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HRW: Security Fears Increasingly Trumping Human Rights Protections

  • Robert Coalson

Azerbaijan was one of the countries criticized in the report for its crackdown on rights activists and journalists, including RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova.

Azerbaijan was one of the countries criticized in the report for its crackdown on rights activists and journalists, including RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova.

Growing state and public fear in an age of terrorism, conflicts, and mass migration is producing an increasingly bleak human rights picture in many parts of the world, international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

"Fear of terrorist attacks and mass refugee flows are driving many Western governments to roll back human rights protections," HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes in the introduction to the international NGO's annual rights roundup, World Report 2016.

The 650-page report issued on January 27 surveys human rights practices and trends in 90 countries worldwide.

"If we are looking back at 2015, the key trend that we are seeing is what we call 'the politics of fear,'" says HRW European Media Director Andrew Stroehlein. "Fear that drives refugees out of war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and also oppressive countries like Eritrea, and drives people away into places where others fear them and politicians make use of those fears throughout Europe."

Moreover, many authoritarian governments are using the guise of combating terrorism and extremism to crack down on peaceful dissent at home in what HRW calls "the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times."

Increased Surveillance

The report argues that the spread of high-profile terrorist attacks by militant group Islamic State (IS) and the refugee crisis have resulted in growing Islamophobia, racist manifestations, and general fear-mongering that most governments have failed to respond to adequately.

In addition, it says, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have all made moves to increase state mass surveillance. The report says evidence indicates that improving law enforcement's "capacity to pursue targeted leads" does more to bolster security than measures that "undermine privacy rights."

On the other hand, the report criticizes countries like Russia, Turkey, and China for cracking down on civil society and independent media out of fear of popular movements spearheaded by civic organizations such as the Arab Spring movements, the "umbrella protests" in Hong Kong, and Ukraine's Euromaidan.

"We've seen a real acceleration in the trampling of rights in places like Russia, in places like Turkey," Stroehlein says. "We've seen a kind of retrenchment of authoritarianism and the use of fear, the political use of fear, to justify all sorts of rights abuses."

Russia's crackdown, now in its fourth year, "took a more sinister turn in 2015," the report states. Key laws aimed at isolating civil society from foreign contacts came into effect. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in February. Russia also bucked the global trend toward stronger rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people as LGBT events were disrupted and activists harassed.

Internationally, Russia is criticized for "positioning itself as a global leader in defending 'traditional values' and state sovereignty." In the United Nations, Moscow voted against "all country-specific resolutions" on rights, including measures criticizing Syria, North Korea, Belarus, and Iran.

Baku Brutality

Azerbaijan comes under harsh criticism from HRW for an "unrelenting crackdown [that has] decimated independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media." Lawyers, activists, and journalists have been "prosecuted, convicted," and imprisoned, it says.

The group notes that the Baku bureau of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service was shut down and RFE/RL contributor and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges widely seen as retribution for her reporting on official corruption. Police torture and mistreatment "continue with impunity," HRW says.

Turning to Iran, the HRW report notes that Tehran executed at least 830 people in 2015, many for nonviolent offenses or following "flawed trials." At least four of those executed last year were likely under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan were criticized for giving broad power to security agencies in the face of the deteriorating security situations. Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani approved an action plan against torture in January 2015, HRW says, it was slow to be implemented and cases of torture by security officials actually increased in 2015 compared to 2014.

In Pakistan, the military gained significant constitutional powers in 2015 and stepped up the "muzzling of dissenting and critical voices in nongovernmental organizations and media," the report says. There were disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention.

In addition, at least 19 people are awaiting execution after being convicted under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, while hundreds of others await trial. Many of those targeted for prosecution under such laws are from persecuted religious minorities. Such cases often stem from unrelated personal disputes and many of the trials are characterized by "inadequate evidence or lack of legal counsel," HRW says.

HRW Executive Director Roth, writing in the report's introduction, warns against setting up a false dichotomy between rights and security.

"The wisdom enshrined in international human rights law provides indispensable guidance to governments that seek to keep their nations safe and serve their people most effectively," Roth writes. "We abandon it at our peril."

Stroehlein agrees.

"You do not have long-term security without respect for basic rights and fundamental freedoms," he says. "It is the trampling of those rights that causes security problems."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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