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In September 2015, Marem Aliyeva disappeared from her home in southern Russia. She had called the police multiple times to report that her husband was beating her, but to no avail. “We don’t get involved in domestic matters,” the police told her. On the day she disappeared, Marem called her older sister in tears, terrified because her husband threatened to punish her for reporting him. When the sister arrived at Marem’s house, she found only Marem’s young children, alone and crying. Marem disappeared without a trace. She was one of 14,000 Russian women every year who fall victim to deadly violence at the hands of their partner.

Nevertheless in January 2017, the Russian parliament passed a bill to decriminalize a first offense of family violence unless it causes serious harm requiring hospital treatment. The move is a huge step backward for Russia, seriously weakening protection against domestic violence and putting victims’ lives at greater risk.

Russia is not alone in its regression. In various parts of the world, a rising tide of populist nationalism opposed to universal rights threatens to stop progress and undo past achievements in human rights.

In his first television interview as US president, Donald Trump said he would consider bringing back torture in the fight against is the Islamic State (otherwise known as ISIS). He said some people had told him that “it works.” Taking a position contrary to customary international law and UN treaties on human rights might not bother Trump, but his position is also at odds with the collective wisdom of experts, whose research has found that torture does not “work” at all. Some torture victims never let slip a word, even if they are tortured to death, while others will say anything to avoid the pain. Bringing back torture would turn back the clock on substantial progress made by the international community to protect against the most fundamental abuses. The UN special rapporteur on torture described it as a “return to barbarism.”

The spiteful and xenophobic rhetoric of the brand of populism currently on the rise creates division and hatred. It is one thing to foment division over social media, but another to turn the words into actions, decisions and laws. One of the great threats to modern society is the steady erosion, instigated by certain populists and demagogues, of the rule of law and respect for human rights. They threaten to hollow out democracy in ways that erode checks and balances on the executive and can leave vulnerable groups without protection.

This is happening in our immediate vicinity. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, using the 2016 coup attempt as a pretext, has muzzled independent media, imprisoned his political opponents and strengthened his political position.  In January, the Turkish parliament passed far-reaching amendments to the country’s constitution – the biggest change since the multiparty system was introduced in 1950. The amendments will be put to referendum and if passed will concentrate more power in the president’s hands, weaken the few remaining checks and balances, and erode Turkish democracy.

Viktor Orbán is leading Hungary in the same direction. He has already pushed through constitutional and other legal changes that reduce the independence of the judiciary, weaken media freedom, threaten civil society groups, criminalize the homeless and asylum seekers, and undermine religious freedom.

Poland is behaving in a similar way. The new government is blocking judicial appointments and has sought to exercise political control of the constitutional tribunal through new laws that, in the view of the EU and the Council of Europe, undermine judicial independence and the rule of law.

Even Denmark, Sweden’s Nordic neighbor, is fuelling the trend. When the Danish government takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in autumn 2017, it has said it will seek to weaken the influence of the European Court of Human Rights. This policy, rooted in dissatisfaction with the principled line taken by the court and the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights, is likely to be seen as cause for celebration by a number of countries whose inhabitants rely on the court as a bulwark against abuses by the state.

Human rights protect individuals from abuse at the hands of government. The rights limit what the state can do and create obligations as to how it must behave. The restrictions are there for a reason. Devised in the aftermath of devastating wars and purges, human rights were intended to protect humanity from further destruction.

But a new generation of political leaders is challenging the entire system. Purporting to speak for “the people,” they claim that human rights only protect minorities, terrorist suspects or asylum seekers. These politicians make the claim that rights simply are an impediment to the security, prosperity and stability of the nation. They claim that the majority should make do with weaker human rights protection in return for secure jobs and prosperity, defense of traditional values, resistance to cultural changes, and prevention of terrorism.

The attack on human rights is often politicized. Lawyers who dare to pursue claims arising from alleged torture by British forces are dismissed as “left-wing human rights lawyers” by Theresa May. But human rights are not a question of party politics – they are legal rights, laid down in a country’s laws and constitution. Rights that other people have suffered for, fought for, gone to prison for, and even given their lives for.

In my opinion, the greatest threat to our children’s future is the dismantling of the defenses built to prevent another human catastrophe – the systems at the national and international level that guarantee the freedom and human dignity of vulnerable people.

This is a dangerous trend. If we start eroding the rights of certain groups, it will not be long before we have a whole list of groups lined up awaiting their turn: beggars, Roma, criminals, Muslims, immigrants, drug users, terrorist suspects. The very thing that the experience of the 20th century taught us to avoid if our society is to survive.

So, is the situation completely hopeless? No, not at all. There are opportunities. “In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity,” as John F Kennedy said. But these opportunities are inherent in the engagement of every single citizen. And engagement is what will be needed if we are to successfully defend the ground we have gained. Engagement not just by individuals, but by all the players in society: politicians, organizations, the media and business.

Just recently, public engagement and protests stopped the government of Romania from adopting a law reducing the penalties for corruption.

This January the streets of Stockholm were filled with thousands of people taking part in the Women’s March. What started as a reaction to populist, sexist, discriminatory rhetoric turned into a powerful manifestation of the equal value of every human being, bringing together millions of people in over 600 locations worldwide.

We all need to speak up when the rights and dignity of our fellow humans are challenged. Speak up if we don’t accept the rights of certain groups being curtailed. Defend fundamental principles such as the equal value and equal rights of every human being. Defend the systems that guarantee these rights. This is essential if we are to ensure a humane future for the succeeding generations.

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