Human Rights Are Under Attack. Who Will Protect Them?

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Women hold flares during a march for International Women’s Day in Madrid, Spain, March 8, 2019 (AP photo by Bernat Armangue).
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Globally, human rights remain under attack, whether by populist movements desperate to gain power or authoritarian governments eager to maintain it. Technology has opened up new frontiers for sharing dissenting ideas across borders, but also for governments to curb their citizens’ ability to express them. And broad assaults are underway on institutions like the International Criminal Court, which was established not only to offer recourse for the victims of rights violations, but to establish an international human rights benchmark. Instead, respect for human rights is being replaced by a dangerous intolerance.

Around the world, populist authoritarians have built their movements by demonizing minorities. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro has reveled in his provocations, calling into question women’s rights as well as those of the LGBTQ and Indigenous communities. In Poland, incumbent President Andrzej Duda ran for reelection—and won—on an explicitly anti-LGBTQ platform. And even Peru’s new left-wing president, Pedro Castillo, has demonized activists for gender equality and LGBTQ rights, despite championing an ostensibly progressive economic agenda.

Meanwhile, in China, the central government is carrying out an organized campaign in Xinjiang to strip the predominantly Muslim ethnic Uyghur population of its cultural identity, including through the use of concentration camps and forced labor. And in Venezuela, the government of President Nicolas Maduro was recently accused by investigators for the U.N. Human Rights Council of having engaged in crimes against humanity, targeting political dissenters with arbitrary detention, torture and extralegal killings.

At the same time, the populist rise has invigorated civil society efforts to protect historically marginalized communities, including members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities and Indigenous groups. And with the emergence of a tougher line on China in the U.S., but also in Europe, governments are beginning to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and enterprises involved in the abuses in Xinjiang.

WPR has covered human rights issues in detail and continues to examine key questions about new developments. What are the most effective ways to protect human rights, and what additional steps might be taken? What role will technology play in both preserving and circumscribing human rights? And how will changes in the international order and global balance of power affect the human rights landscape?

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Myanmar’s return to the position of international pariah has created a new opening for Beijing. By moving in where the West, reeling from the junta’s shocking human rights abuses, has been reluctant to step in, Beijing hopes to boost China’s regional influence and secure access to vital natural resources.

Political Dissent and Press Freedom

The resurgence of populist authoritarian regimes around the world has taken a toll on a range of freedoms related to democracy, including freedom of speech, freedom to express political dissent and freedom of the press. In addition to facing crackdowns and arrest, government critics and the press are increasingly targeted by so-called fake news laws that are often a cover for censorship. At the same time, new spyware technologies have made surveillance more effective—and more accessible to repressive regimes with a record of silencing their critics.

Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

While women’s rights have made great strides worldwide in terms of legal protections, in practice women continue to face challenges ranging from violence and wage discrimination to unfair family law and social customs. Despite some recent victories, gender equality around the world remains far from a reality. And in places where women had made gains in expanding their rights, they have suffered recent setbacks—with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed the right to an abortion being a prime example.

Indigenous Rights

While Indigenous communities are under assault around the world, disputes over resource extraction have emerged as a critical fault line, particularly in Latin America. Elsewhere, political and economic marginalization continue to pose difficult challenges.

LGBTQ Rights

Despite the gradual introduction of protections for members of the LGBTQ community in some countries, they remain under threat in much of the world. Meanwhile, the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere has called into question previous gains made by LGBTQ activists.

Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Attacks in the past few years in the United States, New Zealand and Sri Lanka point to a worrying rise of violent intolerance for religious minorities. But even where violence remains the exception to the rule, protections for religious minorities around the world are often more de jure than de facto. Meanwhile, the rise to prominence of the movement protesting police violence against Black people in the U.S. and Europe has put racism in the spotlight worldwide.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.

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