The litany of human rights crises that unfolded in 2022 – from Ukraine to China to Afghanistan – has left behind a sea of human suffering, but it has also opened new opportunities for human rights leadership from countries around the world, Tirana Hassan, acting executive director at Human Rights Watch, said today in releasing the Human Rights Watch World Report 2023. The World Report looks at the state of human rights in nearly 100 countries where Human Rights Watch works.
As power shifts across the world, protecting and strengthening the global human rights system in the face of predictable efforts by abusive leaders to tear it down demands renewed commitments by all governments that transcend current political alliances.
“The past year has demonstrated that all governments bear the responsibility of protecting human rights around the world,” Hassan said. “Against a backdrop of shifting power, there is more space, not less, for states to stand up for human rights as new coalitions and new voices of leadership emerge.”
In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights. The world’s mobilization around Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realize their human rights obligations on a global scale. The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has targeted civilian infrastructure and resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, captured the world’s attention and triggered the human rights system’s full arsenal. The United Nations Human Rights Council opened an investigation into abuses and appointed an expert to monitor the human rights situation inside Russia. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation following a referral from a record number of the court’s member countries. The European Union, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and other governments also imposed unprecedented international sanctions against Russian individuals, companies, and other entities linked to the Russian government.
Governments that are providing unparalleled consolidated support for Ukraine should ask what the situation would be if they had held Putin to account in 2014, at the onset of the war in eastern Ukraine; or in 2015, for abuses in Syria; or even earlier, for the escalation of human rights abuses in Russia over the last decade.
This sort of global action is needed in Ethiopia, where two years of atrocities by all parties to the conflict have received only a tiny fraction of the attention focused on Ukraine, contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, Hassan said.
The UN Security Council, which is charged with ensuring international peace and security, has not been willing to put Ethiopia on its formal agenda due to blocks by African members as well as Russia and China. The recently concluded African Union-led peace process has resulted in a fragile truce, but for it to hold, the agreement’s backers including the African Union, UN, and US should signal and maintain pressure to ensure that those who committed grave crimes during the war are held to account to break deadly cycles of violence and impunity. Accountability is critical for victims to obtain a measure of justice and reparations that has so far been elusive.
The Chinese government’s lack of accountability for the mass detention, torture, and forced labor of as many as a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region persists. The UN Human Rights Council fell two votes short of passing a resolution to discuss the UN high commissioner for human rights report that concluded that abuses in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity.
The closeness of that vote shows the growing support among governments to hold the Chinese government accountable and highlights the potential for cross-regional alliances and fresh coalitions to challenge Beijing’s expectation of impunity.
Governments, such as Australia, Japan, Canada, the UK, EU, and US, that are reconsidering their relationships with China, are looking to expand trade and security arrangements with India. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has mimicked many of the same abuses that have enabled Chinese state repression, and deepening ties with India without pressure on Modi to respect rights squanders valuable leverage to protect India’s increasingly endangered civic space.
“Autocrats rely on the illusion that their strong-arm tactics are necessary for stability, but as brave protesters around the world show time and again, repression is not a shortcut to stability,” Hassan said. “The protests in cities across China against the Chinese government’s strict ‘zero Covid’ lockdown measures show that people’s desires for human rights cannot be erased despite Beijing’s efforts to repress them.”
Rights-respecting governments have both the opportunity and the responsibility to lend their political attention and stamina to protest movements and civil society groups that are challenging abusive governments in countries like Sudan and Myanmar. In Sudan, policymakers from the US, UN, EU, and regional partners engaging with Sudan’s military leadership should prioritize the demands of protest and victims’ groups for justice and an end to impunity for those in command positions. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should intensify pressure on Myanmar’s junta by aligning with international efforts to cut off the military’s sources of foreign currency.
The international community should also apply a human rights lens to the existential threat of climate change. From Pakistan to Nigeria to Australia, every corner of the world faces a nonstop cycle of human-induced catastrophic flooding, massive wildfires, and drought. These disasters illustrate the cost of inaction, with the most vulnerable paying the highest price. Government officials have a legal and moral obligation to regulate the industries, such as fossil fuel and logging, whose business models are incompatible with protecting basic rights.
“Assisting frontline communities and environmental defenders is one of the most powerful ways to push back against corporate and government activities that harm the environment and protect critical ecosystems needed to address the climate crisis,” Hassan said. “In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to reduce Amazon deforestation to zero and defend Indigenous rights, and his ability to deliver on his climate and human rights commitments is critical for Brazil and the world.”
The magnitude, scale, and frequency of human rights crises across the globe demonstrate the urgency of a new framing and new model for action. Centering our greatest challenges and threats to the modern world around human rights reveals not only the root causes of disruption but also offers guidance to address them. Every government has the obligation to protect and stand up for human rights.
“The world’s mobilization around Ukraine showed what’s possible when governments work together,” Hassan said. “The challenge for all governments is to bring the same spirit of solidarity to reimagine what it takes to achieve success in protecting and promoting human rights around the globe.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).