A man wails after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Gaza

A man stands in rubble after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Gaza on October 9, 2023.

(Photo: Belal Khaled/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Human Rights Suffered in 2023 Due to 'Transactional Diplomacy': HRW

"All governments can demonstrate human rights leadership to protect civilians," reads a new report. "The challenge—and the urgency—is to do so consistently, in a principled manner, no matter the perpetrator or the victim."

"Transactional diplomacy" and world governments' refusal to consistently take strong stands in favor of defending human rights for all contributed to making 2023 "a year of some of the worst crises and challenges in recent memory, with deadly consequences," said international group Human Rights Watch in its annual report on Thursday.

The group's World Report 2024 was released as the International Court of Justice heard South Africa's case regarding the humanitarian crisis that's captured the attention of human rights and legal experts, lawmakers, and advocates around the world—Israel's bombardment and blockade of Gaza, which has killed more than 23,000 people in just over three months and forcibly displaced roughly 2 million.

But Tirana Hassan, executive director of HRW, said the alleged genocide in Gaza is just one of the crises stemming from the fact that world leaders "look the other way when universal principles of human rights are violated."

"The international system that we rely on to protect human rights is under threat," said Hassan. "Every time a country overlooks these universal and globally accepted principles, someone pays a price, and that price is sometimes peoples' lives."

The group called on world leaders to center the rights that all humans are meant to be guaranteed, rather than short-term security or political gains, and warned that "examples of transactional diplomacy abound."

In addition to giving financial backing to Israel to carry out its massacre of civilians in Gaza—and repeatedly defending the bombardment as an act of self-defense despite all evidence to the contrary—U.S. President Joe Biden "has shown little appetite to hold responsible human rights abusers who are key to his domestic agenda or are seen as bulwarks to China," such as the leaders of Saudi Arabia, India, and Egypt, HRW said.

Other leaders have similarly placed their short-term interests over taking principled positions on human rights—potentially setting the stage of future inflamed tensions as they condemn vulnerable people to suffering in the present day. European Union member states, noted HRW, pushed asylum-seekers and migrants "back to other countries" last year and struck deals with "abusive governments like Libya, Turkey, and, most recently, Tunisia to keep migrants outside of the European bloc."

European countries including Italy and France have also garnered condemnation for punishing those who try to help asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

"Even normally rights-respecting governments at times treat these foundational principles as optional, seeking short-term, politically expedient 'solutions' at the expense of building the institutions that would be beneficial for security, trade, energy, and migration in the long term," Hassan wrote in a keynote essay accompanying the report.

At a press conference announcing the release of the report, Hassan warned that in conflicts like the ongoing assault on Gaza as well as wars in Ukraine, Myanmar, and other countries, the question of whether to hold governments accountable for crimes against humanity is too often treated as "a political decision."

"Human rights violations—the killing of civilians, the killing of children, the targeting of hospitals, the killing of humanitarian workers, the killing of journalists in armed conflicts—the only way that this is going to stop is if there is accountability for those crimes," said Hassan. "And that takes will from states."

Conflicts around the world have made clear that governments, particularly those with the most power, like the United States, express "selective outrage," as with statements of condemnation against Hamas for its attack on southern Israel in October that are followed, in many cases, by approval of Israel's assault on Gaza, which has disproportionately killed civilians despite Israel's claim that it's targeting Hamas fighters.

"Governments' unwillingness to call out Israeli government abuses follows from the refusal by the U.S. and most European Union member countries to urge an end to the Israeli government's 16-year unlawful closure of Gaza and to recognize the ongoing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians," reads the report.

Selective outrage and attention have also left civilians in Sudan ignored by much of the world, HRW said, amid an armed conflict that broke out in April 2023 when two military leaders began fighting each other for power. The United Nations "closed its political mission in Sudan at the insistence of the Sudanese government, ending what little remained of the U.N.'s capacity in the country to protect civilians and publicly report on the rights situation."

"All governments can demonstrate human rights leadership to protect civilians," reads the report. "The challenge—and the urgency—is to do so consistently, in a principled manner, no matter the perpetrator or the victim."

In addition to human rights violations in conflicts, HRW pointed to rising inequality around the world, including in the E.U.—where poverty rates in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, and Latvia exceeded 25%—and the United States, as well as in the Global South.

The report also notes that the intensifying climate emergency, which is disproportionately affecting people in low-income countries even as wealthy governments bear the most responsibility for planetary heating, is creating new humanitarian catastrophes and leading policymakers to violate climate activists' right to protest.

"Enhanced civic engagement to meet the urgency of the climate crisis has triggered the nefarious use of vague laws to target activists to make it harder to express dissent," said Hassan. "Across Europe, in the U.S., Australia, and Vietnam, governments are imposing harsh and disproportionate measures to punish activists and deter the climate movement. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world's largest oil producers, hosted the U.N. Climate Conference (COP28) in 2023... People trying to speak out about the UAE's record face risks of unlawful surveillance, arbitrary arrest, detention, and ill-treatment."

The human-cause climate emergency made 2023 the hottest year since records began in 1880, "and the onslaught of wildfires, drought, and storms wreaked havoc on communities from Bangladesh to Libya to Canada," said HRW.

The report also points to a number of victories achieved by popular movements and institutions that centered human rights. Brazil's Supreme Court upheld Indigenous people's rights to lands, while the British Supreme Court ruled that the right-wing government could not move forward with a plan to deport refugees to Rwanda.

"These victories," reads the report, "highlight the tremendous power of independent, rights-respecting, and inclusive institutions and of civil society to challenge those who wield political power to serve the public interest and chart a rights-respecting path forward."

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