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The promise of rights-respecting democracy remains a vital, mobilizing vision
by Deutsche Welle, Human Rights Watch
9:51am 18th Jan, 2019
17 Jan. 2018
Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch appealed on Deutsche Welle (DW) - Germany''s public international broadcaster for Germany and Angela Merkel to do more to protect human rights abroad.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth had good reason to present his organization''s annual report in Berlin on Thursday.
Roth told DW, "If you look around the world, the traditional powers were largely absent" when it came to championing human rights over the past year. Roth praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel, noting her work on applying pressure on rights abuses in Hungary and ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Most importantly he said that Merkel had helped prevent a bloodbath in Syria: "In a step that probably saved more lives than anything else, Chancellor Merkel was at the forefront of pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a ceasefire in the Idlib Province in Syria, where 3 million civilian lives were at risk because Russia and Syria were about to begin an indiscriminate bombardment there."
Roth said, "These are very important steps that Germany took. And we look to it to continue to take these steps in a leadership role."
The HRW director voiced frustration over lack of support from traditional partners too bogged down in populism and domestic issues to defend human rights or investigate war crimes, calling them no longer reliable.
Roth said: "Trump was too busy embracing the autocrats he sees as friendly. Britain was completely preoccupied by Brexit. French President Macron talks a good game, but really didn''t implement it. Even in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel has been a real hero, she has also been beleaguered by a far-right challenge."
In its World Report 2019, Human Rights Watch offers a rather gloomy account of the state of the world. But there''s more to politics than oppression: with Human Rights Watch (HRW) finding 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," said Kenneth Roth.
"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. 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.
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.
Human Rights Watch 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 removed."
Michalski added that the government has even tried to "export its model of human rights violations" to other countries.
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 writes in the report.
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.
* World Report 2019 is Human Rights Watch’s 29th annual review of human rights practices around the globe. It summarizes key human rights issues in more than 100 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events from late 2017 through November 2018. Access the report:
* World Report 2019 (PDF: 340pp):

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