In its World Report 2019, Human Rights Watch offers several examples of groups working globally to stand up to oppression. HRW has published annual reports since 1989 — often focused on dictatorships.
The news offers a rather gloomy account of the state of the world. But there's more to politics than oppression: In its World Report 2019, presented on Thursday, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) finds that globally people are standing up for their rights.
"While the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are also gaining strength," Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director, writes in the introduction to the report. "The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles. Victory in any given case is never assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a powerful counterattack."
HRW has published its annual reports since 1989 — usually focusing on dictatorships. This year's edition focuses "on autocrats and populists with authoritarian tendencies and on the rising resistance against these politicians," Wenzel Michalski, the director for HRW in Germany, told DW.
EU's 'high point'
The report describes how tens of thousands of Poles repeatedly took to the streets to defend the independence of their country's judiciary and how judges refused to abandon their posts in spite of political pressure to do so. In Hungary, thousands protested against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's moves to shut down the Central European University and to institute a law that would make it possible to delay overtime pay for three years. HRW praises the European Parliament's decision to launch a process that could sanction Hungary under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union as a "high point" for the EU.
Elsewhere, HRW reports: "Voters in Malaysia and the Maldives ousted their corrupt prime ministers; Armenia's prime minister stepped down amid massive protests over corruption; Ethiopia, under popular pressure, replaced a long-abusive government with a prime minister who embarked on an impressive reform agenda." According to HRW, in the United States the opposition Democratic Party gained control of the House of Representatives in November partly because voters had rejected President Donald Trump's "fear-mongering" attempt "to portray asylum-seekers fleeing Central American violence as a crisis."
Despite the good news from elsewhere, Michalski said China remained a particular area of concern for HRW: "In this country, free speech and civil society are being annihilated."
China's president, Xi Jinping, "is increasingly turning into a dictator," Michalski said, adding that the government has even tried to "export its model of human rights violations" to other countries through its One Belt, One Road initiative.
Germany's mixed record
In his introduction, Roth offers examples of the "human cost" of autocratic regimes, such as the hyperinflation and economic devastation in Venezuela and the "spree of extrajudicial killings as part of the 'drug war' in the Philippines." Furthermore, the "retrenchment" of some political figures, including those with autocratic tendencies, from the defense of human rights beyond their borders "made it easier for brutal leaders to get away with large-scale atrocities, such as Syria's war on civilians in areas held by anti-government forces, the Saudi-led coalition's indiscriminate bombing and blockade that are killing and starving Yemeni civilians, and the Myanmar army's mass murder, rape and arson against Rohingya Muslims," Roth wrote.
Closer to home, in spite of Saudi Arabia's actions in Yemen, the kingdom has long been one of the German arms industry's top customers. It took the gruesome killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi for Germany to halt arms exports to the country.
"Again and again, you still read about arms shipments to Saudi Arabia in press reports," Michalski said. "There is no transparency when it comes to arms supplies, because these sales underlie confidentiality restrictions." In a democracy, he said, "a country's citizens should have a say in such matters." On the other hand, he added, HRW found "that the responsibility to address human rights issues and criticize human rights violations is being taken more seriously in the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery than a few years ago." That's why he feels optimistic for Germany, too.