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HRW Chief Hails Rising Resistance To Autocracy In 'Dark Time' For Human Rights

Antigovernment protesters in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, in April 2018. Weeks of mass protests forced long-entrenched leader Serzh Sarkisian to resign.

While the world’s autocrats and rights abusers often captured headlines last year, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law also “gained strength,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

“The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles,” Roth wrote in an essay included in HRW’s 29th-annual review of human rights practices around the globe that was published on January 17.

“Victory...has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a powerful counterattack,” Roth added.

In his essay, World’s Autocrats Face Rising Resistance, the HRW executive director said that the defense of rights worldwide has been resilient and multifaceted, citing a series of human rights successes in international forums and of powerful activism by civic groups at national and regional levels.

Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth

“The terrain for the fight has shifted, with many longtime participants missing in action or even switching sides,” he wrote. “But effective coalitions have emerged to oppose governments that are not accountable to their people and respectful of their rights.”

He said the UN Human Rights Council took “important -- sometimes unprecedented -- steps” in the past year to increase pressure on Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

“The opponents of human rights enforcement such as China, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia traditionally carry considerable weight in these settings, so it was impressive to see how often they lost this past year,” he added.

Roth said governments mounted important defenses of human rights in other venues such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), whose mandate was expanded to begin identifying the users of chemical weapons, despite Russia’s opposition.

And the Council of Europe “pushed back” against attempts by the authoritarian government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to influence members of the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to soften criticism of the country’s human rights record, according to Roth.

He said that elections or public pressure were sometimes the vehicle of a “pushback” against autocratic rule last year, citing Armenia where weeks of mass protests forced long-entrenched leader Serzh Sarkisian to resign from the prime minister’s post and brought to power Nikol Pashinian, a former anticorruption journalist and opposition lawmaker.

However, Roth cautioned that resistance to autocracy is not always successful in the short term, and this remains in some ways a “dark time for human rights.”

He cited the cases of Turkey and Egypt, where Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “persisted in silencing independent voices and civic groups and locking up thousands for their presumed political views.”

U.S. President Donald Trump “disparaged immigrants and minorities and tried to bully judges and journalists whom he deemed to stand in his way,” Roth also said, while Russia under President Vladimir Putin continued its “multiyear crackdown on independent voices and political opposition.”

But Roth emphasized that recent events also show that “the promise of rights-respecting democratic rule...remains a vital, mobilizing vision.”

He insisted that important battles are being won, reenergizing the global defense of human rights, which he said remains a “worthy imperative.”

“When governments see political or economic advantage in violating rights, rights defenders still can raise the price of abuse and shift the cost-benefit calculus to convince governments that repression does not pay,” he wrote.