Defenders of Human Rights Are Making a Comeback

With larger powers in retreat, small countries and civil society groups have stepped up—and they have won some significant victories.

A participant holds a banner with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration on Dec. 21, 2018.
A participant holds a banner with photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration on Dec. 21, 2018. (PETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images)

In some ways these are dark times for human rights. Yet while the autocrats capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who spread hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance. The excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a counterattack. That reaction is increasing the cost of serious human rights violations, which ultimately is the best way to force abusive governments to curb them. This mounting pressure illustrates the possibility of defending human rights—indeed, the responsibility to do so­—even in darker times.

There is no denying that the forces of authoritarianism are on the rise, with Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, representing the latest example. He joined the ranks of such established figures as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Even in Western democracies, autocratic policies were advanced by such leaders as Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, and U.S. President Donald Trump. Some governments took advantage of this trend to commit mass atrocities, including in Syria (against civilians in anti-government areas), Myanmar (against Rohingya Muslims), and Yemen (the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing and blockading of civilians).

Yet there was also considerable pushback against authoritarianism. Malaysian voters ousted their corrupt prime minister, Najib Razak, the latest representative of a ruling coalition that had been in power for almost six decades, in favor of a coalition running on an agenda of human rights reform. In the Maldives, voters rejected their autocratic president, Abdulla Yameen. In Armenia, whose government was mired in corruption, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had to step down amid massive protests. Ethiopia, under popular pressure, replaced a long-abusive government with a new one led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has embarked on an impressive reform agenda. And, of course, U.S. voters in the midterm elections for the House of Representatives seemed to rebuke Trump’s divisive policies.

In many cases, particularly in Central Europe, the public led the resistance in the streets. Large crowds in Budapest protested Orban’s moves to shut Central European University, an academic bastion of liberal inquiry and thought, and to impose a “slave law” to compensate for workers fleeing Orban’s “illiberal democracy” by authorizing extended overtime with pay delayed up to three years. Tens of thousands of Poles repeatedly took to the streets to defend their courts from the ruling party’s attempts to undermine their independence. Czech and Romanian leaders also faced large anti-corruption protests.

At times independent institutions of government joined in the resistance. Poland’s independent judges refused to abandon their jobs in the face of ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s efforts to purge them; the European Court of Justice later backed their refusal. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court reversed President Jimmy Morales’s attempt to close down a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body as it investigated his own alleged financial wrongdoing.

Much of this pushback has played out at the U.N.—a noteworthy development because so many autocrats seek to weaken this multilateral institution and undermine the international standards that it sets. And it occurred even though many of the large Western powers were often unwilling to defend human rights abroad.

Trump, as is well known, preferred to embrace autocrats whom he viewed as friendly. The British government, worried about Brexit, largely limited its public advocacy for human rights to countries where there were few British trade or commercial interests. French President Emmanuel Macron defended democratic values rhetorically but too often found reasons to avoid applying those principles when they implicated efforts to curb migration, fight terrorism, or secure commercial opportunities. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke against anti-rights policies emanating from Moscow as well as Washington but was often beset by political challenges at home. Meanwhile, China and Russia did all they could to undermine global rights enforcement.

Against this challenging backdrop, the leaders of this resistance were frequently coalitions of smaller and midsize states, including some nontraditional allies. Rather than retreat alongside the larger powers, they stepped forward and assumed greater responsibility, especially at the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which took important—sometimes unprecedented—steps in the past year to increase pressure on Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Opponents of human rights enforcement, such as China, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, carry considerable weight at the council, so it was impressive to see how often they lost. The council played that role even as the Trump administration ordered the United States to withdraw from it—the first country ever to do so.

The Human Rights Council made some major advances. For example, the possibility of a Chinese, Russian, or even American veto at the U.N. Security Council appeared to doom any effort to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for its army’s crimes against humanity that sent 700,000 Rohingya fleeing for their lives to Bangladesh. In response, the Human Rights Council, where there is no veto, stepped in to create an investigative mechanism to preserve evidence, identify those responsible, and build cases for prosecution once a tribunal becomes available. That effort won overwhelmingly, with 35 countries in favor and only three against (seven abstained), sending the signal that these atrocities cannot be committed with impunity.

In an unusual partnership, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation joined the European Union to co-present the council’s resolution on the Rohingya. Until Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the organization had opposed all resolutions criticizing any country other than Israel.

With the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Canada taking the lead, the Human Rights Council also rejected Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed effort to avoid scrutiny of war crimes in Yemen, such as the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated bombing and devastating blockade of Yemeni civilians that have left millions on the brink of starvation.

When an inquiry was first proposed a year earlier, the Saudi government threatened to cut off economic relations with any country that supported it. One month before this year’s vote, apparently to reaffirm that signal, Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada and imposed sanctions in retaliation for Ottawa’s wholly justified criticism of the Saudi crackdown on women’s rights activists. Yet the Human Rights Council resolved to continue an international investigation started last year of war crimes in Yemen by a vote of 21 to eight with 18 abstentions.

For the first time, the Human Rights Council condemned the severe repression in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro. A resolution led by a group of Latin American nations won by a vote of 23 to seven with 17 abstentions. The U.S. government’s departure from the council made it easier for resolution sponsors to show they were addressing Venezuela as a matter of principle rather than as a tool of Washington’s ideology. A group of Latin American governments led by Argentina also organized in the context of the Human Rights Council the first joint statement, signed by 47 countries, on the worsening repression in Nicaragua, as President Daniel Ortega responded with violence to growing protests against his repressive rule.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) remained an important institution of redress, too. Five Latin American governments and Canada urged it to open an investigation of crimes in Venezuela, an ICC member, representing the first time that any government has sought an ICC investigation of crimes that took place entirely outside its territory. France and Germany, among others, supported the move. In addition, seeking jurisdiction for atrocities against the Rohingya that doesn’t depend on the paralyzed U.N. Security Council, the ICC prosecutor opened a preliminary examination into their deportation, citing the fact that, even though Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, Bangladesh, where the alleged crime was completed, is.

Governments also acted to strengthen the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which traditionally was empowered to determine only whether chemical weapons have been used, not who used them. Russia opposed any international investigation to attribute responsibility, given its backing of the Syrian government as it repeatedly used chemical weapons and Russia’s own apparent use of the Novichok nerve agent in an attempted assassination of a former spy in Britain. The pushback came in an initiative led by France and Britain, over the opposition of Russia, which resulted in the member states of the organization voting 82 to 24 to grant it the mandate to begin identifying the users of chemical weapons. A Russian effort to block funding for this new mandate was also rejected.

The European Union, in response to the Polish government’s efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary and Orban’s implementation of his illiberal democracy in Hungary, launched a process that could end with the imposition of political sanctions under Article 7 of the EU Treaty; the European Commission acted in the case of Poland and a two-thirds majority of the European Parliament acted in the case of Hungary.

Although Poland and Hungary have the power under unanimity rules to shield each other from the actual imposition of such sanctions, the Article 7 process lays the groundwork for using the leverage provided by the EU’s next five-year budget, which should be adopted by the end of 2020. Poland is the largest recipient of EU funds, and Hungary is among the largest per capita recipients. Both the Polish and Hungarian governments have used these funds to their political advantage, so momentum is building within the EU to stop generously funding their attacks on the union’s core democratic values.

In Syria, a new bloodbath was averted by multilateral diplomacy. Three million civilians in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province were at risk of slaughter as the Syrian-Russian military alliance threatened an offensive using their typically indiscriminate bombardment. The Kremlin held the keys to whether this feared massacre of civilians would proceed, because the Syrian military was incapable of sustaining an offensive without Russian aerial support. Intensive European pressure on the Russian government ultimately persuaded President Putin to agree with Turkish President Erdogan to a cease-fire in Idlib, beginning in September 2018. So far, that cease-fire has held, despite Trump’s announcement of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from a separate area in northeast Syria.

The aftermath of the Saudi government’s gruesome murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate also sparked widespread though still selective multilateral pressure. It is unfortunate that it took the killing of a prominent journalist, rather than of countless unknown Yemeni civilians, to mobilize global outrage at Riyadh’s human rights record, but this single murder turned out to be galvanizing.

Gradually, the United States and Canada imposed targeted sanctions against many of the Saudis implicated in the murder. In Europe, Germany took the unprecedented step of barring 18 Saudi officials from entering the 26-nation Schengen Area, and it joined the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland in stopping arms sales to the kingdom. Trump pointedly refused to endorse the CIA’s reported finding that the Saudi crown prince had likely ordered Khashoggi’s murder, but the U.S. Senate endorsed that finding and voted to end U.S. military assistance for the war in Yemen. This outpouring of criticism may have contributed to Saudi Arabia’s willingness to agree in U.N.-sponsored talks on Yemen to a large exchange of prisoners and the lifting of a blockade of the critical port of Hodeida that was fueling Yemen’s famine.

The challenges of the past year arose as the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Clearly this is no moment for complacency. Human rights are under threat. Yet the year shows that while some governments see political or economic advantage in violating human rights, defenders of those rights can raise the price of abuse, sometimes forcing governments to recognize that repression does not pay.

The terrain for the fight may have shifted, with many longtime participants missing in action or even switching sides. But effective new coalitions have emerged to lead the battle—and they have won some notable victories.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @KenRoth