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UNITED NATIONS, Jan 12 2017 (IPS) - Populist leaders pose a dangerous threat to human rights, fuelling and justifying intolerance and abuse across the world, said advocacy group Human Rights Watch during the launch of their annual global report.
Among the many challenges the world faces today, Human Rights Watch particularly highlighted the rise of populist leaders and its accompanying rhetoric that undermines the global human rights system in its 2017 World Report, titled Demagogues Threaten Human Rights.
“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights,” Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth said.
Roth noted that populist leaders, who claim to speak “for the people,” treat rights as an “impediment” which allows for the scapegoating of minority communities as a way to address public discontent and solve pressing domestic issues.
“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,” Roth continued.
President-elect Trump’s presidential campaign reflected this politics of intolerance, addressing Americans’ economic frustrations and fears of terrorism by proposing policies such as the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, the creation of a Muslim registry, and the use of torture. If enacted, these Trump administration proposals risk not only creating human rights violations, but also undermining the entire human rights protection system, the report says.
European leaders have demonstrated a similar populism, gaining popular support by blaming economic problems on migration, the report stated. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted that the United Kingdom’s campaign to leave the European Union (EU), also known as “Brexit,” used “divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric.” The committee called on officials to reject such speech.
Though some progress has been made on relocation of asylum seekers, British Prime Minister Theresa May retained an anti-rights rhetoric, including denouncing “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” from challenging UK military forces for human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stating the government’s desire to exempt UK forces abroad from human rights law.
Human Rights Watch criticised leaders’ rejection of rights of certain segments of populations in the name of protecting others, and noted that once human rights are undermined for a few, it opens the possibility to completely undermine such principles for all.
“You may not like your neighbours, but if you sacrifice their rights today, you jeopardise your own tomorrow…to violate the rights of some is to erode the edifice of rights that inevitably will be needed by members of the presumed majority,” Roth said.
“In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny,” he continued.
The rise of Western populism and its muted response to violations has emboldened others, legitimising politicians’ attacks on human rights values across the world, the report noted.
China’s Xi Jinping has led one of the toughest crackdowns on dissent, restricting expression and controlling access to information. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used state of emergency and anti-terror laws to similarly crush political and media opposition.
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose forces have been brutally targeting perceived opponents and threatening civil society and media groups, was the first of a number of African governments to announce its intention to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), an essential mechanism in human rights protection.
Also confident that Western leaders will not retaliate, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia continue to violate international human rights laws, indiscriminately attacking thousands of civilians in Syria and Yemen respectively.
Human Rights Watch’s Deputy UN Director Akshaya Kumar also observed a shift in how populist leaders respond to a commonly used “naming and shaming” strategy, noting that politicians are increasingly revelling in, rather than shying away from, anti-rights rhetoric or atrocities committed and even use them to amass further public support.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has publicly voiced Islamophobic and anti-refugee sentiments and policies, from claiming that “European identity is rooted in Christianity” to prosecuting asylum seekers that find a way past their razor wire fences. Despite criticism, he was successful in mobilising not only domestic support, but also support from across the continent for his goal of closing Europe’s borders.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has also retained his popularity in spite of policies that flout international human rights law. He has openly called for the extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers and users and even human rights activists in an anti-drug campaign that has already killed thousands of Filipinos.
“I don’t care about human rights,” Duterte said shortly after becoming President in June 2016.
Since such leaders seem unashamed in violating basic rights, Kumar highlighted the need to target those who enable “abusers” including financial backers and arms suppliers.
“By extending the universe of actors that you are looking at, you have more opportunities to influence actions,” she told IPS.
Kumar points to the Canadian government as an example who, in 2006, prohibited fundraising by the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) in the country after learning of the group’s abusive tactics to extract money from Tamil diaspora and that funds were used to further abuses back in Sri Lanka.
More recently in November 2016, the U.S. State Department suspended a sale of 26,000 assault rifles to Philippines’ police forces amid concerns of human rights violations.
Though there is no a one-size-fits-all approach, focusing on the expansive networks that enable the frontline rights abusers offers an important means to protect and promote human rights, Kumar said to IPS.
Human Rights Watch also stressed the sore need for a vigorous reaffirmation and defence of human rights by civil society organisations, media and governments especially as some leaders have “buried their heads in the sand, hoping the winds of populism will blow over.”
But ultimately, the responsibility to address the global rise in populism and promote respect for human rights values lie with the public.
“The demagogues traffic in casuistry, building popular support by spinning false explanations and cheap solutions to genuine ills. The best antidote is for the public to demand a politics based on truth and the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built,” Roth stated.
“Values are fragile…A society’s culture of respect for human rights needs regular tending, lest the fears of the moment sweep away the wisdom that built democratic rule,” he concluded.
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