Human Rights a Path Out of Crisis and Chaos
Displaced people from the Yezidi sect, fleeing violence from forces linked to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk towards the Syrian border in August 2014. © 2014 Reuters
In the 656-page World Report 2015, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth highlights the counterproductive circle-the-wagons approach to human rights that many governments adopted during the past tumultuous year.
“Human rights violations played a major role in spawning or aggravating many of today’s crises,” Roth said. “Protecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to resolving them.”
The rise of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is among those global challenges that have sparked a subordination of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. But ISIS did not emerge out of nowhere. In addition to the security vacuum left by the US invasion of Iraq, the sectarian and abusive policies of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, international indifference to them, have been important factors in fueling ISIS.
While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has pledged a more inclusive form of governance, the government still relies primarily on Shia militias, who carry out killing and cleansing of Sunni civilians with impunity. Government forces also attack civilians and populated areas. Reforming a corrupt and abusive judiciary, and ending sectarian rule so Sunnis feel they have a place in Iraq, will be at least as important as military action to stop ISIS atrocities, but al-Abadi has so far failed to implement essential reforms.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have deliberately and viciously attacked civilians in opposition-held areas. Their use of indiscriminate weapons – most notoriously, barrel bombs – has made life almost intolerable for civilians.
Yet the United Nations Security Council has largely stood by, because of Russia and China using their veto power to stop unified efforts to end the carnage. The United States and its allies have allowed their military action against ISIS to overshadow efforts to push Damascus to end its abuses. This selective concern allows ISIS recruiters to portray themselves to potential supporters as the only force willing to stand up to Assad’s atrocities.
A similar dynamic is at play in Nigeria, where human rights concerns are central to the conflict. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram attacks civilians as well as Nigeria’s security forces, bombing markets, mosques, and schools and abducting hundreds of girls and young women. Nigeria’s army has often responded in an abusive manner, rounding up hundreds of men and boys suspected of supporting Boko Haram, detaining, abusing, and even killing them. But winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population will require that the government transparently investigate alleged army abuses and punish offenders.
This tendency to ignore human rights in the face of security challenges was a problem highlighted in the past year in the United States as well. A US Senate committee issued a damning summary of a report on CIA torture, but while President Barack Obama has rejected torture by forces under his command, he has refused to investigate, let alone prosecute, those who ordered the torture detailed in the Senate report. That abdication of his legal duty makes it more likely that future presidents will treat torture as a policy option instead of a crime. This failure also greatly weakens the US government’s ability to press other countries to prosecute their own torturers, Human Rights Watch said.
In too many countries, including Kenya, Egypt, and China, governments and security forces have responded to real or perceived terrorism threats with abusive policies that ultimately fuel crises, Human Rights Watch said. In Egypt, the government’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood sends the utterly counterproductive message that if political Islamists pursue power at the polls, they will be repressed without protest – which could encourage violent approaches. In France, there is a danger that the government’s response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks – using counterterrorism legislation to prosecute speech that does not incite violence – will have a chilling effect on free expression and encourage other governments to use such laws to silence their critics.
Meeting security challenges demands not only containing certain dangerous individuals but also rebuilding a moral fabric that underpins the social and political order, Human Rights Watch said.
“Some governments make the mistake of seeing human rights as a luxury for less trying times, instead of an essential compass for political action,” Roth said. “Rather than treating human rights as a chafing restraint, policymakers worldwide would do better to recognize them as moral guides offering a path out of crisis and chaos.”
To read the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015