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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?

Friday, Sept. 18, 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. In Poland, incumbent President Andrzej Duda recently ran for reelection—and won—on an explicitly anti-LGBT platform.

Meanwhile, in China, the central government is carrying out an organized campaignin Xinjiangto strip the predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighur population of its cultural identity, including 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, including 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 LGBT 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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Paul Rusesabagina is best known for sheltering more than 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a story that inspired the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.” A vocal critic of President Paul Kagame’s government, Rusesabagina has lived overseas for 20 years, evading Kagame’s attempts to capture him—until now.

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 victories, 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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From spyware wielded by autocrats to expanded surveillance by police states under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, new technologies are helping authoritarian governments entrench their power and target their critics. They are also amplifying the spread of disinformation. Yet many democracies are also using these same technologies in troubling ways. Our latest WPR report provides a comprehensive look at how these state-of-the-art tools are being harnessed by different governments around the world. Download your FREE copy of Surveillance, Control and Disinformation Technology to learn more today.

Download our this free report and better understand the use of technology by governments around the world.

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For years, activists, academics and watchdogs have characterized the spyware industry as out of control, with technology outpacing the laws designed to constrain the industry’s activities. In January 2020, the nefarious potential of such technology was vividly demonstrated when the heir to the Saudi kingdom apparently used Israeli-made spyware to breach the personal phone of the world’s richest man, who owns a leading American newspaper and runs one of the world’s most valuable publicly traded companies.

Meanwhile, the growing prevalence of facial recognition technology in authoritarian countries like Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which use it to monitor activists and suppress dissent, has raised increasing alarm among human rights advocates. Perhaps the most egregious example is in China, where the government has used facial recognition technology to racially profile Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that is concentrated in Xinjiang province, and forcibly lock them up in internment camps. But authoritarian countries are not alone: This technology is now being harnessed for law enforcement and surveillance purposes in many democracies.

Download Surveillance, Control and Disinformation Technology today to take a deeper look at these trends and get a glimpse at what the future may hold.

In this report, you will learn about:

  • How surveillance technology is helping authoritarian governments stifle dissent
  • The Bezos hack and the dangers of spyware in the hands of autocrats
  • The troubling rise of facial recognition technology in democracies
  • How police states are expanding under the cover of COVID-19
  • Whether the U.S. is prepared to deal with disinformation in the 2020 presidential campaign
  • Why tech giants aren't doing enough to combat misinformation online
  • Why Russia's attempt to create its own tightly controlled internet could backfire

Download this free report and better understand the use of technology by governments around the world.

With your copy of Surveillance, Control and Disinformation Technology you’ll also gain free registration to the WPR newsletter, delivering uncompromising news and analysis directly to your inbox. Your FREE registration includes access to select articles, early announcements, and periodic discounts on our full-service subscription.

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