State of the “State of the World’s Human Rights”

Amnesty International has released its annual “State of the World’s Human Rights.” The report documents and evaluates the status of human rights around the world, providing regional and individual country reports. The report is available in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

In the report’s forward, Irene Khan, Amnesty’s Secretary General, describes the growing climate of fear that envelopes the globe. “Today far too many leaders are trampling freedom and trumpeting an ever-widening range of fears,” she writes, “fear of being swamped by migrants; fear of “the other” and of losing one’s identity; fear of being blown up by terrorists; fear of “rogue states” with weapons of mass destruction.” Moreover, this fear “thrives on myopic and cowardly leadership” who use real reasons for fear to promulgate “policies and strategies that erode the rule of law and human rights, increase inequalities, feed racism and xenophobia, divide and damage communities, and sow the seeds for violence and more conflict.”

The theme of fear is further reflected in Amnesty’s regional evaluation of Europe and Central Asia. There, fear has resulted in an increase in racially motivated attacks against immigrants, discrimination, and the development of or cooperation with states that violate fundamental human rights in the name of security and the “war on terror.” These violations include refusing due process, unlawful detention, torture, rendition, expulsion, and the repression of dissent. Most of the violations have occurred in former Soviet and Yugoslav states, but Western European states such as Greece, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, and Spain are also cited. In all the European continent as a whole is responsible for direct or indirect violations of human rights or simply turning a blind eye.

In regard to Russia in particular, a number of human rights continued to be violated. These include the failure to solve the murders of journalists, the government’s clamp down on NGOs, a tightening control over media, the use of detention, torture, abductions, and trial without jury, especially in the Chechnya and Ingushetia, the failure to prevent, and in some cases fostering, racial and sexual hatred, discrimination, and violence, government corruption, and the intimidation, repression, and harassment of dissidents.

The bulk of Russia’s human rights violations, of course, is concentrated in the North Caucasus, where despite Moscow’s proxy Razman Kadyrov’s efforts to restore normalcy, the conflict between Russian and Chechen security forces with armed insurgents continues. The shear number of armed actors in the region coupled with “their arbitrary actions and their lack of accountability” make “it difficult to determine the identity of those responsible for serious human rights violations.”

At the same time, Amnesty’s language is neither overly condemning or harsh when it comes to Russia. The report is more one a catalog of Russia’s failure to prevent human rights violations. For example, Russian authorities failed to “adequately to tackle racism and discrimination,” “to provide adequate protection for women at risk,” and “to co-operate fully with international human rights mechanisms.” Throughout the report there are other “failures” on the part of the Russian government. These include the failure to investigate torture and arbitrary detention, ratify or comply with human rights treaties, to provide protection to protesters, and to meet international trial standards. All of this gives the impression that the Russian government is really well intentioned when it comes to human rights, but just lacks the political fortitude, resources, and measures to comply with international standards. Unfortunately, Amnesty’s use of a language of failure, not only in the case of Russia but also to describe several other regions around the world, takes any bite out of the report. Instead we get many states that “sincerely” and “honestly” care about human rights, but just fail to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.

A more forceful conclusion is that human rights violations continue unabated because “human rights” as an international doctrine is an utter sham. Countries like Russia, and also many Western democracies, know how to play the human rights game. No state would ever claim that it is a foe of “human rights.” But they also know that there is no body with any real teeth to enforce their violation. That is except if a powerful state or group of states wants to use it as a political weapon against its adversaries.

However, most democratic and semi-democratic states are much more legalistic when it comes to violating human rights. Through the application of law, the definition of “human” or “citizen” is tightened to narrow the legal field of who can claim “rights”. For example, Russia’s law on extremism still protects a person’s right to protest while at the same time denying those rights to legally defined “extremists.” Or in the United States, a citizen has a right to due process unless they are classified under the legal category of “enemy combatant.” Thus the rights of humans are protected, and even reinforced, by their very denial to those deemed outside of the legal definition of “human” or “citizen.” And sadly, this legalism of human rights allows it to be subsumed into the very climate of fear that the report claims a “myopic and cowardly leadership” is so adept at exploiting. In the end, the violation of human rights of the legally deemed “other” becomes part and parcel to their protection.