controls.

“There is no independent civil society; even small pockets of freedom are eliminated. In Hong Kong, the Chinese government has assumed full control over the city since imposing the National Security Law in 2020.”

Russia is slammed over the eradication of dissent over the war in Ukraine.

“In the second year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have further intensified efforts at home to eradicate any dissent about the war or the Kremlin’s domestic policies. They adopted and enforced new, repressive legislation, issued punitively long prison sentences for peaceful anti-war speech, and forcibly closed several prominent human rights groups.

“Russia remained the most sanctioned country in the world.”

And Australia did not escape criticism.

“Australia is a vibrant democracy that mostly protects the civil and political rights of its citizens; however, its reputation is tarnished by some significant human rights concerns.

“These include the cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as well as its failure to address systemic discrimination against First Nations people. Indigenous people are still overrepresented in Australian prisons. A referendum in October on The Voice, which would have allowed Indigenous people to advise Parliament in the form of an advisory committee, was defeated in every Australian state,” the report said.

Read the full report: World Report 2024 | Human Rights Watch (