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Globalization

Amnesty's Salil Shetty: Human rights 'under attack'

Amnesty International's annual report has described 2015 as a calamitous year for human rights. DW talks to the organization's secretary-general, Salil Shetty, about where the international community is falling short.

DW: Reading your report, one gets the impression that human rights violations are not only universal but also politically induced by almost all countries in the world. It seems that human rights are considered something "nice to have" if you can "afford" it. Have governments generally discarded human rights standards for political or economic reasons?

Salil Shetty: This is a very worrying reality. The attack on human rights is not only being carried out by the usual suspects, when you think of North Korea or Saudi Arabia. It is unfortunately also the countries who have traditionally been championing human rights. So in the Western parts, for example, the UK is actively trying to undermine the European system of human rights, while France has been searching people's houses and extending emergency powers. These are countries that were generally seen as champions. So we're in a situation where, across the board, countries have started looking at human rights as a sort of accessory - it's nice to have, it kind of makes us look pretty - but not as a prerequisite and a fundamental necessity for modern society.

How do you account for this development and for the failing of governments?

I think this is a vicious circle. So what happens is that you undermine institutions, you take short cuts, then that leads to further human rights abuses, and governments start getting more repressive.

So I say that the system itself is under attack, and if we take a global view, you find that the African countries have started coming together and undermining the International Criminal Court, threatening to leave. At the regional level, I would mention the European system and the attack from countries like the UK. You could also take, for example, the attacks which are conducted by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Now when there's a call for a UN-led independent investigation, Saudi Arabia blocks it, which really undermines the legitimacy of the United Nations. So you have attacks on a global level and on a regional level.

You ask me what causes it. I think there is no one single cause, but on the whole I would say it is simply leaders who don't want to be accountable to their own people or to the international human rights framework, because it undermines their own power and their authority.

Symbolbild Paris Terror Polizei

Amnesty has criticized France's use of emergency powers following the attacks in Paris

Taking all this into account, do you think the "name and shame" strategy Amnesty has employed over the years is still effective?

We are in a paradox situation. While on one the one hand, it's absolutely the case that individual people who are fighting for human rights, their organizations and even the system itself, are under attack. In some ways, the system is under attack because people are starting to stand up for their rights. So I don't take a very gloomy view of the people's side. On the government side it is something else, but Amnesty is a movement of people.

We are more than 7 million members and active supporters, and we are really strengthening Amnesty's ground presence in the Middle East, North Africa and in Asia and Latin America, where we believe that the leaders of these countries need to be more accountable.

The reason why this is very important for us is that often the countries from the Middle East or from Africa and Asia could dismiss what Amnesty is doing by saying: "Oh, you know this is some Western thing, which is absolute nonsense." In Africa, those who are working for Amnesty are mostly Africans. So this kind of dismissive attitude will not be able to be used as an excuse.

Salil Shetty is Secretary General of Amnesty International, headquartered in London.

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