Globe Stood Up to Autocrats in 2018, Rights Group Finds

Anti-government demonstrators march under Christmas decorations in the city centre of Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 16, 2018. Protesters are demonstrating against recent changes to the labor laws. (Balazs Mohai/MTI via AP)

(CN) – Finding a silver lining in its sober account of how far-right autocrats took the spotlight in 2018, Human Rights Watch reported Thursday that the corruption it observed tended to bolster resistance movements.

“In some ways this is a dark time for human rights,” the group’s director Ken Roth said in an essay introducing the 674-page report. “Yet while the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength.” 

Last year saw the election of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who ran on a pro-torture platform, praised the country’s discredited military dictatorship and sparked broad debate on whether he should be called a “fascist.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected after the autocrat sped up the vote to knee-cap his opposition, jailing a pro-Kurdish candidate and dominating news coverage in a country where the media is almost entirely controlled by his allies.

China paved the way for Xi Jinping to remain “president for life,” in a rubber-stamped congressional vote altering the country’s constitution to remove term limits.

Elections in many countries have the superficial trappings of democratic legitimacy, including a multiparty system, political campaigns and even high-voter turnouts. But Human Rights Watch noted that modern autocracies stand apart from 20th century dictatorships.

“Unlike traditional dictators, today’s would-be autocrats typically emerge from democratic settings,” the report states. “Most pursue a two-step strategy for undermining democracy: first, scapegoat and demonize vulnerable minorities to build popular support; then, weaken the checks and balances on government power needed to preserve human rights and the rule of law, such as an independent judiciary, a free media, and vigorous civic groups.”

Yet Roth saw important opposition to these trends emerge from inside the United Nations, even as its largest sponsor, the United States, attempts to discredit several of its institutions under the Trump administration.

Uyghurs people demonstrate against China during the Universal Periodic Review of China by the Human Rights Council, on the Place des Nations in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 6, 2018. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

“The U.N. Human Rights Council, for example, took important — sometimes unprecedented — steps in the past year to increase pressure on Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela,” the report states. “The opponents of human rights enforcement, such as China, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, traditionally carry considerable weight in these settings, so it was impressive to see how often they lost this past year.”

Under the Trump White House, the United States notably became the first country to withdraw from the 47-member council. The administration accused the council of anti-Israel bias and pulled out of UNESCO for the same reason.

Human Rights Watch also observed positive trends outside of the United Nations, particularly in the international response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and in grassroots organizing that brought people power to the streets.

“Large crowds in Budapest protested Orban’s moves to shut Central European University, an academic bastion of liberal inquiry and thought,” Roth wrote, referring to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. “Tens of thousands of Poles repeatedly took to the streets to defend their courts from the ruling party’s attempts to undermine their independence. People across the United States and dozens of companies protested Trump’s forcible separation of immigrant children from their parents.”

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