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HRW: 'Big Mistake' For Governments To Ignore Human Rights During Crises

  • Antoine Blua

Riot police detain a protester during an opposition rally in Moscow. (file photo)

Riot police detain a protester during an opposition rally in Moscow. (file photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns in its annual world report that many governments across the globe are making a “big mistake” by ignoring human rights to counter security challenges, calling human rights instead a "path out of crisis and chaos."

The New York-based group on January 29 published its World Report 2015, a review of human rights practices in more than 90 countries from the end of 2013 through November 2014.

In his introductory essay, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth says the last year has been particularly tumultuous.

HRW chief Kenneth Roth

HRW chief Kenneth Roth

He cites conflicts that followed Arab Spring uprisings, atrocities committed by Islamist extremists across the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa, and Cold War-type tensions revived over the Ukraine crisis.

Stressing the important role that human rights violations played in “spawning or aggravating” those crises, Roth argues that “protecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to resolving them.”

Roth says, for instance, “the sectarian and abusive policies of the Iraqi and Syrian governments [and] international indifference to them” have been important factors in fueling the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

HRW European Media Director Andrew Stroehlein tells RFE/RL: “What we're really seeing now are a lot of excuses for not upholding fundamental rights on the basis of security concerns.”

"Really, we want to turn that security versus human rights idea completely on its head," Stroehlein says, "because you don't have security unless you have a guarantee of human rights."

Members of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia flash the victory sign while holding an Islamic State flag captured in southern Iraq in October 2014.

Members of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia flash the victory sign while holding an Islamic State flag captured in southern Iraq in October 2014.

On Iraq, HRW’s World Report 2015 says the government still relies primarily on Shi'ite militias "who carry out killing and cleansing of Sunni civilians with impunity."

It adds: "Reforming a corrupt and abusive judiciary, and ending sectarian rule so Sunnis feel they have a place in Iraq, will be at least as important as military action" against atrocities committed by IS militants.

On Russia, Roth says the Kremlin in 2012 began what has become “the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Soviet era,” targeting human rights groups, dissidents, independent journalists, and peaceful protesters.

Roth says the “relatively narrow” Western reaction to such violations “may well have aggravated” the Ukrainian crisis as the resulting closed information system enabled the Kremlin to suppress most public criticism of its actions in Ukraine.

"The fact that nobody actually addressed these [abuses] in any coherent and direct way gave Moscow a feeling that, 'We can keep going, we can push and push,’” Stroehlein says. “Again we see how security and human rights are not opposites.”

Meanwhile, Roth says, the desire to present Ukraine as the innocent victim of Russian aggression has made the West reluctant to challenge Ukrainian abuses, including “the use of ‘voluntary battalions’ that routinely abuse detainees, or the indiscriminate firing of weapons into populated areas.”

Pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine themselves, he adds, have “seriously abused detainees and have endangered the civilian population by launching rockets from their midst.”

Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested in July, and her husband, Arif Yunus, was arrested in August.They are being held separately in pretrial detention on charges of treason and other crimes, which they say are unfounded and politically motivated.

Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested in July, and her husband, Arif Yunus, was arrested in August.They are being held separately in pretrial detention on charges of treason and other crimes, which they say are unfounded and politically motivated.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Stroehlein says there hasn’t been "anything spectacularly good in the last year."

He cites the Azerbaijani government’s “horrific crackdown” on civil society and critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record.

The HRW report says Azerbaijani authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges, while many independent civic groups were forced to cease their activities.

Such abuses took place as Azerbaijan in May took over the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization.

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