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A Year in Review: The World’s Human Rights Record in 2017

Remember the end of last year, when the internet collectively proclaimed that 2016 was one of the worst years ever? From Buzzfeed, to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to The New York Times, everyone agreed that 2016 – with the Brexit referendum, its series of terror attacks, the Zika outbreak, the failed coup in Turkey, the election of Donald J. Trump and the Aleppo siege – was a particularly rough year.

Now take a seat in front of your computer. Type “2017 worst year ever” in your search engine. You will be flooded by hundreds of entries detailing how analysts in 2016 got it wrong and why this past year was even more nightmarish than the last when it came to human rights, peace and democracy. More than just a running joke, events of the past year were of serious concern to countless civil society organisations. Last February, Amnesty International warned of a global tendency towards rejection of “others” and inward-looking nationalism in an increasingly unstable international context.

Looking at the current state of the world, one can say that 2017 was indeed a year of mixed fortunes: human rights and freedoms were seriously under attack throughout the globe, but the past months also held some major human rights successes. Compiling an inclusive list of the global human rights situation is no easy task. The following snapshot is not exhaustive, but is reflective of many of the events of the past year that demonstrate the current state of human rights and where we can go from here.

Let’s face it – some things went pretty horribly on the international scene.

Our first thought goes to the United States. On 20th January 2017, Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. In record time, his administration relentlessly threatened human rights both domestically and abroad. The country withdrew from three major UN instruments including the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, slashed international aid funding, flirted with the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea, stopped refugees from entering the US, signed an executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, repealed protection for transgender people and women in the workplace, proclaimed the media and its “fake news” the national enemy, failed to condemn racial and ethnic hatred after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, trampled indigenous rights by reviving the Dakota Access pipeline, reiterated its support to the NRA after the Vegas mass shooting, tried to unravel Obamacare and announced its intention to stop the DACA program for children of irregular immigrants.

The use of hateful and fear-mongering rhetoric did not stop at the well-guarded gates of the US. Fuelled by fear of terrorism and rising anti-migrant sentiments, populist parties won an increasing share of the votes in elections in France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. In Central Europe, nationalist Eurosceptic governments challenged the regional political landscape and the very foundations of the European Union.

One year after the failed coup in Turkey, President Erdogan’s government continued its crackdown on human rights defenders and journalists. Mexico became the deadliest country – outside of war zones – for journalists. Reporters Without Borders claimed that never before has press freedom been so threatened, with attacks on the media and journalism-bashing becoming increasingly commonplace.

People continued to face discrimination and violence because of their gender and sexual orientation. In April, the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed the existence of gay concentration camps in Chechnya, where at least 100 men had been abducted and tortured. Some managed to escape the country, thanks to the efforts of the Russian LBGT network.  

Humanitarian crises worsened. The global migration crisis continued with 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. In a desperate attempt to reach European shores, more than 3,100 migrants and refugees drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean. In France, the situation of migrants stranded in the so-called Calais ‘jungle’ as they sought to reach Great Britain was qualified as “inhumane and of exceptional gravity”. Migrants trapped in Libyan detention centres suffered tremendous and systematic violations of their rights. European governments, focused on securing their external borders, fuelled this human trafficking slave system by actively supporting the Libyan authorities. 

In Myanmar, persecution against the Rohingya population, a Muslim minority living in Rakhine state, reached unprecedented levels. Persecuted for decades and stripped of citizenship by the Burmese government, around 700,000 refugees were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape violent attacks committed by the Myanmar army that constituted crimes against humanity. The UN Human Rights Chief qualified the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and several NGOs and international leaders denounced the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, former Nobel Peace Prize winner and the de-facto leader of the country.

The UN warned the international community about the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II, with up to 20 million people at risk of starvation and famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. In war-torn Syria, the Assad regime was once again suspected to have attacked its civilian population with chemical weapons and seven years after war sparked, the conflict remains far from being resolved.

Consequences of climate change were felt worldwide with calamitous natural disasters: global temperatures broke records; Mexico was rocked by two major earthquakes in September; the south of the US and several Caribbean islands were devastated by hurricanes; Fiji and other Pacific Islands asked the international community for help to adapt to rising sea levels.

Lastly, whilst Saudi Arabia’s decision to finally grant women the right to drive hit the news, women’s rights remained seriously hampered in the country: they still cannot marry, divorce, open a bank account, travel, get a job or have custody of children without male permission.

Despite these incontestable causes of concern, the past twelve months also saw some great human rights successes and achievements.

Firstly, some positive developments took place in conflict and post-conflict situations throughout the globe. In the Middle East, the Islamic State lost major territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria, including its self-declared capitals of Mosul and Raqqa. Tangible progress was witnessed in the Colombian peace process with the FARC guerrilla movement handing in more 8000 weapons, stating the end of their armed struggle. In May, 82 Chibok schoolgirls, whose kidnapping gained international attention with the #bringbackourgirls movement, were released by the terrorist group Boko Haram after a deal with the Nigerian government.

Although the work of United Nations has remained extremely challenged by governments retreating from their commitment to champion fundamental rights, Portuguese António Guterres, an outspoken advocate for human rights, became the new UN Secretary General after having served for more than ten years as the organisation’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

Countless activists and defenders showed courage, strength and resilience in the face of unimaginable opposition, sometimes risking their own life and freedom while seeking to promote and protect human rights. Due to intense lobbying from advocacy groups and organisations, several defenders and political prisoners were freed in the course of last year. One of many examples, Chelsea Manning, the US army whistle-blower condemned to 35 years in prison after having disclosed classified documents to WikiLeaks, saw her sentence commuted by the Obama administration and was released on the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The 2017 Nobel Peace prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”. Earlier in the year, 122 UN member states adopted the first ever treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, demonstrating the vital influence of civil society organisations working in coalition.

2017 also showed us that change comes from the street and made us realise more than ever the crucial importance of protecting freedom of assembly and association. People around the world protested to protect their rights and freedoms. Following the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of communism, Romanian citizens managed to repeal a pro-corruption decree that would have protected high level politicians from being prosecuted. In Poland, the Black protest against the abortion ban introduced by the ruling ultra-conservative party Law and Justice forced MPs to vote down the text, the country already having one of the most restrictive legislations in Europe when it comes to reproductive rights. In December, the EU Parliament rewarded the democratic opposition of Venezuela – who faced repression from Nicolas Maduro’s government – with the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought.

Several important legislative developments must be emphasised. Mongolia became the 106th state to abolish the death penalty.  Same-sex marriage was legalized in Finland, Malta, Germany and Australia. Taiwan’s Supreme Court expressed its willingness to promulgate a similar legislation in the upcoming years. Miscarriage is no longer considered a crime in Argentina. The Irish government announced its intention to organise a referendum on abortion reform in 2018.

International justice and the fight against impunity also saw some crucial developments in 2017. Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was convicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, in what constituted a milestone for justice in the continent, Habré being the first African suspect prosecuted under universal jurisdiction. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the oldest African dictator in power since 1980, was forced to step down after an army-led coup. In Europe, Ratko Mladic, former Bosnian Serb General known as the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ was found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the final ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and was sentenced to life in prison, more twenty years after the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.  

Finally, if there was one achievement that surely must be remembered from 2017, it’s women’s refusal to be silenced. They were warned, they were given an explanation, nevertheless, they persisted. They fought back to claim the equality of rights. Last year began with Women’s Marches across the world – with millions of protesters donning pink pussy hats and taking over the streets to denounce the election of a man who publically bragged about sexual assault. They protested to defend the rights of women, LGBTQ people, migrants, and minority groups threatened by the Trump administration. This same year ended with #MeToo, a movement denouncing sexual harassment and assault in the workplace that followed sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Feminist claims indubitably dominated the public debate and the Silence Breakers were named Person of the Year by Time Magazine.

It is clear to us that we are witnessing a definitive backslide in human rights across the world. Democracy is increasingly being seriously challenged. But we have perhaps also witnessed the watershed moment, the tipping point. We have seen people fighting for their rights. We have seen people fighting for the rights of others. If much remains to be done, we can – we have to – hope that 2018 will be a year of greater solidarity in the global reclamation of human rights.

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