World

Global pushback against autocrats grows, says rights watchdog

The world is seeing growing resistance against the abuses of autocrats as states, civic groups and popular movements all push back against populists seeking to curtail freedoms, according to a new global report released Thursday that also outlines where Canada is both advancing and falling short in its efforts.

Human Rights Watch says more global opposition to authoritarian governments, outlines where Canada can improve

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says his agency's latest annual report shows people around the world are pushing back against authoritarian governments, 're-energizing the global defence of human rights.' (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

The world is seeing growing resistance against the abuses of autocrats as states, civic groups and popular movements all push back against populists seeking to curtail freedoms, according to a new global report released Thursday that also outlines where Canada is both advancing and falling short in its efforts.

In its annual assessment of rights around the world, Human Rights Watch said rising opposition to authoritarian governments has been the most important development in the past year.

"The same populists who spread hatred and intolerance are fuelling a resistance that keeps winning battles," said the agency's executive director, Kenneth Roth. "Important battles are being won, re-energizing the global defence of human rights."

The report, released in Berlin, said the pushback can be seen in efforts to resist attacks on democracy in Europe, prevent a bloodbath in Syria or stop the Saudi-led bombing and blockade of Yemeni civilians.

On the Canadian front, the report said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is making "notable efforts to advance human rights" and praises Canada's involvement in addressing the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. But it also outlines numerous areas where the country "continues to struggle," including discrimination against Indigenous people and abuses by Canadian companies operating overseas.

The report outlines the continuing water crisis faced by First Nations and the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which has faced complaints of poor transparency from victims' families, and says "considerable challenges" remain in Canada.

It also criticizes Canada's continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite "widespread evidence of abuses" by the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. The report notes governments in Germany, Denmark and Finland all stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Mass protests in Europe

The 346-page report highlighted a groundswell in mass demonstrations for human rights in Europe, with huge crowds protesting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's increasingly authoritarian rule and his limits on academic freedom, and thousands taking to the streets in Poland to fight the government's attempts to erode the independence of the judiciary.

In the United States, the report says, voters in the midterm elections rejected what it called "fear-mongering" by President Donald Trump, "who sought to mobilize his support base by trying to portray asylum-seekers fleeing Central American violence as a crisis."

Voters in Malaysia and the Maldives ousted their corrupt prime ministers, Armenia's prime minister stepped down amid massive protests over graft, and Ethiopia, under popular pressure, replaced a long-abusive government with a prime minister who embarked on an impressive reform agenda.

The report highlights mass protests in Eastern Europe, such as this July demonstration against judicial overhaul in Poznan, Poland, as key examples of public outcry against government overreach in 2018. (Lukasz Cynalewski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

"If you're an autocrat, it's very convenient to violate human rights -— it's the way you stay in power, it's the way you fill up your bank account, it's the way you pay off your cronies," Roth told The Associated Press.

But, he added, "The role of the human rights movement is to raise the cost of these human rights violations — that's not something that's done overnight ... but we know that if you do raise the cost of abuse, ultimately, governments realize it is not paying and they start to curb these abuses."

China's record panned

Still, the report says there were setbacks on the human rights front in 2019.

China increased its repression over the last year to the worst level in decades. Roth expressed concern that President Xi Jinping ended term limits on his presidency and Chinese officials vastly expanded the country's surveillance of ordinary people.

"This year it became clear that he is detaining one million Uighur Muslims for so-called re-education, which basically means forcing them to renounce Islam and to renounce their ethnicity," Roth said.

Roth said if any other country was doing this "it would be an outrage, but China, because of its economic clout, has been getting away with it."

With files from CBC News

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