Cracks in the armour of authoritarian states in the past year should give the world hope that brutal regimes can be called to account, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its annual analysis of the state of human rights globally.
The world report 2023 from HRW chronicles the litany of human rights crises that affected millions of people in the past 12 months, most dramatically in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have “walked back women’s rights continuously since they took over” and in China, where the mass detention of an estimated one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, stands out for its “gravity, scale and cruelty”.
But fault lines have emerged in seemingly impenetrable countries, the acting executive director of HRW, Tirana Hassan, said. Hassan cited street protests in Chinese cities against strict “zero Covid” lockdown measures and in Iran, where the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of police for not wearing her hijab properly unleashed the biggest street protests in the country in years.
“What 2022 has shown us is there are cracks in the authoritarian armour,” said Hassan. “There has been a rising up of the people who have expressed their commitment, their desire and their demand to have human rights realised.” But for change to happen, states around the world need to support them, she said.
“We cannot take for granted, just because there’s a tension right now and people are on the streets in Iran, for example, that this will last into 2023,” said Hassan.
HRW also praised the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to protect refugees, investigate crimes and impose sanctions, as a positive note in a year of dramatic roll-backs in human rights across the world.
As the organisation launched its global assessment of 2022, Hassan said that, for the first time in decades, nations have come together to ensure “justice and accountability” for war crimes and to protect refugees.
“We’ve seen what is possible when the international community comes together to prioritise the safety and protection of people fleeing war,” Hassan said. Within weeks of the invasion, the international community had established criminal investigations, evidence-gathering mechanisms and mobilised the international court, she said. “We’ve seen what is possible when it mobilises to ensure there’s justice and accountability for the most egregious crimes committed, including war crimes. The bar has moved for the first time in decades and it hasn’t gone down, it’s gone up.”
Hassan suggested that governments should reflect on the potential outcome had they had acted earlier, at the onset of the war in eastern Ukraine, in 2014, or when Russian aircraft bombed civilian areas in Syria in 2016. “What would have happened if the international community had held Putin to account for these other crimes or even held Russia to account for the initial invasion into Ukraine?” she asked.
“If autocrats and human rights abusers are not held to account, it emboldens them,” said Hassan, and she challenged governments to provide a similar response to human rights violations outside Europe.
“We could expect the same type of response for serious violations in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and across the world. This is about how seriously the world takes its obligations. It is replicable. Twenty-twenty three provides the opportunity for states to demonstrate that this is not just about what happened in Europe.”
The armed conflict in Ethiopia, she said, had received only a “tiny fraction” of the global attention focused on Ukraine, despite two years of atrocities, including a number of massacres by warring parties.
“We cannot underestimate the ripple effect of giving a free pass to some of the world’s most serious crimes,” said Hassan, and reflected that 2022 was a “very challenging year” for women’s rights – particularly in Afghanistan, which provides the “starkest picture of what the total erosion of women’s rights looks like”.
“In Afghanistan, our job is to stay committed to human rights, to fortify them any way we can and to make sure that the Taliban are under pressure to reverse their thinking. We often fall into line of thinking the Taliban are untouchable. They are not.
“What I would say, is in the face of this incredibly dark time, we’ve seen some exceptional counter-movements, to protect women’s rights around the world.”
In a year where the US supreme court struck down 50 years of federal protection for abortion rights, Latin America has seen a so-called “green wave” of women-led abortion rights expansion, including in Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, which provides a “roadmap” for other countries, Hassan said.