- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Human Rights Watch’s annual human rights report doesn’t make for uplifting reading. A snapshot of the human rights situation around the world, the report presents a depressing, if somewhat familiar conclusion: The perennial human rights offenders of the world haven’t changed much.
Myanmar’s slow crawl toward democracy, for example, remains stunted by ongoing violence against Muslim and ethnic minority communities. Though the government released more than 200 political prisoners in 2013, HRW notes that attacks on Muslims, including those carried out by and ethnic Buddhists, increased during 2013. Efforts on the part of a 10,000-strong contigent of monks to pass a law banning interfaith marriage have further fueled the intolerance. Meanwhile, "state-sponsored discrimination" against ethnic Rohingyas has displaced 180,000 people. The government, despite a considerable international outcry, still refuses to grant citizenship to the marginalized group, despite the fact that many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
HRW’s findings are particularly troubling given the apparent ambivalence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s long-jailed opposition leader who now serves in the its parliament, on these matters. As William McGowan wrote for Foreign Policy in 2012, "Suu Kyi has reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when confronted with the Rohingya issue … At no point did she or the NLD denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims." In an October BBC interview, the Nobel Peace Laureate reiterated her unsettling position on violence against ethnic and religious minorities, implying that recent attacks on Muslims do not compare to the suffering of Buddhists at the hands of the former military regime. "There are many, many Buddhists who are also in refugee camps for various reasons… This is a result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime," she said, adding that the conflict is driven by fear between Buddhists and Muslims: "There is a perception that global Muslim power is very great."
Meanwhile, in North Korea, HRW reports that Kim Jong Un spent much 2013 consolidating his "rights-abusing rule." Since succeeding his father in 2011, Kim continues to rely on an extensive prison camp system to punish dissenters and has made it more difficult and dangerous for North Koreans to flee the country (leaving the country without permission is, of course, illegal).
Among other tactics, Kim has ordered border guards to shoot illegal crossers on sight. "The government now recognizes that the accounts of escaping North Koreans reveal Pyongyang’s crimes — so it is doing what it can to stop people from fleeing," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in a statement. "The fiction that Kim Jong Un might be somehow more moderate because of his education in Switzerland has been thoroughly refuted by the continued brutality of the government he now leads," he said. A recent Frontline documentary featuring secret footage from inside the country, as well as interviews with recent defectors, has shed a light on the depth of the Supreme Leader’s brutality — and the tiny rumblings of dissent against him.
HRW’s findings on Russia are also noteworthy, given the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent attempt at playing rights arbiter by issuing its own scathing report of human rights abuses in the EU. As my colleague Hanna Kozlowska described the report, it presents Europe as "a dark, dark place, filled with Nazis and xenophobes … but coming from Russia — a country with a vibrant population of political prisoners, whose government largely controls the media, whose ethnic minorities are severely discriminated against, and whose laws prohibit the expression of one’s sexual orientation — the accusations are of course hugely hypocritical."
HRW would agree. While the report notes serious problems in the EU — among them, continued discrimination against Roma, immigrants, and asylum seekers, and 47 percent of LGBT respondents in the EU said they had experienced harassment in the past 12 months — it doesn’t go easy on Russia. Despite all eyes being on the country ahead of the Sochi Olympics, President Vladimir Putin has overseen a legal crackdown on the country’s sexual minorities, which has fostered homophobic rhetoric and violence. Moreover, has continued to crack down on free speech and political dissenters.
The full report is available here.