Politics of Fear Devouring Human Rights Worldwide

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Politics of Fear Devouring Human Rights Worldwide

New Human Rights Watch report details escalating crises and the rollback of human rights around the world

Riot police in London. (Photo: Reuters)

The politics of fear has consumed the world.

Fear of terrorism and fear of refugees, which have grown alongside ongoing global conflicts, fueled many of the biggest human rights developments—and failings—worldwide in 2015, including in the U.S. and Europe, according to a new report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The influx of refugees fleeing violence, war, and poverty at home prompted numerous Western governments to restrict borders and roll back human rights within their own countries in "misguided efforts to protect their security," the report (pdf) states. Meanwhile, authoritarian governments in conflict zones embarked on "the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times."

Together, these policies have created a climate in which all citizens are at risk.

"Fear of terrorist attacks and mass refugee flows are driving many Western governments to roll back human rights protections," HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth wrote in his keynote essay introducing the group's 26th annual human rights review. "These backward steps threaten the rights of all without any demonstrated effectiveness in protecting ordinary people."

Roth explained:

Fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year. Fear of being killed or tortured in Syria and other zones of conflict and repression drove millions from their homes. Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates. Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims. And fear of their people holding them to account led various autocrats to pursue an unprecedented global crackdown on the ability of those people to band together and make their voices heard.

In the U.S. and Europe, xenophobia became mainstream, creating a "currency" of "blatant Islamaphobia and shameless demonizing of refugees," Roth said.

That has fueled efforts to weaken encryption and increase surveillance, along with the adoption of new laws targeting government watchdogs and activists. There's the Cybersecurity Act in the U.S., the Investigatory Powers Bill in the UK, or France's three-month state of emergency in response to the attacks in Paris last November.

On Tuesday, French President François Hollande sought to extend the state of emergency by an additional three months.

But it was not just privacy rights and asylum protections that faced a crackdown in 2015. Elsewhere, gender and sexuality increasingly came under fire. Transgender people were subjected to a growing amount of discriminatory laws that blocked their access to health care and free expression. And one in three girls was forced into child marriage by age 18, while one in nine were wed by 15—a trend that cannot be reversed without "sustained political commitment to address social and cultural norms around girls' sexuality," say HRW researchers Neela Ghoshal and Kyle Knight.

Lastly, the report details the over-incarceration of minors, from those serving life sentences in prison to those detained for skipping school or attempting to cross borders.

Imprisonment of minors can include anything from institutionalizing mentally disabled children to detaining migrants, says HRW's Michael Bochenek. But all instances share one thing in common: they violate international standards.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates there are more than one million children currently behind bars around the world.

The report details the ongoing human rights abuses in 90 countries total, as well as the responses of bodies like the United Nations and other international advocacy organizations.

Despite these ongoing crises, the report highlights the tangible progress made by intrepid activists and organizations, such as the democratic elections in Myanmar that brought human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to power in November, or the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S., Ireland, and Mexico.

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