Are Human Rights Defenders making a comeback? Kenneth Roth thinks so!

January 19, 2019

Kenneth Roth – the executive director of Human Rights Watch – published on 17 January 2019 a long post in Foreign Policy which summarizes his introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2018. [for last year’s report, see:]. “With larger powers in retreat”, he says, “small countries and civil society groups have stepped up—and they have won some significant victories”. Here some large extracts:

A participant holds a banner with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration on Dec. 21, 2018.

In some ways these are dark times for human rights. Yet while the autocrats capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who spread hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance. The excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a counterattack. That reaction is increasing the cost of serious human rights violations, which ultimately is the best way to force abusive governments to curb them. This mounting pressure illustrates the possibility of defending human rights—indeed, the responsibility to do so­—even in darker times.

There is no denying that the forces of authoritarianism are on the rise, with Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, representing the latest example. He joined the ranks of such established figures as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and China’s President Xi Jinping. Even in Western democracies, autocratic policies were advanced by such leaders as Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, and U.S. President Donald Trump. Some governments took advantage of this trend to commit mass atrocities, including in Syria (against civilians in anti-government areas), Myanmar (against Rohingya Muslims), and Yemen (the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing and blockading of civilians).

Yet there was also considerable pushback against authoritarianism. Malaysian voters ousted their corrupt prime minister, ..In the Maldives, voters rejected their autocratic president, Abdulla Yameen. In Armenia, whose government was mired in corruption, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had to step down amid massive protests. Ethiopia, under popular pressure, replaced a long-abusive government with a new one led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has embarked on an impressive reform agenda. And, of course, U.S. voters in the midterm elections for the House of Representatives seemed to rebuke Trump’s divisive policies.

In many cases, particularly in Central Europe, the public led the resistance in the streets.

Large crowds in Budapest protested Orban’s moves to shut Central European University, an academic bastion of liberal inquiry and thought, and to impose a “slave law” to compensate for workers fleeing Orban’s “illiberal democracy” by authorizing extended overtime with pay delayed up to three years. Tens of thousands of Poles repeatedly took to the streets to defend their courts from the ruling party’s attempts to undermine their independence. Czech and Romanian leaders also faced large anti-corruption protests.At times independent institutions of government joined in the resistance. Poland’s independent judges refused to abandon their jobs in the face of ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s efforts to purge them; the European Court of Justice later backed their refusal. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court reversed President Jimmy Morales’s attempt to close down a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body as it investigated his own alleged financial wrongdoing.

Much of this pushback has played out at the U.N.—a noteworthy development because so many autocrats seek to weaken this multilateral institution and undermine the international standards that it sets. And it occurred even though many of the large Western powers were often unwilling to defend human rights abroad.

Trump, as is well known, preferred to embrace autocrats whom he viewed as friendly. The British government, worried about Brexit, largely limited its public advocacy for human rights to countries where there were few British trade or commercial interests. 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 Angela Merkel spoke against anti-rights policies emanating from Moscow as well as Washington but was often beset by political challenges at home. Meanwhile, China and Russia did all they could to undermine global rights enforcement.

Against this challenging backdrop, the leaders of this resistance were frequently coalitions of smaller and midsize states, including some nontraditional allies.

Rather than retreat alongside the larger powers, they stepped forward and assumed greater responsibility, especially at the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which took important—sometimes unprecedented—steps in the past year to increase pressure on Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Opponents of human rights enforcement, such as China, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, carry considerable weight at the council, so it was impressive to see how often they lost. The council played that role even as the Trump administration ordered the United States to withdraw from it—the first country ever to do so.The Human Rights Council made some major advances. For example, the possibility of a Chinese, Russian, or even American veto at the U.N. Security Council appeared to doom any effort to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for its army’s crimes against humanity that sent 700,000 Rohingya fleeing for their lives to Bangladesh. In response, the Human Rights Council, where there is no veto, stepped in to create an investigative mechanism to preserve evidence, identify those responsible, and build cases for prosecution once a tribunal becomes available. That effort won overwhelmingly, with 35 countries in favor and only three against (seven abstained), sending the signal that these atrocities cannot be committed with impunity.In an unusual partnership, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation joined the European Union to co-present the council’s resolution on the Rohingya. Until Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing  of the Rohingya, the organization had opposed all resolutions criticizing any country other than Israel.

With the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Canada taking the lead, the Human Rights Council also rejected Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed effort to avoid scrutiny of war crimes in Yemen…the Human Rights Council resolved to continue an international investigation started last year of war crimes in Yemen by a vote of 21 to eight with 18 abstentions.

The European Union, in response to the Polish government’s efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary and Orban’s implementation of his illiberal democracy in Hungary, 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 European Parliament acted in the case of Hungary. Although Poland and Hungary have the power under unanimity rules to shield each other from the actual imposition 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 governments have used these funds to their political advantage..

….The aftermath of the Saudi government’s gruesome murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate also sparked widespread though still selective multilateral pressure. It is unfortunate that it took the killing of a prominent 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 challenges of the past year arose as the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clearly this is no moment for complacency. Human rights are under threat. Yet the year shows that while some governments see political or economic advantage in violating human rights, defenders of those rights can raise the price of abuse, sometimes forcing governments to recognize that repression does not pay. The terrain for the fight may have shifted, with many longtime participants missing in action or even switching sides. But effective new coalitions have emerged to lead the battle—and they have won some notable victories.

2 Responses to “Are Human Rights Defenders making a comeback? Kenneth Roth thinks so!”

  1. […] It summarizes key human rights issues in more than 100 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events from late 2018 through November 2019. In a keynote essay, Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth examines the increasingly dire threat to the global system for protecting human rights posed by the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping. Deepening and increasingly sophisticated domestic repression show that China’s leaders view human rights at home as an existential threat. That, in turn, has led Beijing to see international laws and institutions for the defense of human rights as an existential threat. As a result, Chinese authorities seek to censor criticism of China overseas, mute attention to human rights in its global engagements, and weaken global rights mechanisms. At stake is a system of governance built on the belief that every person’s dignity deserves respect—that regardless of official interests, limits exist on what states can do to people. [see also:…%5D […]

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