POLITICIANS wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International yesterday as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries including 10 in Southern Africa. It warns that punishment of dissenting views and politically-motivated attacks on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression are on the rise in countries such as South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“From #FeesMustFall in South Africa, to #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe and the #UnemploymentMovement in Botswana; 2016 was a difficult year for human rights defenders and activists in the region. Politicians have attempted to label people demanding their rights as criminals, constantly intimidating, harassing and jailing them simply for making legitimate demands for their human rights to be respected,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.
“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs. Whether it is leaders like Trump and Duterte or prominent regional figures like Herman Mashaba, more and more politicians are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.
“Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that those who are demanding their rights through peaceful protests are a threat to national security and that they are advancing a foreign sponsored agenda. In Zimbabwe, Pastor Evan Mawarire is being persecuted simply for demanding accountability. In South Africa, University students asking for their constitutionally enshrined right to education were met with excessive use of force by the police. In Swaziland, Bheki Makhubu was harassed simply for calling for an independent judiciary, and in Botswana, young people were branded troublemakers for asking for jobs.”
Drives global pushback on human rights
Seismic political shifts in 2016 exposed the potential of hateful rhetoric to unleash the dark side of human nature. The global trend of angrier and more divisive politics was exemplified by Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign rhetoric, but political leaders in various parts of the world, including in Southern Africa, also wagered their future power on narratives of fear, blame and division.
This rhetoric is having an increasingly pervasive impact on policy and action. In 2016, governments pushed through deals that undermine the right to claim asylum, passed laws that violate free expression, increased draconian police powers, and turned a blind eye to war crimes. South Africa was one of three African countries to announce withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, effectively prioritizing diplomacy with Sudanese President Al-Bashir over justice for the victims of the grave crimes he is alleged to have committed.
Governments also turned on refugees and migrants; often an easy target for scapegoating. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documents how 36 countries violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk.
In December 2016, the Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, accused migrants in the city of being criminals without providing any evidence. US President Donald Trump put his hateful xenophobic pre-election rhetoric into action by signing an executive order in an attempt to prevent refugees from seeking resettlement in the USA; blocking people fleeing conflict and persecution from war-torn countries such as Syria from seeking safe haven in the country.
Elsewhere, Angola, Botswana, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Thailand and Turkey carried out massive crackdowns.
In Zambia, authorities cracked down on independent media outlets including by shutting down The Post newspaper and intimidating and harassing journalists. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, peaceful protests were shut down and stifled.
“Clearly something is wrong when a government refuses to listen to the demands of its people and instead deploys police using excessive force. Politicians must stop persecuting human rights defenders and activists who exercise their right to freedom of expression. Regional and international human rights obligations and commitments must move from paper to action,” said Deprose Muchena.
“In 2016, the targeting of human rights defenders and activists had a chilling effect on human rights in the region. A culture of respect for human rights cannot be established when people are unhappy and marginalized in the running of their own countries. Public officials have to be held accountable when their actions violate human rights.”
World turns its back on mass atrocities
Amnesty International is warning that 2017 will see ongoing crises exacerbated by a debilitating absence of human rights leadership on a chaotic world stage. The politics of “us vs them” is also taking shape at the international level, replacing multilateralism with a more aggressive, confrontational world order.
“With world leaders lacking political will to put pressure on other states violating human rights, basic principles from accountability for mass atrocities to the right to asylum are at stake,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“Even states that once claimed to champion rights abroad are now too busy rolling back human rights at home to hold others to account. The more countries backtrack on fundamental human rights commitments, the more we risk a domino effect of leaders emboldened to knock back established human rights protections.”
The world faces a long list of crises with little political will to address them: including Angola, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Central America, Central African Republic, Burundi, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documented war crimes committed in at least 23 countries in 2016.
Despite these challenges, international indifference to war crimes has become an entrenched normality as the UN Security Council remains paralyzed by rivalries between permanent member states.
“The beginning of 2017 finds many of the world’s most powerful states pursuing narrower national interests at the expense of international cooperation. This risks taking us towards a more chaotic, dangerous world,” said Salil Shetty.
“A new world order where human rights are portrayed as a barrier to national interests makes the ability to tackle mass atrocities dangerously low, leaving the door open to abuses reminiscent of the darkest times of human history.
“The international community has already responded with deafening silence after countless atrocities in 2016: a live stream of horror from Aleppo, thousands of people killed by the police in the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’, use of chemical weapons and hundreds of villages burned in Darfur. The big question in 2017 will be how far the world lets atrocities go before doing something about them.”
Who is going to stand up for human rights?
Amnesty International is calling on people around the world to resist cynical efforts to roll back long-established human rights in exchange for the distant promise of prosperity and security.
The report warns that global solidarity and public mobilization will be particularly important to defend individuals who stand up to those in power and defend human rights, who are often cast by governments as a threat to economic development, security or other priorities.
Amnesty International’s annual report documents 22 countries where people were killed in 2016 for peacefully standing up for human rights. They include those targeted for challenging entrenched economic interests, defending minorities and small communities or opposing traditional barriers to women’s and LGBTI rights. In Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe human rights defenders were killed, tortured, arrested or disappeared.
“We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action. With politicians increasingly willing to demonize entire groups of people, the need for all of us to stand up for the basic values of human dignity and equality everywhere has seldom been clearer,” said Salil Shetty.
“Every person must ask their government to use whatever power and influence they have to call out human rights abusers. In dark times, individuals have made a difference when they took a stand, be they civil rights activists in the USA, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, or women’s rights and LGBTI movements around the world. We must all rise to that challenge now.”
Amnesty International has documented grave violations of human rights in 2016 in 159 countries, including 10 in Southern Africa. Examples of the rise and impact of poisonous rhetoric, national crackdowns on activism and freedom of expression highlighted by Amnesty International in its Annual Report include, but are by no means limited, to:
Angola: The authorities continued to use politically motivated trials, criminal defamation charges and national security laws to suppress critical voices.
Botswana: Youth activist Tlamelo Tsurupe was arrested after protesting against youth unemployment in front of Parliament.
China: Ongoing crackdown against lawyers and activists continued, including incommunicado detention, televised confessions and harassments of family members.
DRC: Pro-democracy activists subjected to arbitrary arrests and, in some cases, prolonged incommunicado detention.
Lesotho: Unidentified gunmen attacked and injured Lloyd Mutungamiri, editor of an independent newspaper. Reporter Keiso Mohloboli was interrogated by police for exposing corruption.
Malawi: An unprecedented wave of violent attacks against people with albinism exposed a systemic failure of policing.
Mozambique: The security services committed human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions against a number of people they suspected to be members or supporters of RENAMO.
India: Authorities used repressive laws to curb freedom of expression and silence critical voices. Human rights defenders and organizations continued to face harassment and intimidation. Oppressive laws have been used to try to silence student activists, academics, journalists and human rights defenders.
Russia: At home the government noose tightened around national NGOs, with increasing propaganda labelling critics as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”, and the first prosecution of NGOs under a “foreign agents” law. Meanwhile, dozens of independent NGOs receiving foreign funding were added to the list of “foreign agents”. Abroad there was a complete disregard for international humanitarian law in Syria.
Swaziland: Repressive laws continued to be used to repress dissent. The High Court ruled that security legislation violated the rights to freedom of expression, of association and of assembly, which were protected under the constitution. William Mkhaliphi, an elderly sugar cane farmer from Vuvulane, in north-eastern Swaziland, was arrested by police in August after he voiced concerns about alleged royal investments and land grabbing.
South Sudan: Ongoing fighting continued to have devastating humanitarian consequences for civilian populations, with violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Sudan: Evidence pointed strongly to the use of chemical weapons by government forces in Darfur. Elsewhere, suspected opponents and critics of the government subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions. Excessive use of force by the authorities in dispersing gatherings led to numerous casualties.
Syria: Impunity for war crimes and gross human rights abuses continued, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and lengthy sieges that trapped civilians. The human rights community has been almost completely crushed, with activists either imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or forced to flee the country.
USA: An election campaign marked by discriminatory, misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric raised serious concerns about the strength of future US commitments to human rights domestically and globally.