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Rise of demagogues a threat to human rights – report

17 January 20170 comments

The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe is a threat to basic human rights and the protection of minorities, according to independent think tank Human Rights Watch.

In its recently released World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch says Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the entire postwar human rights system at risk.

Washington-based HRW says autocratic leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security.

“These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality,” the 687-page report said.

In his introduction to the report – the 27th edition – Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will.

“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights,” Mr Roth said.

“Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism.

They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny,” he said.

Mr Roth cited Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US as an example of the politics of intolerance. He said that Mr Trump responded to those discontented with their economic situation and an increasingly multicultural society with rhetoric that rejected basic principles of dignity and equality.

Mr Roth said Trump’s campaign floated proposals that would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women’s rights and media freedoms, and to use torture.

He said that unless Trump repudiated these proposals, his administration risked committing massive rights violations in the US and shirking a longstanding, bipartisan belief, however imperfectly applied, in a rights-based foreign policy agenda.

Mr Roth said in Europe a similar populism sought to blame economic dislocation on migration.

“The campaign for Brexit was perhaps the most prominent illustration,” he said.

“Instead of scapegoating those fleeing persecution, torture, and war, governments should invest to help immigrant communities integrate and fully participate in society,” Mr Roth said.

“Public officials also have a duty to reject the hatred and intolerance of the populists while supporting independent and impartial courts as a bulwark against the targeting of vulnerable minorities,” he said.

The report argues that populist-fueled passions obscured the longer-term dangers to a society of autocratic rule.

It cited Russian President Vladimir Putin who responded to popular discontent in 2011 with a repressive agenda, including draconian restrictions on free speech and assembly, unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and laws severely restricting independent groups.

The report also pointed to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who, when concerned about the slowdown in economic growth, embarked on the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen era.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, has honed a war-crime strategy of targeting civilians in opposition areas, flouting the most fundamental requirements of the laws of war, the report said.

“Forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have also routinely attacked civilians and executed people in custody while encouraging and carrying out attacks on civilian populations around the globe,” it said.

The report said more than five million Syrians fleeing the conflict have faced daunting obstacles in finding safety. Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are hosting millions of Syrian refugees but have largely closed their borders to new arrivals.

It said European Union leaders have failed to share responsibility fairly for asylum seekers or to create safe routes for refugees.

Despite years of US leadership on refugee resettlement, the US resettled only 12,000 Syrian refugees last year, and Trump has threatened to end the program, the report said.

In Africa, a disconcerting number of leaders have removed or extended term limits – the “constitutional coup” – to stay in office, while others have used violent crackdowns to suppress protests over unfair elections or corrupt or predatory rule. Several African leaders, feeling vulnerable to prosecution, harshly criticized the International Criminal Court and three countries announced their withdrawal, the report said.

“This global attack needs a vigorous reaffirmation and defense of the human rights values underpinning the system,” Mr Roth said.

“Yet too many public officials seem to have their heads in the sand, hoping the winds of populism will blow over. Others emulate the populists, hoping to pre-empt their message but instead reinforcing it,” he said.

“Governments ostensibly committed to human rights should defend these principles far more vigorously and consistently,” Mr Roth said, “including democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that support broad initiatives at the United Nations but rarely take the lead in responding to particular countries in crisis.”

“Ultimately, responsibility lies with the public. Demagogues build popular support by proffering false explanations and cheap solutions to genuine ills.

“The antidote is for voters to demand a politics based on truth and the values on which rights-respecting democracy is built. A strong popular reaction, using every means available – civic groups, political parties, traditional and social media – is the best defence of the values that so many still cherish.

“We forget at our peril the demagogues of the past: the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual.

“When populists treat rights as obstacles to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda,” Mr Roth said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist