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A woman holding a red flare in the air at a women's rights march. Women hold flares during a march for International Women’s Day in Madrid, Spain, March 8, 2019 (AP photo by Bernat Armangue).

Human Rights Are Under Attack. Who Will Protect Them?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Globally, human rights remain under assault, whether by populist movements desperate to gain power or authoritarian governments eager to maintain it. Technology has opened up new frontiers for curbing people’s ability to express and share dissenting ideas. 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 LGBT and indigenous communities. With their verbal assaults, these leaders and the movements that follow them are inspiring people to commit acts of physical violence. In just a matter of months last year, Jews were targeted in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand and Christians in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, the populist rise has invigorated civil society efforts to protect historically marginalized communities, including members of the LGBT community, religious minorities and indigenous groups.

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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The World Is Suffering From an Epidemic of Imprisonment

Democratic backsliding and encroachments on the rule of law by autocratic governments have justifiably received significant attention in recent years. Yet troubling as these trends are, there is another, often-overlooked threat encroaching on the rule of law in countries around the world: mass incarceration.

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.

Religious Minorities and Ethnic Minorities

Attacks last year 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 recent demonstrations protesting police violence against Black people in the U.S. have put racism in the spotlight worldwide.

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 successes, like the lifting of Saudi Arabia’s driving ban, gender equality around the world remains far from reality.

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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.

LGBT Rights

Despite the gradual introduction of protections for members of the LGBT 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 LGBT activists.

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