2017 has ended. It has been a year that often felt a little unreal seen from peaceful northern Europe. The news was filled with war, suffering, refugees, terror, increased political polarization and an endless stream of aggressive twittering. 2017 did not feel like a good year. When choosing which countries and areas to present as examples of the current state of human rights, the challenge was to find good examples, rather it was deciding which ones to leave out. As there were many. And this should not be interpreted as them not being important.
Reviewing human rights in 2017
In 2017, as in the years before, one of the biggest news stories was the ongoing war in Syria. Rebel groups, ISIS and the Syrian president, Bashir al-Assad, has all acted in violation of international laws of war. Both civilians and civilian structures (such as hospitals) were attacked in the ongoing war, a war where the starving and maimed civilians have been held hostage. Almost 50 per cent of the Syrian population has fled their homes. Journalists and human rights activists have been targeted by both rebel groups, ISIS and the government forces.
On July 9th, Mosul, Iraq, was declared as liberated after being under ISIS control since June 2014. Retaking the city came at great cost; an estimated thousand troop were killed in the process and the number of civilians killed is probably even higher. Many civilians were killed by ISIS, some perished in airstrikes, and at least seven journalists have been reported as killed during the battle of Mosul1. And being “liberated” does not mean that there has been an end to the human rights violations in the area. There are for instance reports of men and boys being held without trial in inhumane conditions, as well as the torturing and unlawful execution of people who are suspected of collaborating with or supporting ISIS2.
Unlawful executions have been reported in other countries as well, for instance in the Philippines were president Rodrigo Duterte has followed up on his election campaign promise of killing all suspected drug dealers and “dumping so many bodies in the Manila Bay that the fish will grow fat”3. After he took office in 2016, there has been a reported surge in the number of killings by both police and unidentified gunmen. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that “Duterte has ignored calls for an official probe into these killings. Instead, he has said the killings show the “success” of his anti-drug campaign and urge the police to “seize the momentum”4.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, also “seized the momentum” after the failed coup of 2016. The purges and persecution against alleged enemies of the state continued throughout 2017. Many dissenters were forced to flee the country, provided they could leave at all; many who have tried to move abroad, have found that their passports have been revoked. Others lost their jobs and thousands more were imprisoned. Media was attacked and newspapers forced to close. The Kurdish areas have also been repeatedly attacked, including areas of Kurdish influence in Syria.
The controversial EU-Turkey deal in which Turkey has agreed to stop refugees from entering Europe through Turkey in exchange for trade benefits, is also being used as a bargaining chip by Erdoğan, who wants a carte blanche from Western allies in his pursuit of alleged enemies. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized the deal saying Turkey is not a safe place for the refugees and that it violates the human rights of the individuals affected.
In August 2017, many became aware of the plight of the Rohingya people, who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in December that conservative estimates say that 6.700 Rohingya were killed, and that at least 730 of these were children under the age of five5. The United Nations described the attacks as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and the stories told by survivors of burned villages, rape and killings were horrifying.
In Zimbabwe, the 37-year authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe was brought to an end, as the military took over when Mugabe fired his vice-president in a perceived effort to make way for his wife Grace to fill this position. Mugabwe’s policies pushed the country into poverty and inflation soared after he introduced a program of land seizure from white farmers. Despite the suffering of his people he and his wife lived in luxury. He rigged elections and critics were tortured and murdered. However, Mugabe’s long list of abuse and violations of human rights will not be investigated as he has been granted immunity and protection as well as a generous pension when he resigned.
In Iran, President Rouhani had promised to ease up on the repression of civil and political freedoms prior to the elections in May. He was reelected but his promises have so far not been fulfilled. The civil unrest that became prevalent in Tehran late last year was probably partly an expression of frustration over the fact that Iran still is a place where human rights are routinely abused. Also, the unrest has been attributed to power struggles at the top of Iranian society.
After visiting Libya, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the government could and should lead efforts to urgently address arbitrary detention, torture and other grave violations that must be brought to an end6. Libya, torn between warring factions and without a functioning central government, has become a haven for human traffickers and religious extremists.
The civil war in South Sudan continued through 2017, making Africa’s newest county a very unsafe place. Many NGOs have been forced to leave the county for safety reasons. Corruption is widespread and the judicial system is deeply flawed.
Freedom of expression is reported continuing to shrink in Russia as president Vladimir Putin continues to cast criticism of the government as threats to state security and public stability. New rules have intensified surveillance also online and the persecution of critiques has been stepped up. The 2012 “foreign agents” laws strongly effects nongovernmental organizations ability to work within the country.
China, the worlds second largest economy, has also a long way to go when it comes to fulfil human rights. Freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion are especially threatened here. Several human rights lawyers and activists are imprisoned, media is controlled by the government’s propaganda department, there is widespread internet censorship and surveillance.
The oil-rich country of Venezuela has fallen into hyperinflation and economic disaster under president Maduro and the country is now facing both a humanitarian and human rights crisis. There is now a serious shortage of food and medicine in the country and those who criticize the government, be it demonstrators or political opposition, have been arbitrary arrested, tortured and imprisoned.
In Bangladesh secular bloggers, academics, publishers, gay rights activists and religious minorities still fear attacks by Islamic extremists and although the authorities have condemned such attacks “some recommended that individuals holding unpopular views censor themselves, implying that the responsibility for avoiding such attacks lay with the victims” and not the government7. Just as 2017 came to an end a blogger was arrested in Bangladesh charged with defamatory language against the prophet Mohammad in a blog post8, which shows that those that are supposed to protect their citizen’s freedom of speech instead take part in suppressing it.
Last, but not least, the Yemeni conflict has now lasted over 1000 days and more than three million people have been forced to flee. Two million of which are still displaced. Cholera and a man-made famine has made the situation worse, and the United Nations estimates that 75% percent of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance9. Civilians are directly targeted; hospitals, schools, residential areas and markets are bombed. Children as young as 10 years were recruited to take part in hostilities10.
Some of the countries that has been mentioned here are ruled, or were recently ruled, by the more traditional dictators. Dictators who came to power through coups, revolutions or states of emergency. Who have absolute power over their country. We now see that a new type of leaders is emerging, not trough coups but through legal elections. But, when in power they start attacking and undermining the very same system that got them elected. Victor Orbán of Hungary is a good example of such a leader. So is the president of the United States.
Trump and the rise of populist leaders
On January 11th 2018 the world learned that the American president, Mr. Donald Trump, had referred to immigrants to the United States from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, asking “why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?” The president added that he would prefer having people from countries such as Norway come to the US11. The comment was, not surprisingly, met with both harsh criticism and ridicule, but sadly it was just one of now countless racist or degrading comments made by the most powerful man in the world during his first year in office. Trump has for instance said that Mexicans in the US are people “with lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”.12 He has made fun of people with disabilities, during the election campaign he talked about removing some of women’s rights, he demonized Muslims and sought to restrict their ability to enter the country through his controversial “travel ban”.
President Trump claims to speak for the American people, and that he will be able to fix America’s problems and but in doing so he should not be questioned, like federal judges has been doing after he introduced the travel ban. He is willing to sacrifice the rights of others in the name of his majority. Trump seems to disregard human rights at home, and it may not come as a surprise that he does not raise the issue when visiting other countries either. During his trip to Asia last fall Trump actually praised Duterte on doing an “unbelievable job” in fighting drug related crime in the Philippines and according to Reuters13 the Chinese diplomats has been “relieved” to learn that Trump (as opposed to his predecessor) wasn’t all that concerned with human rights.
Many countries have seen a rise of public discontent over the current situation, which in turn has opened the way for the rise of populism and political polarization. Europe, for instance, experienced a migrant crisis in 2015 as large number of people fled wars, conflict zones or poverty. Europe answered with stricter regulations and, in some cases, physical fences. Refugees and migrants are increasingly being blamed for problems such as unemployment, or subjected to hostility from people who fear that their national or cultural identity is threatened by the newcomers. Right wing parties have gained support and xenophobia is increasing in many European countries.
In stark contrast to Trump’s lack of interest in human rights stands the message from Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty. In Amnesty’s Annual Report from 2017 The State of the World’s Human Rights he says that speaking up again human rights abuses is more important than ever as politicians in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in the world are “wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric” that is pointing towards a more divided and dangerous world. Human rights have experienced a global pushback and the situation of 2016 left the “global response to mass atrocities perilously weak”.14 Shetty continues “Whether it is Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan or Duerte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people. 2016 was the year when the cynical use of “us vs them” narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes”.
Kenneth Roth, the Director of Human Rights Watch, touches upon the same areas of concern in his essay “The dangerous Rise of Populism: Global Attacks on Human Rights”15. Roth is worried about the rise of leaders who are willing to disregard minority groups’ human rights and for their own gain promise to “protect” the people from perceived evils and threats. He says that instead of taking on these “populist attacks on human rights too many Western leaders are lying low, hoping the winds of populism will blow over” and some Europeans politicians even “justify hostility towards immigrants – especially Muslims – by suggesting that these communities want to replicate the suppression of women or gays and lesbians in certain of their home countries”. Roth also claims that leaders such as Putin, Erdoğan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, and al-Assad, appear only to gain strength “in their repressive path by the rise of Western populism, and by the West’s muted response”16.
The list of human rights violations could go on and on. We’ve seen both Salil and Roth argue, that there is much to be concerned about. But, still there is cause to end on a positive note. Because 2017 was probably the best year we’ve seen, ever.
Human rights are so much more than the civil and political rights, such as the right to apply for asylum, freedom of expression and assembly. Human rights are also economic, social and cultural rights. Human rights include the right to education, the right to clean water and equal opportunity. Many of these areas have never been better in the history of mankind.
Today more people learn to read and are educated than ever before. Fewer people starve, less children die, and in many places the opportunities for women and girls are improving greatly. According to calculations the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day) decreases by 217 000 every day, at the same time 325 000 people gain access to electricity and another 300 000 gain access to clean drinking water.17
These developments are pretty amazing. But it is important to keep fighting for progress. We also need to hold on to the rights we have and support those who do not have them to avoid going backwards. Shetty and Roth agree on what is necessary; individuals need to speak up and fight back. This can be done through the traditional media, through civil society and the actions of governments. But also, and most importantly they say, the general public needs to act. We can all work for change through supporting the work of non-governmental organizations, taking an active part in politics and in social media. We must demand that the decisions made by our politicians are based on facts and that human rights are respected. We should not accept that someone else is losing their rights today, as it might be ours that is taken away tomorrow. We cannot stay silent.