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Südsudan Krise Menschen gehen entlang eines Stacheldrahtzauns
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Patinkin

Amnesty: 'The world in 2016 became a darker place'

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
February 22, 2017

A new report by Amnesty International highlights 2016 as an awful year for human rights, with war crimes committed across the world, refugees being scapegoated and global powers failing to rise to the challenge.


Most of us would agree that 2016 was a tough and depressing year in which the bad news never seemed to end: from shocking election and referendum results to countless terrorist attacks, refugees in dire need and devastating conflicts in countries like Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan.

A new report by Amnesty International shows that 2016 didn't just feel like a horrible year – it really was one of the worst years for human rights on record.

"The world in 2016 became a darker and more unstable place," Amnesty International's Secretary General, Salil Shetty, writes in the report. "The reality is that we begin 2017 in a deeply unstable world full of trepidation and uncertainty about the future."

Human rights violations across the globe

Symbolbild Gewalt gegen die muslimische Rohingya-Minderheit in Myanmar
Many conlicts, like the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, worsened in 2016, says Amnesty InternationalImage: AFP/Getty Images

Amnesty International's annual assessment of human rights around the world documented grave violations of human rights in 159 countries in 2016, of which at least 23 also committed war crimes.

In Sudan, Amnesty International recorded widespread systematic abuses and the use of chemical weapons that the organization says amount to war crimes. 

In Myanmar, tens of thousands of Rohingya people have been displaced by so-called "clearance operations."

In the Philippines, a wave of extrajudicial executions ensued after President Duterte promised to kill tens of thousands of people suspected of being involved in the drug trade, turning a war on drugs into a war on the poor.

Jemen Unterernährung Saida Ahmad Baghili
Almost 1.4 million children suffering from severe malnutrition could die from famine in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria this year, according to UNICEFImage: Reuters/K. Abdullah

And the quest to silence critical voices surged in its scale and intensity across large parts of the world.

What's surprising, though, is that among the 159 countries that violated human rights in 2016 we find democracy frontrunners such as France, Great Britain and the United States.

"It's not really that one part of the world has been better or worse than the other, 2016 has seen a global trend of backsliding on human rights and one that we need to put an end to immediately," Tirana Hassan, Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, told DW.

Politics of demonization

One of the biggest problems of 2016, the report says, has been the rise of hate speech across large parts of Europe and the United States. Politicians were increasingly willing to demonize entire groups of people. Donald Trump's statements leading up to his election, for example, were marred by misogyny and xenophobia, while Hungarian politician Viktor Orban used divisive language to fuel anti-refugee sentiments and shift blame for economic woes on to refugees.

USA Einreiseverbot Trump - Reaktion aus Tokio
Donald Trump's xenophobic statements and actions have caused outrage worldwideImage: picture alliance/NurPhoto/R. A. de Guzman

"2016 was the year when the cynical use of 'us vs them' narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s," writes Shetty in the report. 

This "us vs them" narrative is resulting in an ever more divided world in which the most vulnerable people are used as scapegoats, the report says. According to Amnesty International, this narrative is challenging notions of human rights and human dignity that were long thought to be universally agreed upon.

"Today's politics of demonization shamelessly peddle a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature," Shetty writes. 

Strongman politics

Demo gegen geplante Abschiebung am Frankfurter Flughafen
Germans have protested against the deportation of refugees back to Afghanistan at the airport in FrankfurtImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland

What's more, this dangerous "us vs them" rhetoric has led to the rise of nationalist "strongman politics," says  Hassan. According to her, the easiest targets of such tactics are usually refugees and migrants.

The uptick in nationalism doesn't just directly endanger the most vulnerable people, it also drives a global pushback on human rights, the report says.

"What we find in an era of 'strongman politics' is that leaders don't want to be accountable for their abuses," Hassan told DW.

Tirana Hassan
Tiana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response director, says we need to hold governments accountable and defend human rightsImage: Amnesty International

"We have seen a very alarming trend from a number of African nations that say 'we are going to pull out of the International Criminal Court.'"

For Hassan, that's the opposite of protecting the powerless.

"These are the sort of governments that have something to hide. And there needs to be accountability for that. The bodies of law that protect us during times of conflict are not something that governments should be opting in and out of, depending on if they feel like it. These are fundamental freedoms and protections which are central to humanity, to human lives."

However, many governments turned a blind eye to war crimes in 2016 and failed to hold human rights abusers accountable.

"Even states that once claimed to champion rights abroad are now too busy rolling back human rights at home to hold others to account," Shetty warns in the report.

Global indifference

Südsudan Juba SPLA-IO Soldaten
The lack of response from the international community to human rights violations in countries like South Sudan, where authorities have systematically killed people, is shocking to HassanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Patinkin

For Hassan, the lack of global response to atrocities and war crimes that have been live streamed into our living rooms has been the most alarming part of 2016.

"In a time where we require world leaders and politicians to be standing up and ensuring that there is accountability, we have seen the institutions that we rely on, such as the Security Council of the United Nations, do exactly the opposite. We've actually seen certain members of the Security Council using the veto to stop steps being taken to protect the most vulnerable,” she said.

Even countries with strong human rights records are struggling to exert a global influence. Germany took a very principled position on refugee protection that was grounded in international law, according to Hassan. But she criticized Germany for failing to exert pressure on states that are violating human rights, such as South Sudan. 

"Economic ties and political ties being strengthened on the back of human rights abuses is a very dangerous precedent for a powerful and influential government such as Germany," Hassan said.

"We need to have responsible international leadership, we need to have governments who abide by their duty to protect the most vulnerable."

Call to action

Südafrika Xenophobie Rassismus Unruhen
Amnesty International calls on all citizens in 2017 to hold their leaders accountable and to stand up for human rightsImage: Getty Images/G.Guercia

But it's not all doom and gloom. In the end, governments and world leaders aren't the only ones with the power to protect human rights.

That's why Amnesty International's Shetty is calling on people across the world to stand up for human rights. 

"We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights; we, the people, have to take action."

And Hassan agrees that now is the time to take action rather than falling into cynical paralysis.

"The simple fact that politicians have begun to backslide is certainly not a reason to throw our hands in the air and say human rights don't work anymore, it's actually a call to action. It's now a responsibility for all of us to hold our democratically-elected leaders to account to ensure that we do live in a world that is human rights abiding," she said.

'Everyone can be a human rights activist'

Senegal Proteste gegen Nicht-Anerkennung der Wahl in Gambia
One positive example for human rights in 2016 was the Gambia, where peaceful protests led to a change of powerImage: Getty images/AFP/Seyllou

There were also some examples of people power in 2016 - like the Gambia, which saw the end of decades of oppression by a leader, who was essentially running the country as a dictator. When Yahya Jammeh challenged the results of the free elections that saw him defeated, people rose up and peacefully pressured him into ceding power. 

"This shows that people have the power to stand up," Hassan said, adding that it's important to remember that individuals who stand up for justice can make a difference.

"In the fight for human rights in 2017, the frontline is everywhere and everyone can be a human rights activist."

How? Firstly, by ensuring that human rights abuses and the regression on human rights do not go unnoticed, Hassan says.

What's also vital is to ensure that politicians don't stray from our sets of freedoms and protections.

And last but not least, Hassan says we need to support those who are already fighting for the protection of human rights. 

This is especially important given that activists in 22 countries were killed for peacefully standing up for human rights last year, with the murder of the human rights defender Berta Cáceres in Honduras being one of the most prominent examples.

"2017 is really going to be the year where we call on the international community, governments and politicians to take a stand and start putting human rights first," said Hassan. 

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