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"A horrific year"

Dennis Stute
February 25, 2015

There is a real risk of global conflicts spiraling out of control in 2015, according to Amnesty International's annual report on human rights. DW spoke to Steve Crawshaw, from the office of the AI Secretary General.


DW: Does your annual report show any new major developments compared to previous years?

Steve Crawshaw: We have been documenting very serious human rights violations every year, but all of us are aware that 2014 has been a particularly horrific year. So many things are happening at the same time; from Nigeria to Syria, to Gaza, to Ukraine, we have seen both terrible violence by governments against civilians and many, many atrocities by non-state armed groups. This is deeply troubling. Violations seem to be increasing rather than decreasing.

According to your report, non-state armed groups like Boko Haram, the Taliban or the "Islamic State" committed abuses in every fifth country. Are such groups a growing threat?

We have seen huge problems with armed groups over the years, but now we are seeing a troubling pattern of an increase of these, and not only in one area of the world. What we are also seeing in parallel to that is very wrong behavior by governments. In Nigeria, for example, there has been significant focus on the crimes of Boko Haram, but much less attention has been given to the crimes of the Nigerian military, which itself, for example, committed a number of beheadings and captured those on video. The problem of armed groups, of this lawless madness in many different regions of the world, is bigger than ever.

They thrive in fragile and failed states. Are such states an increasing problem?

We have seen fragile and failed states, as they are sometimes called, in different places. The real problem now is the danger of these things spiraling out of control. The situation in Iraq, Syria and that entire region is very troubling for the future. The world may think things are too complicated to address when they are first brought to their attention, but actually we have seen over the years in so many situations that addressing something too late is deeply problematic.

Steve Crawshaw Amnesty International
Amnesty International's Steve CrawshawImage: 2006 Yael Gottlieb/Human Rights Watch

If the Security Council had reacted properly to the atrocities carried out against the peaceful protesters in Syria before the war began, I think it is fair to say we would not be where we are today.

Does the West see dictatorships as the lesser evil after the negative experiences of the Arab uprising?

I think with governments on all sides we too often see a pick and choose mentality with regards to who you are ready to criticize. There is a deep reluctance to criticize Saudi Arabia for reasons that western governments would regard as strategic, geopolitical reasons. But what Saudi Arabia really needs is the observation of basic rights; so you do need governments to speak out. In the case of Syria - Russia and China have been blocking Security Council resolutions.

There have been other conflicts, like Gaza, where the United States has repeatedly wielded its veto in the Security Council. So one of the key demands that Amnesty International is making in this year's report is that the permanent five members of the Security Council renounce their veto rights in situations of mass atrocities and other very serious violations. When terrible things are happening you cannot simply look away - and that's what the United Nations Security Council has done far too often in the past years.

Gaza Stadt Hamas Israel 50 Tage Krieg
Crawshaw uses Gaza as an example of the United Nations looking away during an atrocityImage: REUTERS/M. Salem

What else needs to be done in your view?

An important thing that we can do is make the arms trade treaty work. Amnesty International and others were arguing for 20 years for a treaty that does not allow weapons to be traded to places and people if they might be used to commit mass atrocities. Even though many people said such a treaty would never be achievable, it now exists. The trouble is that, although many states have signed it, too few have ratified it.

We also need to see that in the context of the recent terror attacks we must not fall back into the mistakes made after 9/11 and tear up the basic rules of human rights in response to the threat. At Amnesty International we do worry that there are many signals that that kind of thing is maybe beginning to happen again. And we do need to have generosity towards refugees, an open door.

What is the report's forecast for 2015?

The danger that things may get worse is clearly there. What we are now seeing is that the armed groups are getting stronger and stronger. We are seeing threats to freedom of expression and basic rights, and a worsening refugee crisis. Too often there is a sense of looking away from the problems because they are so grave, but the idea that problems are solved by not looking at them has again and again been shown to be wrong - and there are things that can be done.

What are your findings on Germany?

We have seen attacks against asylum seekers and minorities and we have of course heard condemnations of those from authorities. But we see too little investigation and prosecution of those crimes; it could be more robust.

Zentrum für Asylbewerber in München 10.10.2014
Germany has seen the number of refugees applying for asylum sharply increaseImage: Reuters/Michaela Rehle

Another area would be allegations of ill-treatment by the police. What we are looking for is an independent complaints commission that could investigate serious human rights violations. It is interesting to note that only in four of sixteen federal states there is an obligation for police officers to wear identification batches - the lack of them in the other states makes it easier to carry out violations.

One major foreign policy issue is of course Ukraine and Russia, and the appalling crimes committed there. Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel have an important role and we welcome where she has spoken up. Too often in the past, Germany has been inclined not to speak up strongly on neighboring countries like Ukraine, Russia or Central Asian countries, where there have been significant human rights violations.

What we also have seen repeatedly with Germany over the years is that business can trump human rights - for example with China. That is quite a wrong approach, not only for those who are suffering in other places, but also for the stability of the world. So I think Germanys voice needs to be heard consistently and not on a pick and choose basis.

Steve Crawshaw is the director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International.

Interview conducted by Dennis Stute.

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