The Human Rights System Is Under Threat: A Call to Action
We only have to look at the human rights challenges of 2023 to tell us what we need to do differently in 2024. It was a formidable year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. Yet amid the gloom, we saw signs of hope showing the possibility of a different path.
Renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas and in Sudan caused tremendous suffering, as did ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and the Sahel. Governments struggled to deal with the hottest year on record and the onslaught of wildfires, drought, and storms that wreaked havoc on millions of people in Bangladesh, Libya, and Canada. Economic inequality rose around the world, as did anger about the policy decisions that have left many people struggling to survive. The rights of women and girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people faced harsh backlashes in many places, exemplified by the Taliban’s gender persecution in Afghanistan.
The drivers of these human rights crises and their consequences often transcend borders and cannot be solved by governments acting alone. Understanding and responding to these threats needs to be rooted in universal principles of international human rights and the rule of law. These ideas built on shared human histories agreed upon by nations across all regions 75 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the basis for all contemporary human rights conventions and treaties.
This foundation is needed now more than ever. But this very system we rely on to protect the human rights of people everywhere is under threat. Every time a government overlooks or rejects these universal and globally accepted principles, someone pays a price – in freedoms and liberties, in their health or livelihood, and at times their lives.
Governments that could play a role in helping to improve human rights frequently adopt double standards in applying the human rights framework, which chips away at trust in the institutions responsible for enforcing and protecting rights. Governments that are vocal in condemning Israeli government war crimes against civilians in Gaza but silent about Chinese government crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, or demand international prosecution for Russian war crimes in Ukraine while undermining accountability for past US abuses in Afghanistan, weaken the belief in the universality of human rights and the legitimacy of the laws designed to protect them.
In transactional diplomacy, governments disregard the benefits of long-term relationships built on human rights principles to achieve immediate, short-term trade or security gains. When governments pick and choose which obligations to enforce, they perpetuate injustice not only in the present but in the future for those whose rights have been sacrificed – and can embolden abusive governments to extend the reach of their repression. The moral foundation of international human rights demands consistency and steadfastness.
Governments have found it easier to disregard human rights issues in the international arena in part because the international community is not challenging their violations of human rights at home. Across regions, autocrats have worked to erode the independence of key institutions vital for protecting human rights and shrink the space for expressions of dissent with the same end game in mind: to exercise power without constraint.
But just as these threats are interconnected, so too is the power of the human rights framework to deliver on the promise of protecting people’s freedom and dignity, no matter who they are or where they live. The protection of human rights has advanced on multiple fronts.
After three years of diplomatic negotiations and a decade of campaigning by civil society groups, 83 countries adopted a political declaration to better protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas during armed conflict. The international pledge is the first to formally address the long-standing practice of warring parties to use aerial bombing, artillery, rockets, and missiles in villages, towns, and cities – the leading cause of civilian casualties in armed conflict around the world.
It goes further than simply urging better compliance with the laws of war by committing its signatories to adopt policies and practices that prevent and address harm. Six of the world’s top eight arms exporters – the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and South Korea – have adopted the declaration, as well as 25 of 31 NATO member states.
A number of countries addressed the rights of long-marginalized communities. After years of civil society pressure, the Japanese parliament passed its first law to protect LGBT people from “unfair discrimination.” Nepal's Supreme Court instructed authorities to recognize same-sex marriages while it considers a case demanding full marriage equality rights. In Mexico, a civil society coalition persuaded Congress to pass a law establishing full legal capacity and the right to supported decision-making for everyone over 18, benefiting millions of people living with disabilities and older people, while the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Congress must eliminate federal criminal penalties for abortion, meaning that all federal health facilities should provide abortion care.
The human rights and humanitarian crises have caused some to question the effectiveness of the human rights framework as a model for protection and for positive change – especially in the face of selective government outrage, transactional diplomacy seeking short-term gain, growing transnational repression, and the willingness of autocratic leaders to sacrifice rights to consolidate their power.
But this is no basis for giving up on the human rights framework, which remains the roadmap to building thriving, inclusive societies. Governments should respect, protect, and defend human rights with the urgency, vigor, and persistence needed to confront and address the global and existential challenges that threaten our common humanity.
The cost of selective outrage
The October 7 attacks by Hamas-led fighters on Israel were a terrifying assault on civilians. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups deliberately killed hundreds of civilians, shot families in their homes, and took more than 200 people hostage, including children, people living with disabilities, and older people. Palestinian armed groups launched thousands of rockets toward Israeli communities. Many countries quickly and justifiably condemned these horrific acts.
Israel’s government responded by cutting water and electricity to Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians and blocking the entry of all but a trickle of fuel, food, and humanitarian aid – a form of collective punishment that is a war crime. The Israeli military ordered more than a million people in Gaza to evacuate their homes and bombarded densely populated areas with heavy weapons, killing thousands of civilians, including children, and reducing entire blocks to rubble. Attacks on populated areas using explosive weapons with wide area effects raise grave concerns of indiscriminate attacks, which are apparent war crimes. Israel used white phosphorus, a chemical that burns human flesh and can cause lifelong suffering, in both Gaza and southern Lebanon.
Many of the governments that condemned Hamas’ war crimes have been reserved in responding to those by the Israeli government. These governments’ unwillingness to call out Israeli government abuses follows from the refusal by the US and most European Union member countries to urge an end to the Israeli government’s 16-year unlawful closure of Gaza and to recognize the ongoing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians.
Tradeoffs on human rights in the name of politics are clear when many governments fail to speak out about the Chinese government’s intensifying repression, the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, and its tightening control over civil society, media, and the internet, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet. Chinese authorities’ cultural persecution and arbitrary detention of a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims amount to crimes against humanity, yet many governments, including in predominantly Muslim countries, stay silent.
This selective outrage undermines the human rights not only of Palestinians in Gaza and Uyghurs in China but of anyone around the world in need of protection. It sends the message that some people’s dignity is worth protecting, but not everyone’s – that some lives matter more.
The ripple effects of these inconsistencies shake the legitimacy of the system of rules that we rely on to protect everyone’s rights. Governments such as Russia and China then seek to weaponize this weakened legitimacy to reshape the rules-based order to strip it of human rights values and undermine the system that could hold them to account for their countless abuses.
Every government has a responsibility to apply human rights principles to address human rights crises. The people of Sudan have suffered because of the absence of international attention, commitment, and leadership to address the widespread abuses in the country’s conflict.
In April 2023, an armed conflict broke out in Sudan when the two most powerful Sudanese generals began battling each other for power. The power struggle between the armed forces leader, Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan, and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Gen. Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, unleashed fighting that resulted in massive abuses against civilians, notably in the Darfur region. Their abuses have mirrored those committed over the past two decades by forces loyal to both generals, for which accountability has remained elusive.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has brought arrest warrants for past crimes in Darfur, and the ICC prosecutor announced in July that current crimes in Darfur are in his remit. However, the Sudanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed ICC efforts, and the United Nations Security Council has done nearly nothing to tackle the government’s intransigence. The resulting impunity – save for one trial of a militia leader at the ICC – has fueled repeated cycles of violence in Sudan, including the current conflict. In 2023, when African countries on the Security Council included Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique, the UN closed its political mission in Sudan at the insistence of the Sudanese government, ending what little remained of the UN’s capacity in the country to protect civilians and publicly report on the rights situation.
Calls to prioritize accountability at the UN Human Rights Council following renewed violence in Sudan were met with strong resistance from Arab states and largely rebuffed by African governments. Western governments were initially reluctant to push for an accountability mechanism in Sudan, unwilling to commit the resources or effort that they had devoted to a similar body for Ukraine immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.
A group of countries eventually mustered enough votes to create a mechanism that can collect and preserve evidence of crimes, but not a single African government voted in favor, although some abstained. The Sudanese government has made it clear that it will not cooperate with the mechanism, which will operate outside the country.
And yet, African governments do take positive action on human rights on some issues. They have tended to overwhelmingly support Human Rights Council resolutions that address the human rights situation in Palestine, while Western states oppose them. And in November, the South African government led an effort, supported by ICC member countries Bangladesh, Bolivia, Venezuela, Comoros, and Djibouti, to back the prosecutor’s investigation in Palestine. And in December, the South African government asked the International Court of Justice to determine whether Israel violated its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention in its military operations in Gaza. It also asked the court to impose provisional measures directing Israel to cease acts that could violate the Genocide Convention while the court decides on the merits of the case.
All governments can demonstrate human rights leadership to protect civilians. The challenge – and the urgency – is to do so consistently, in a principled manner, no matter the perpetrator or the victim.
The myopia of transactional diplomacy
Governments should center respect for human rights and the rule of law in their domestic policies and foreign policy decisions. Unfortunately, even normally rights-respecting governments at times treat these foundational principles as optional, seeking short-term, politically expedient “solutions” at the expense of building the institutions that would be beneficial for security, trade, energy, and migration in the long term. Choosing transactional diplomacy carries a human cost that is paid not only within, but increasingly beyond, borders.
Examples of transactional diplomacy abound.
US President Joe Biden has shown little appetite to hold responsible human rights abusers who are key to his domestic agenda or are seen as bulwarks to China. US allies like Saudi Arabia, India, and Egypt violate the rights of their people on a massive scale yet have not had to overcome hurdles to deepen their ties with the US. Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and other nations the US wants as counters to China have been feted at the White House without regard for their human rights abuses at home.
Similarly, on migration, Washington has been reluctant to criticize Mexico, on whom it leans to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from entering the US. The Biden administration and that of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have worked in tandem to expel or deport tens of thousands of migrants in the US to Mexico and block thousands more from reaching the US to seek safety, knowing they are targeted in Mexico for kidnapping, extortion, assault, and other abuse. Biden has largely remained silent while López Obrador has attempted to undermine the independence of the Mexican judiciary and other constitutional bodies, demonized journalists and human rights activists, and allowed the military to block accountability for horrific abuses.
The EU has its own brand of transactional diplomacy focused on circumventing its human rights obligations to asylum seekers and migrants, especially those from Africa and the Middle East. Member states’ preferred response is to push people back to other countries or strike deals with abusive governments like Libya, Türkiye and, most recently, Tunisia to keep migrants outside of the European bloc. Perversely, some EU member states, including France, Greece, Hungary, and Italy, have even taken measures to punish those who extend humanitarian aid and assistance to migrants and asylum seekers who arrive by irregular means.
Democratic governments in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, repeatedly deprioritize human rights in the name of assuring military alliances with security partners like Thailand and the Philippines, seeking to counter Chinese government influence with governments in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and securing trade and economic deals with few, if any, human rights commitments in fast-growing economies like Vietnam and Indonesia.
Conducting transactional diplomacy with blinders is dangerous. Trying to separate human rights and the rule of law from more “pragmatic” decisions squanders valuable leverage to influence the practices and policies of rights-violating governments. It can also contribute to further human rights violations, including transnational repression.
The alarming reach of transnational repression
Governments commit acts of transnational repression, also known as extraterritorial repression, when they commit human rights abuses against their nationals living abroad or their family members at home. While this is a longstanding phenomenon, increased communications, travel, and new technologies have allowed for greater unlawful practices, including arbitrary deportations, abductions, and killings.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s democracy has slid toward autocracy, with authorities targeting minorities, tightening repression, and dismantling independent institutions, including federal investigative agencies. During summits with Modi, his counterparts in the US, Australia, the UK, and France failed to publicly raise rights concerns, instead prioritizing trade and security. French President Emmanuel Macron even awarded Modi the Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of merit, during Bastille Day celebrations.
Silence on the Indian government’s worsening rights record appears to have emboldened the Modi government to extend repressive tactics across borders, including to intimidate diaspora activists and academics or restrict their entry into India.
In March, Indian authorities blocked the messages of several high-profile Canadian Twitter users who are critical of the Indian government. In September, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described “credible allegations” that agents of the Indian government were involved in the assassination of a separatist Sikh activist in Canada, a claim that Indian officials denied. And in November, US authorities indicted a man for a failed plot with an Indian government official to assassinate a separatist Sikh activist in the US.
India’s transnational repression is not an isolated example. Three decades of impunity for the Rwandan government’s repression of civil and political rights at home has emboldened it to stifle dissent beyond its borders. As Rwanda has grown more prominent on the international stage, leading multilateral institutions and becoming one of the largest African contributors of peacekeeping troops, the UN and Rwanda’s international partners have consistently failed to recognize the scope and severity of its human rights violations.
The Rwandan government has carried out over a dozen kidnappings or attempted kidnappings, enforced disappearances, assaults, threats, and killings, as well as harassment against Rwandan nationals who are perceived critics of the government living in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, the UK, and the US. Their relatives living in Rwanda are also under intense scrutiny and vulnerable to human rights violations.
Similarly, the failure of countries to push back against Chinese government abuses has tacitly permitted Beijing to escalate and export its repression against both Chinese and non-Chinese people and institutions critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Pro-democracy students and academics at Western universities have faced harassment, surveillance, and intimidation for speaking up about Chinese government abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang. The Chinese government has pressured governments to forcibly return human rights defenders, like Lu Siwei, a lawyer, from Laos. And in a blatant effort to stymie international criticism about the Chinese government’s dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong, the authorities there issued baseless arrest warrants and HK$1 million (US$128,000) bounties on eight democracy activists and former legislators in exile.
If repressive governments can get away with heavy-handed tactics to silence human rights defenders, exiled politicians, journalists, and critics beyond their borders, then nowhere is safe.
Sacrificing human rights to consolidate power
This year, nearly half the world’s population will be eligible to vote in elections around the world. If free and fair, elections can be a critical expression of the public will when it comes to a country’s priorities and values. But accountable governance – where governments center human rights and the rule of law in their policies and decision-making – depends on much more than a trip to the ballot box.
Independent, rights-respecting institutions, including the judiciary, ombudspersons, and human rights commissions, can effectively guard against capricious decision-making, stem legislative overreach, and uphold the rule of law. An active and independent civil society is critical to ensure that the decisions of those who exercise political power serve the public interest. But civil society and the institutions needed to protect rights and free societies have become renewed battlegrounds for autocratic leaders around the world looking to eliminate scrutiny of their decisions and actions.
In Tunisia, President Kais Saied, elected in 2019, has steadily eliminated checks and balances, including by weakening the judiciary, cracking down on political opponents and perceived critics, and targeting freedom of expression and the press.
El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has used mass detention of mostly low-income people as an ostensible solution for high levels of crime in the country. He has used this crackdown to grab and consolidate power, an effort made easier by his purge of the Supreme Court and steady capture of the judiciary. Peru’s Congress has taken measures to undermine other democratic institutions and limit lawmakers’ accountability, including by seeking to remove members of the National Board of Justice, a body critical to protecting the independence of judges, prosecutors, and electoral authorities.
In Guatemala, a judiciary largely co-opted by politicians and other corrupt actors threatened to set aside the electoral victory of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. In Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, have virtually no checks on their power, the government has used abusive legislation to shut down over 3,500 nongovernmental organizations – roughly 50 percent of the registered groups in the country.
The slow destruction of these vital checks and balances can spell alarming consequences for human rights and the rule of law.
In Thailand, the politically compromised Constitutional Court effectively subverted the will of the Thai people in the 2023 election when it suspended the leading candidate for prime minister from parliament on bogus charges. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government ordered the arrest of over 10,000 opposition leaders and supporters ahead of the January 2024 election, and a compliant judiciary has disqualified hundreds of candidates.
While elections in Poland ushered in a new government at the end of 2023, the country’s previous Law and Justice government has systematically eroded the rule of law by undermining judicial independence and silencing independent civil society groups and other critics, including through the courts and the police. The Law and Justice party’s capture of the justice system made possible the former government’s signature attacks on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights.
The cost can be measured in lives: following a 2020 ruling by the politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal, which virtually banned legal abortion in Poland, at least six women died after doctors did not terminate their pregnancies despite complications. In May 2023, an abortion rights activist was convicted of helping a woman to get abortion pills and was sentenced to eight months of community service – the first known prosecution of its kind in the EU. Poland’s new government will face a challenging role to reestablish the independence of key institutions, including the judiciary, which will likely take years.
In the US, state legislatures and the courts have weakened laws to prevent racial discrimination in voting, such as the Voting Rights Act, almost to the point of ineffectiveness. In Florida and other US states, educational censorship is limiting people’s ability to learn about sexuality and gender identity, as well as the history of slavery and racism in the US. Politicians know that accurate information on these issues is one factor inspiring people to participate in civic activism and hold authorities to account. Some 4.6 million people in the US, disproportionately Black, were disenfranchised under US laws as of 2022, after being convicted of a criminal offense.
Meanwhile, enhanced civic engagement to meet the urgency of the climate crisis has triggered the nefarious use of vague laws to target activists to make it harder to express dissent. Across Europe, in the US, Australia, and Vietnam, governments are imposing harsh and disproportionate measures to punish activists and deter the climate movement. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s largest oil producers, hosted the UN Climate Conference COP28 in 2023, an apparent attempt to burnish its image while pushing the expansion of fossil fuels and undermining efforts to confront the climate crisis. People trying to speak out about the UAE’s record face risks of unlawful surveillance, arbitrary arrest, detention, and ill-treatment.
Governments are increasingly using technology platforms to silence critics and censor dissent. Especially in countries lacking independent judiciaries or oversight, governments can impose laws that essentially become traps set for critics, activists, and unsuspecting internet users. An especially egregious example is Saudi Arabia’s death sentence for Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a 54-year-old retired teacher, for violating the country’s counterterrorism law based on his peaceful expression on X and YouTube.
Months before its May 2023 elections, Türkiye’s parliament tightened control of social media and introduced a new abusive criminal speech offense, ostensibly to fight the spread of fake news online. In practice, the laws added to the existing arsenal of online censorship legislation, providing more possible restrictions on access to information and threatening severe penalties against tech companies for failing to comply with user data and content take-down demands. As a result, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government equipped itself with the capacity to further limit dissenting views online before and during the elections, which the ruling party ultimately won.
How institutions delivered for human rights
For all the backsliding in 2023, we also saw shining examples where institutions and movements delivered victories for human rights. Indeed, these successes illustrate why self-serving politicians and repressive governments work so hard to curtail them – and why all governments should recognize and support these fragile successes.
In March, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for war crimes relating to the deportation of children from occupied territories of Ukraine to Russia and forced transfers of children to other Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine. The warrant created a diplomatic dilemma for the South African government, which hosted a BRICS summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in August. After months of conflicting messages from South African authorities about the country’s obligations as an ICC member to arrest Putin if he set foot in South Africa, news broke that Putin would not attend the summit in person. Two days later, the Gauteng High Court ruled that South Africa had an obligation to arrest Putin and that the ICC arrest warrant should be carried out in the country.
In November, the International Court of Justice ordered the Syrian government to take all measures within its power to prevent acts of torture and other abuses. The case before the world court is a critical counterweight to the rush of several Arab countries to normalize ties with the Syrian government, despite continuing rights abuses, and little or no accountability for past crimes under President Bashar al-Assad. There are also efforts to hold individuals to account for torture and other atrocities in Syria before courts in Germany, Sweden, and France. These cases are critical for victims to see their abusers brought to justice and can help establish that refugees in these countries should not be sent back to a country where they face real risks to their lives.
Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld all Indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional lands, thwarting efforts by Santa Catarina state to challenge land claims by the Xokleng Indigenous people if they could not prove they were physically present on the land on October 5, 1988, when Brazil’s current Constitution was adopted. The ruling was a huge boost for Indigenous people in their fight to preserve their way of life. It was also relevant in the fight against climate change, as demarcating Indigenous territories has time and again shown to be one of the most effective barriers against deforestation in the Amazon. Yet, the powerful farm lobby in Congress reacted by approving a bill to limit Indigenous land claims that runs counter the Supreme Court´s decision. Congress later overturned a presidential veto of the bill. Indigenous groups and others said that they would file petitions before the Supreme Court to strike down the law.
In November, the UK’s highest court unanimously found that Rwanda is not a safe third country for the government to send asylum seekers, striking down an agreement that effectively outsourced and shifted the UK’s asylum responsibilities to Rwanda. Drawing attention to Rwanda’s poor rights record, including threats to Rwandans living in the UK, the court found that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda could face a real risk of being returned to their home countries where they could face ill-treatment. The agreement was found to violate the UK’s obligations under international and domestic law.
The UK government has since introduced a “Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill” to parliament to get around the court’s ruling. But the UK cannot legislate its way around the fact that Rwanda counters criticism with violence and abuse, including against refugees.
These victories highlight the tremendous power of independent, rights-respecting, and inclusive institutions and of civil society to challenge those who wield political power to serve the public interest and chart a rights-respecting path forward. All governments, in their bilateral relations and at the multilateral level, should redouble efforts to uplift key institutions and protect civic space wherever it is under threat.
These human rights crises demonstrate the urgency of all governments applying longstanding and mutually agreed principles of international human rights law everywhere. Principled diplomacy, by which governments center their human rights obligations in their relations with other countries, can influence oppressive conduct and have a meaningful impact for people whose rights are being violated. Support for institutions that solidify human rights protections will help promote rights-respecting governments. Upholding human rights consistently, across the board, no matter who the victims are or where the rights violations are being committed, is the only way to build the world we want to live in.