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'Infatuation with strongman rule' dangerous to democracy, says rights watchdog

An annual human rights report that typically focuses on abuses in developing countries has taken aim at the rise of populist movements in developed countries.

Human Rights Watch issued a stern warning on Thursday that the rise of populist politicians in the United States and Europe poses a threat to the rights movement and, potentially, to western democracy.

The 704-page "World Rights 2017" focused on conditions in 90 countries but singled out the rhetoric of US President-elect Donald Trump as "a vivid illustration of (the) politics of intolerance."

If such voices prevail, it continued, "the world risks entering a dark era."

The report said Trump's success illustrated a dangerous and growing "infatuation with strongman rule" also evident in Russia, China, Venezuela and the Philippines.

In presenting the report, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said Trump's rise had emboldened leaders like Cambodia's Hun Sen, who sees Trump's election "as a green light to continue his repression," and added that one Hungarian politician justified a crackdown by saying, "This is the era of Trump."

The report also noted that Syria represented "perhaps the deadliest threat to rights standards" because of the indiscriminate attacks on civilians by Syrian and allied Russian forces.

It said government-backed atrocities "could easily breed new extremist groups" even if ISIS is defeated on the battlefield.

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But the report mainly focused on the dangerous rise of populism.

 

HRW chastised politicians like Trump for exploiting a "cauldron of discontent" over joblessness, extremist attacks and increasing ethnic and racial diversity to scapegoat refugees, immigrants and minorities. Truth was "a frequent casualty."

The report also faulted French President Francois Hollande, who it said had "borrowed from the National Front playbook to try to make depriving French-born dual citizens of their nationality a central part of his counterterrorism policy."

HRW also leveled criticism against British Prime Minister Theresa May, who came to power after the populist-fueled Brexit vote, for denouncing "activist left-wing human rights lawyers" who took legal action against British troops accused of abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Roth defended the report against the suggestion by one journalist that its criticism of Trump appeared partisan.

"This is not a partisan issue, this is a rights issue," he said, adding that "our best way to protect human rights is to be outspoken about them."

Roth said that in a break with the past, the group was calling not only on leaders of troubled countries, but also on their publics to take steps.

The best antidote to ascendant populism, the report said, is public activism.

"Populists thrive in a vacuum of opposition. A strong popular reaction, using every means available... is the best defense."

bik/kl (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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