- Amnesty International releases its Annual Report for 2016 to 2017.
- Civil society under assault across South Asia
Divisive politicians who promote a toxic and dehumanizing “us vs them” narrative are creating a more dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries.
“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
“South Asia is seeing a worrying rollback of human rights as various governments invoke sovereignty and security to threaten freedoms, shrinking the space for human rights activists to operate and make their voices heard,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director.
“In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, journalists and bloggers have been threatened, intimidated and even killed by non-state actors for exercising their right to freedom of expression. At the same time, across the region, old repressive laws are being used alongside new ones to limit human rights both online and offline.”
Politics of demonization drives global pushback on human rights.
Seismic political shifts in 2016 exposed the potential of hateful rhetoric to unleash the dark side of human nature. The global trend of angrier and more divisive politics was exemplified by Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign rhetoric, but political leaders in various parts of the world also wagered their future power on narratives of fear, blame and division.
In 2016, governments also turned on refugees and migrants; often an easy target for scapegoating. The Annual Report documents how 36 countries violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk.
In India, repressive laws were used to curb freedom of expression and silence government critics. In a crackdown on civil society organizations, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or FCRA, was repeatedly invoked to harass organizations that receive foreign funding.
The crude, colonial-era Sedition Law was unleashed to silence government critics. Human rights activists and journalists faced intimidation and attacks from both state and non-state actors. Journalists Karun Mishra and Rajdeo Ranjan were killed, apparently for their reporting.
Journalists also came under attack in Pakistan, where they faced dangers like abduction, arbitrary arrest and detention, intimidation, killings and harassment by both state and non-state actors. A new law on cybercrimes – the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act – was passed in August, giving the authorities broad and potentially abusive powers to surveil citizens and censor online expression. In May, Khurram Zaki, a prominent human rights defender was gunned down by the Pakistani Taliban.
In Sri Lanka, Sandhya Eknaligoda – the wife of the disappeared dissident cartoonist Prageeth Eknalidoga – endured repeated threats and other intimidation after the police identified seven members of army intelligence as suspects in her husband’s case. She was subject to a smear campaign that included accusations that she was a supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In Bangladesh, bloggers continued to be slain even as members of religious minorities, academics and secular voices were slain by armed groups. Instead of the authorities taking action against these groups, they escalated a campaign to muzzle freedom of expression, detaining Facebook critics, arresting and arbitrarily detaining journalists, and using a vaguely worded Information and Communications Technology Act they threatened peaceful voices of online dissent.
In Nepal, attacks on freedom of expression by the state figured in a number of high-profile cases, targeting human rights defenders, opposition activists and a Canadian lawyer. Torture and other ill-treatment was used against protestors in the Tarai region, without being effectively investigated. People from marginalised communities continued to express dissatisfaction with constitutional amendments that failed to undo a ruinous legacy of discrimination.
World turns its back on mass atrocities
Amnesty International is warning that 2017 will see ongoing crises exacerbated by a debilitating absence of human rights leadership on a chaotic world stage. The politics of “us vs them” is also taking shape at the international level, replacing multilateralism with a more aggressive, confrontational world order.
The world faces a long list of crises with little political will to address them: including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Philippines, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Central America, Central African Republic, Burundi, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documented war crimes committed in at least 23 countries in 2016.
Despite these challenges, international indifference to war crimes has become an entrenched normality as the UN Security Council remains paralyzed by rivalries between permanent member states.
In Afghanistan, the war has not been winding down but widening, with the highest level of civilian deaths and injuries since the UN began compiling statistics in 2009. The widening conflict led to numbers of internally displaced people more than doubling over the past three years to nearly 1.5 million.
Even as Afghanistan faced an internal humanitarian crisis, the world turned its back on Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers. Pakistani authorities forcibly returned tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, sending them across the border where they may be at risk of serious human rights abuses, in breach of the principle of non-refoulement.
The European Union also shunned Afghans fleeing the conflict in their home country, signing agreements to return thousands of failed asylum-seekers even as it noted that violence in the country was on the rise.
In the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, the security forces unleashed unnecessary and excessive force against demonstrators. Imposing a curfew across the valley for more than two months, and suspending private communications, it besieged people there, leaving them without access to urgent medical assistance.
In Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, armed groups continued to carry out large scale attacks that claimed many civilian lives. In August, a suicide bomb attack killed at least 63 people, mostly lawyers and wounded more than 50 others at the Civil Hospital in Quetta. Journalists based in the province or covering it remained at risk of human rights violations, while activists from the province were arrested or disappeared.
“The beginning of 2017 finds many of the world’s most powerful states pursuing narrower national interests at the expense of international cooperation. This risks taking us towards a more chaotic, dangerous world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“A new world order where human rights are portrayed as a barrier to national interests makes the ability to tackle mass atrocities dangerously low, leaving the door open to abuses reminiscent of the darkest times of human history.
“The international community has already responded with deafening silence after countless atrocities in 2016: a live stream of horror from Aleppo, possible crimes against humanity in Myanmar and the Philippines, use of chemical weapons and hundreds of villages burned in Darfur. The big question in 2017 will be how far the world lets atrocities go before doing something about them.”
Who is going to stand up for human rights?
Amnesty International’s report warns that global solidarity and public mobilization will be particularly important to defend individuals who stand up to those in power and defend human rights, who are often cast by governments as a threat to economic development, security or other priorities.
“We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action. With politicians increasingly willing to demonize entire groups of people, the need for all of us to stand up for the basic values of human dignity and equality everywhere has seldom been clearer,” said Salil Shetty.
Amnesty International has documented grave violations of human rights in 2016 in 159 countries.
Afghanistan: The intensifying conflict resulted in widespread human rights violations and abuses. Thousands of civilians were killed, injured or displaced in the violence, while ongoing insecurity restricted access to education, health and other services. While armed insurgent groups were responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, progovernment forces also killed and injured civilians. Anti- and pro-government forces continued to use children as fighters.
Bangladesh: Armed groups claiming to act in the name of Islam killed dozens of people in targeted attacks, including foreign nationals, secular activists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. The government’s response was marked by human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment. The right to freedom of expression was further restricted as the government applied repressive laws and pressed criminal charges against critics.
India: The authorities used repressive laws to curb freedom of expression and silence critics. Human rights activists and organizations continued to face harassment and intimidation, and vigilante cow protection groups carried out several attacks. Thousands protested against discrimination and violence faced by Dalit communities. Millions opposed changes to labour laws. Marginalized communities continued to be frequently ignored in the government’s push for faster economic growth.
Maldives: The government intensified its crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly. Authorities used new laws and criminal cases to silence political opponents, as well as human rights defenders, journalists and civil society. Lack of independence of the judiciary remained a concern. The government took steps to reintroduce executions after more than 60 years.
Nepal: Tens of thousands of people continued to be denied the right to adequate housing and other human rights following the 2015 earthquake. There was little progress on justice for the grave human rights violations committed during the country’s armed conflict. Migrant workers were exploited by recruitment companies despite a new government policy regulating the sector.
Pakistan: Armed groups continued to carry out targeted attacks against civilians, including government employees, which resulted in hundreds of casualties. Security forces, particularly paramilitary Rangers in Karachi, committed human rights violations with almost total impunity. Executions continued, often after unfair trials. State and non-state actors discriminated against religious minorities. Despite a new law in Punjab to protect women from violence, so-called “honour” crimes continued. Human rights activists and media workers faced threats, harassment and abuse from security forces and armed groups. Minorities continued to face discrimination across a range of economic and social rights.
Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka continued to pursue commitments to deliver accountability for alleged crimes under international law, although the process was slow. Many human rights challenges remained, including the authorities’ reliance on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest and detain suspects; torture and other ill-treatment in police custody, and impunity for enforced disappearance and other violations. Victims of violations during the armed conflict faced challenges in rebuilding lives and livelihoods as coherent relief and reparation plans had yet to be implemented.
China: Ongoing crackdown against lawyers and activists continued, including incommunicado detention, televised confessions and harassments of family members.
Russia: At home the government noose tightened around national NGOs, with increasing propaganda labelling critics as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”, and the first prosecution of NGOs under a “foreign agents” law. Meanwhile, dozens of independent NGOs receiving foreign funding were added to the list of “foreign agents”. Abroad there was a complete disregard for international humanitarian law in Syria.
Syria: Impunity for war crimes and gross human rights abuses continued, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and lengthy sieges that trapped civilians. The human rights community has been almost completely crushed, with activists either imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or forced to flee the country.
USA: An election campaign marked by discriminatory, misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric raised serious concerns about the strength of future US commitments to human rights domestically and globally.