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(New York) – World leaders gathering for the United Nations General Assembly should reject the abusive policies of autocratic populists and promote greater respect for human rights worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today.

Four leaders who have spearheaded aggressive attacks on human rights at home and at times abroad – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, US President Donald Trump, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – will open the annual General Debate at UN headquarters on September 24, 2019.

“Rising authoritarianism is one of the gravest challenges that defenders of human rights face every day,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s essential that world leaders push back against the lineup of anti-rights crusaders who will open this year’s UN General Assembly this year.”

Egypt’s al-Sisi, whom Trump reportedly praised as his “favorite dictator,” has been crushing free speech and other basic rights for six years. Hallmarks of his rule include the massive use of lethal force against protesters, and widespread and systematic use of torture in detention facilities.

In Turkey, three years after a violent coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan’s presidency has normalized emergency rule. More than 40,000 people are imprisoned on terrorism charges, few of the more than 130,000 public officials dismissed have been reinstated, elected Kurdish mayors have been removed, and the country is the world’s top jailer of journalists.

The Trump administration has repeatedly disparaged human rights, emboldening white supremacists and other extremists at home and abusive leaders abroad.

And with respect to climate change, one of the top issues at this year’s General Assembly, Brazil’s Bolsonaro has effectively given a green light to criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest and intimidating and attacking forest defenders. Trump has actively undermined efforts to address climate change.

Today, one day before the General Debate opens, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened a summit on climate change to rally the 193 General Assembly members to adopt policies that protect the planet and its people. The broad interest in the UN’s Climate Action Summit sends a strong message of global rebuke to leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump.

The lineup of abusive leaders speaking at the General Assembly does not end with the opening speakers. Leaders and ministers from countries with abysmal human rights records – including China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – will also take the podium during the General Debate.

At a time of rising hostility to human rights by a growing number of leaders, Guterres should not shy away from using the General Assembly to publicly condemn specific governments for serious human rights violations. He should take the opportunity to strengthen global rights norms not by speaking in generalities but by delivering strong public messages to particular abusive governments that violations will not be tolerated. Rights-respecting leaders, in turn, should make clear to the secretary-general that they expect him to be a vocal advocate for human rights by denouncing the violations of particular governments, not merely issuing ineffectual generic statements, Human Rights Watch said.

Publicly condemning China’s massive oppression of the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim population of the Xinjiang region and urging the closure of “political education” camps where over 1 million are detained should be a priority for the secretary-general.

“The only way for the UN’s prime-time lineup of leaders who proudly disparage rights not to set the tone for the entire General Assembly is for more principled leaders to be vocal and unflinching in their support for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Roth said.


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