Populism has emboldened authoritarian leaders around the world but Human Rights Watch hails resistance in annual report
The broad picture is still dark and, with America turning angrily inward and Britain distracted by its chaotic divorce from Europe, human rights have few powerful champions
Activists have decried the rise of US President Donald Trump and his embrace of populist strongmen as a blow to the global campaign for human rights, but said they have seen a promising resistance movement.
In its annual report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch tracked unchecked abuse in unstable states like Syria and Myanmar, authoritarian trends in powers like Turkey and China – and also weighed in on year one of Trump’s White House.
Under Trump, the US cosied up to strongmen like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and encouraged Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign adventures. But HRW has not given up hope.
In an interview, the group’s executive director Ken Roth said he saw growing civic and political resistance to the world’s populist moment.
“The big theme this year is really how much the world has changed,” Roth said. “Because a year ago, just as Donald Trump was entering the White House, it was a moment of despair.
“It seemed as if the authoritarian populists were in the ascendancy and there was nothing we could do to stop them.
“What has been encouraging over the last year is how much resistance we’ve seen in many countries to this rise of populism.”
Roth cited first of all the example of the United States, where judges and activists have battled back – not always successfully – against measures like Trump’s multiple attempts to curb immigration from several Muslim-majority nations.
But he also hailed the example of President Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in France over the nationalist Marine Le Pen and his championing of international rights causes.
In Europe, European Union and some national leaders have begun to stand up to what Roth calls the efforts by governments in Hungary and Poland to “institute illiberal democracies”.
Roth also cited signs Duterte is finally encountering domestic resistance to his brutal anti-drugs crackdown and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has been confronted by street protests.
But the broad picture is still dark and, with America turning angrily inward and Britain distracted by its chaotic divorce from Europe, human rights have few powerful champions.
It was Iceland that began the push that led Duterte to rein in his “murderous police”, Roth argued, and the Netherlands that led calls for an end to the Saudi blockade of Yemen.
And, when Russia vetoed bids to hold Syria to account, “it was the superpower of Lichtenstein that led an effort at the UN General Assembly to appoint a special prosecutor”.
But, despite the efforts of the plucky smaller countries, the HRW report still painted a grim picture of human rights in many parts of the world, broken down country by country.
Myanmar’scautious year-old transition towards elected civilian rule was interrupted by a “massive human rights and humanitarian crisis” for its Muslim minority, the report said.
According to HRW, 650,000 members of the Rohingya minority fled “mass killings, sexual violence, arson and other abuses amounting to crimes against humanity by the security forces”.
Most criticism – and some new US sanctions – has been aimed at Myanmar’s generals, who still control security operations, sparing the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
For Roth, the world’s failure to confront the Nobel peace laureate and former political prisoner was a mistake.
“Nobody believes that she led the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, but she has in essence defended it. She’s refused to publicly criticise it,” he said. “And nonetheless many western governments have been very reluctant to put serious pressure on the Burmese army to stop.”
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of regional allies battling Yemen’s Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, nominally on behalf of exiled president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Many Yemenis, UN reports and rights groups like HRW have complained that US and British-supplied Saudi weapons have been fired indiscriminately into civilian areas.
“The war is also exacerbating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. Both sides are unlawfully impeding the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid,” the report said.
The United States, however, has stood firmly behind Riyadh and Trump is very pleased with his close ties with the Saudi crown prince, who is the royal heir and the country’s de facto leader.
Supporters point to the prince’s domestic reform agenda, so far marked mainly by his reopening of cinemas, allowing women to drive and arresting princes suspected of corruption. But his blockade of Qatar and attempt to force the Lebanese prime minister to resign have embarrassed his western friends and his blockade of Yemeni ports triggered outrage.
Roth said bombings and blockades left more than 6 million Yemenis facing starvation and a million with cholera.
“So I take this view of the Saudi crown prince as being a reformer with a big grain of salt,” he said.