Some states are doomed to fail

Growing resistance to autocrats

In many ways, we are experiencing grim times for human rights. But while autocrats and human rights abusers dominate the headlines, defenders of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are also gaining strength. By spreading hatred and intolerance, the populists call a resistance movement on the scene, which has consistently achieved successes. While these are never guaranteed, they are frequent enough to be able to say: The excesses of autocracy have created a powerful resistance.

Unlike previous dictators, the autocrats of our time usually appear in a democratic environment. In order to undermine democracy, they usually pursue a two-stage strategy: They demonize defenseless minorities and make them scapegoats in order to gain broad support. They then weaken control mechanisms that limit the powers of the government and thus form the basis for the protection of human rights and the rule of law. These include independent courts, free media and strong civil rights groups. Even the world's established democracies have proven susceptible to this type of demagoguery and manipulation.

Autocrats rarely solve the problems they raise to justify their claim to power. But they always leave traces of human rights violations. In their own country, under the leadership of an autocrat, governments can get rid of their accountability and become vulnerable to oppression, corruption and mismanagement. It is claimed that autocrats are better at delivering results. The human price for this, however, can be enormous, since for an autocrat, maintaining power always trumps all other goals. This is evidenced by the hyperinflation and misery in the once rich Venezuela, the arbitrary mass executions in the wake of the drug war in the Philippines or the mass imprisonment of over a million Muslims of Turkic origin, especially Uighurs, in China.

Autocrats tend to withdraw from the defense of human rights in foreign policy as well, because they dislike criticism of their own human rights record. Thanks to their reluctance, rulers of tyranny were able to get away with mass atrocities more easily, for example in Syria's war against the civilian population in the opposition areas, in the arbitrary bombings and blockades of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen, which kills civilians and starves them to death, as well as the mass murders and rape and pillage by the Myanmar army against Rohingya Muslims.

In response to these disturbing developments, new alliances of governments that were faithful to international law were formed, often with the support or initiative of civil rights groups and the public. They were able to build increasingly effective resistance. When political decision-makers violate human rights, they expect advantages such as maintaining their own power, a full bank account or rewarding their fellow campaigners. However, the growing opposition could repeatedly raise the price for such decisions. Since even injustice regimes weigh the costs and benefits of their actions, the most effective way of changing their repressive calculations is to raise the price they have to pay for human rights violations. This may not lead to immediate success, but it has proven its worth over the long term.

Much of the resistance came at the United Nations - a remarkable development as many autocrats seek to weaken this multilateral institution and undermine the international norms it sets. Last year, for example, the UN Human Rights Council took important - in some cases unprecedented - measures to put Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela under greater pressure. Many opponents of the enforcement of human rights standards such as China, Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia usually have considerable influence in these bodies. So it was impressive to see how often they were left behind in the past year. In view of the renewed reluctance of many great Western powers to enforce human rights, alliances of small or medium-sized states were often at the forefront of the resistance, including countries that had traditionally avoided such cooperation.

It was also possible to build up considerable pressure outside the UN to protect human rights. This included efforts last year to prevent a bloodbath in Syria, to ward off autocratic tendencies in Europe and to defend the tried and tested ban on chemical weapons. Furthermore, an African president was persuaded to accept constitutional restrictions on his rule, and international pressure arose for a full investigation into the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The growing pressure makes it clear that even in gloomy times there is not only the possibility, but also the duty to defend human rights. The promise of a democratic form of rule that respects human rights, in which accountable government serves the needs of its citizens rather than the influence and prosperity of high-ranking officials, remains a living and moving vision. The past year has shown that the fight for this vision is still worthwhile.

The dark side of autocracy

Despite growing opposition, the forces of the autocracy are on the rise. In Brazil, for example, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president, a man who openly advocates the use of deadly force by the military and police. In a country already ravaged by an exorbitant number of police killings and more than 60,000 murders a year, this stance poses an enormous public safety risk.

The established autocrats and their admirers remained true to their disregard for basic human rights. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continued to silence independent voices and civil rights groups and arrest thousands of people for their perceived political views. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approved further arbitrary executions of suspected drug criminals, most of whom the only “offense” was that they were poor young men. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban implemented his trademark: “illiberal democracy”. Poland's de facto head of state Jarosław Kaczyński tried to fill the Polish courts with judges of his choice and thus undermine the independence of the judiciary. Italy's interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini closed ports for refugees and migrants, prevented the rescue of shipwrecked migrants and raised the mood against immigrants. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not stop the demonization of Muslims and attacked civil rights groups who criticized his human rights record and environmental policy. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen consolidated his power through sham elections from which the opposition was excluded. US President Donald Trump denounced immigrants and minorities and tried to harass judges and journalists who were supposed to be in his way. Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, continued to take a tough stance against independent voices and opposition figures. China did everything in its power to prevent an organized opposition from forming against the increasingly autocratic rule of Xi Jinping.

If you look beyond the immediate victims, it became clear in the course of the past year what economic damage an autocratic rule can have. In Venezuela, which once had the highest standard of living in Latin America thanks to its oil wealth, there is hardly any food or medicine left under the autocratic rule of President Nicolás Maduro. This has driven millions of people to flight. In Turkey, President Erdogan continued to push major construction projects, often for the benefit of his allies, as the currency collapsed and the cost of living skyrocketed. In Mozambique, the disappearance of two billion US dollars from the state budget was exposed.

China's much-touted Belt and Road initiative to expand trade infrastructure contributed to autocratic mismanagement in other countries. In line with its longstanding practice, Beijing does not attach any recognizable conditions to the loans granted through the initiative. As a result, China has become the preferred lender for many autocrats. Thanks to these uncontrolled injections of cash, corrupt officials were able to easily fill their bank accounts while placing substantial debts on their people. The infrastructure projects financed in this way often benefited China more than the population of the borrowing countries.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad halted three major China-funded infrastructure projects after allegations against his predecessor, Najib Razak. This is said to have agreed to unfavorable conditions in order to raise funds to cover up a corruption scandal. Sri Lanka could no longer bear its enormous debt burden and was forced to transfer control of an ocean port to China, which had been built with Chinese loans and with no discernible economic meaning in the electoral district of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Kenya opened a Chinese-funded railway line that has no prospect of economic operation. Pakistan, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and the Maldives expressed regret that they had agreed to certain projects funded by China. The term "Chinese debt trap" made the rounds.


The increasing resistance to autocratic governments and the corruption that often accompanies them took various forms over the past year. Sometimes elections or public pressure were his vehicles. The Malaysian population withdrew their trust in their corrupt Prime Minister Najib Razak and his coalition, which had ruled for almost six decades, at the ballot box and transferred it to an alliance that had campaigned for human rights reforms. In the Maldives, voters rejected their autocratic President Yameen Abdulla Gayoom. In Armenia, whose government was deeply involved in corruption, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan was forced to resign after mass protests. In the Czech Republic there was increasing protest against the alleged corruption of Prime Minister Andrej Babis. Following public pressure, Ethiopia replaced its long-standing abusive government. Their new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched an impressive reform agenda. In the midterm elections to the US House of Representatives, voters put a damper on President Trump's divisive and anti-rule-of-law policies.

At times, independent state institutions have also been able to withstand the attacks by their heads of state or government. Poland's independent judges refused to leave office when Kaczyński tried to get rid of them; the European Court of Justice later declared their refusal to be legal. Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned President Jimmy Morale's attempt to expel the chief investigator of a UN-backed anti-corruption body after it began investigating the president's alleged financial violations. US Supreme Justice John Roberts, appointed by former President George W. Bush, sharply criticized President Trump after he denigrated a judge as an "Obama judge". He had called Trump's efforts to restrict access to asylum law as unlawful.

In many cases, street protests have spearheaded the resistance. Large crowds demonstrated in Budapest against Orban's decision to close the Central European University, a scientific bulwark for free research and thought. Tens of thousands of Poles repeatedly took to the streets to protect the independence of their judiciary from attacks by the ruling party. In the United States, people from all over the country and dozens of companies protested the Trump administration's practice of forcibly separating migrant children from their parents.

Multilateral resistance

As many influential governments wavered in their commitment to human rights, others had to take their place. President Trump was inclined to autocrats, whom he considered friendly, while sections of the US administration tried again and again to work past the White House. The British government was concerned about Brexit and apparently only campaigned publicly for human rights in countries where British economic and trade interests were not too much at stake. French President Emmanuel Macron defended the democratic values ​​verbally. All too often, however, he found reasons not to implement these principles when it came to restricting migration, combating terrorism or securing economic opportunities. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against anti-human rights attacks from Moscow and Washington, but was often more concerned with the political challenges in her own country. The governments of China and Russia did everything in their power to undermine the global enforcement of human rights, while governing their own country more repressively than it has been in decades.

UN Human Rights Council

Against the background of this difficult overall situation, a critical mass of human rights defenders repeatedly showed that they are up to their responsibilities. A particularly important venue for this was the UN Human Rights Council, to which 47 states belong. It proved to be authoritative, despite the fact that the US became the first state in history to leave the body at the behest of the Trump administration. This move was an unsuccessful attempt to discredit the Council's regular criticism of Israel. Washington complained that the body was concentrating on Israel. However, this is also due to the fact that many US governments, including under Trump, used the US veto in the UN Security Council to shield Israel from any criticism. The UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly taken important steps to defend human rights in North Korea, Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - all states with profound human rights problems that the US government has declared want to take a long time. However, President Trump was apparently ready to jeopardize this possibility in order to punish the council for its criticism of Israel. The Human Rights Council had criticized Israel's measures such as the crippling blockade of Gaza and the discriminatory and illegal settlement policy in the West Bank.

The Human Rights Council made important progress despite - or in one case possibly thanks - the absence of the United States. Because of the Chinese, Russian or US veto in the UN Security Council, any attempt to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) seemed doomed. The Myanmar army has perpetrated mass atrocities, particularly crimes against humanity, which forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. This is where the Human Rights Council, in which there is no veto, stepped in and created an investigative mechanism with powers similar to those of a law enforcement body. This is supposed to secure evidence, identify those responsible and build case files for the day when a tribunal becomes available that can judge these crimes. The move received an overwhelming majority of 35 to 3 votes with 7 abstentions. This was a signal that such atrocities cannot be carried out with impunity, even if top politicians like Aung San Suu Kyi and the army continue to deny the crimes.

The European Union presented the Council resolution on the Rohingya together with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which up until the attacks by Myanmar on the Rohingya had rejected every resolution in which a country other than Israel was criticized. In addition, a new way may have opened up before the ICC that is not dependent on the UN Security Council: The chief prosecutor led a preliminary investigation into the alleged deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar. To do this, she took advantage of the fact that the crime was only completed when the Rohingya were expelled to Bangladesh, a state party to the ICC.

Under the leadership of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland and Canada, the UN Human Rights Council also rejected Saudi Arabia's inept efforts to prevent an investigation into war crimes in Yemen, including repeated bombings and devastating blockades by the Saudi-led coalition against Yemeni civilians.As a result of these crimes, millions of people are on the verge of starvation. UN officials speak of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. One month before the vote, Saudi Arabia retaliated - apparently to make clear the possibility of far-reaching retaliatory measures - and imposed sanctions on Canada after its foreign minister Chrystia Freeland had justified criticism of the Saudi actions against women's rights activists. (The Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman preferred to portray his concessions on women's rights as a sign of royal goodness, rather than the approval of a popular request. The concessions include the lifting of the driving ban for women, which does not, however, result in the abolition of guardianship rules However, the Human Rights Council voted 21 to 8, with 18 abstentions, in favor of continuing the international investigation into war crimes in Yemen.

The Human Rights Council condemned for the first time the severe repression in Venezuela under President Maduro. The resolution tabled by a group of Latin American countries prevailed with 23 votes to 7 and 17 abstentions. Since the US government had already resigned from the council, the supporters of the resolution could more easily make it clear that they were discussing Venezuela for reasons of principle and not as an instrument of a US ideology.

Five Latin American governments and Canada called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the human rights violations in Venezuela. This is the first time that states have campaigned for an ICC investigation into violations that have taken place entirely outside their national territory. Other governments, including France and Germany, supported the move. A group of Latin American states led by Argentina organized the first joint declaration within the framework of the Human Rights Council on the growing repression in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega responded with violence to the growing protests against his repressive administration. The declaration was signed by 47 states.

European Institutions and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Apart from the Human Rights Council, important protective mechanisms for human rights have also been created. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has so far only had a mandate to determine in specific individual cases whether chemical weapons have been used, but not by whom. Russia repeatedly supported and covered the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and apparently used the neurotoxin Novichok itself in the attempted murder on a Russian ex-spy in Great Britain. Against this background, the Kremlin declined any international investigation to clarify the responsibility. Moscow vetoed the extension of the mandate for the UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism on Syria in the UN Security Council. This is a separate instrument for identifying those responsible for chemical weapons operations. France and Great Britain then took the lead in an initiative that prevailed against resistance from Russia. This enabled the OPCW member states to decide by 82 to 24 votes to give the organization a mandate to identify those responsible for chemical weapons operations. Russia's attempt to block funding for this new mandate has also been rejected.

The European Union took the attempts of the Polish government to undermine the independence of the judiciary and Viktor Orban's establishment of an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary as an opportunity to initiate proceedings under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which would impose political sanctions could result. In the case of Poland this was done by the EU Commission, in the case of Hungary by a two-thirds majority in the EU Parliament. Although Poland and Hungary can use unanimity rules to protect each other from the imposition of such sanctions, the Article 7 procedure creates the basis for using the upcoming five-year budget of the EU, which is to be adopted by the end of 2020, as a means of pressure. Poland is the largest recipient of EU funds in terms of the total volume, Hungary is one of the largest per capita recipients. The governments of both countries have so far used the EU funds for their own political advantage. It is therefore fair to ask whether the EU should continue to fund its attacks on the Union's fundamental values ​​so generously.

The Council of Europe, Europe's main intergovernmental human rights body, fought off attempts by the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan to inappropriately influence members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in order to mitigate criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record. Following reports from journalists and activists, the Council launched an investigation which found “strong suspicions” of “harmful activity” on the part of certain active and former PACE members. These are due to illegal influence by the Azerbaijani government. As a result of the investigation, there were resignations, various sanctions and the introduction of new lobbying rules.

Syria and Saudi Arabia

The multilateral action, which is believed to have saved most lives last year, took place in Syria. Over the past few years, with the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Syrian army had gradually recaptured one enclave after another from opposition forces. Many residents of these areas, fearful of retaliation or imprisonment in the government's notorious torture and execution chambers, were given the opportunity to flee to Idlib Province and neighboring areas in northwestern Syria, which are still under the control of opposition forces stand. An estimated three million people live there today. At least half are internally displaced from other parts of Syria.

When the Syrian-Russian military alliance threatened an offensive on Idlib, a bloodbath was likely as Turkey closed its border (after accepting 3.5 million Syrian refugees) and the Syrian and Russian military were known for their indiscriminate warfare. Since the Syrian army was unable to sustain an offensive without Russian air support, it was up to the Kremlin to determine whether the feared bloodshed would result in the civilian population. President Putin finally bowed to intense international pressure and agreed with Turkish President Erdogan on a gun call in Idlib, which began in September. Whether this ceasefire will hold or, like many others before, will be broken is currently (early December) an open question. However, its very existence shows that international pressure can save lives even in situations as complex as Syria.

Another example of widespread, yet selective, multilateral pressure was the international response to the Saudi government's brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate. It is unfortunate that it was the killing of a prominent journalist that led to global outrage over Riyadh's human rights record, not the countless murders of Yemeni civilians. But this one murder turned out to be a wake-up call. The Saudi government put forward a number of different cover stories, which were refuted by the incrementally released evidence from the Turkish government. (Meanwhile, the Turkish government continued to persecute journalists, activists, academics and politicians who dared to criticize President Erdogan.)

The US and Canada gradually imposed targeted sanctions on many of the Saudis implicated in the murder. In Europe, Germany took the unprecedented measure of banning 18 Saudi officials from entering the Schengen area, which consists of 26 nations. Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland stopped their arms exports to the kingdom. Meanwhile, US President Trump bluntly refused to confirm the CIA's findings that Khashoggi was likely murdered on the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince. He commented on this with the carefree and factually exonerating statement: "Maybe it was him, maybe not!" Like his British and French counterparts, Trump refused to stop the lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as if weighing an indefinite number civilian deaths in Yemen at workplaces in the USA. Many congressmen from both camps, as well as members of the media and the general public, condemned this hard-hearted calculation.


At the urging of a group of African states, Joseph Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was finally persuaded to schedule elections for his successor. Kabila is excluded from re-election due to a term limit set out in the constitution, but is opposed to a waiver of power. He had used the security forces to arrest pro-democracy activists and even had them shot at. Kabila only gave in when he was put under joint pressure by African countries, particularly Angola and South Africa, and Western nations such as the USA and Belgium. At the time of going to press it was still unclear whether the elections, scheduled for December 23, would actually take place and whether they would be held under free and fair conditions.

The risk of massive withdrawal by African states from the International Criminal Court further diminished after numerous African governments and civil rights groups advocating the court resisted the exit plans. So far, Burundi is the only African country to leave. Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has cracked down on opponents of a constitutional amendment to lift his term limits, hopes to avoid charges by resigning. However, the UN Human Rights Council undermined Nkurunziza's quest for immunity by voting 23 to 7 with 17 abstentions for a UN investigation into the human rights situation in Burundi.


The Chinese government has faced increasing multilateral pressure. It poses a challenge to the human rights movement not only because of the severity of its repression - the worst since the violent crackdown on the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - but also because it is every autocrat's dream: the prospect of the long term Power and economic growth without human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The dark side of a government that is not accountable in any way has increasingly come into focus in the past year. Critics pointed to China's ambitions for mass surveillance, for example through systems that can use facial recognition, artificial intelligence and big data to more effectively monitor the population and, among other things, predict their adherence to the line. International companies were also coming under increasing pressure in order not to become complicit in these abusive practices.

However, the greatest attention has been paid to the issue of the mass imprisonment and "re-education" of more than a million Muslims, mostly Uyghurs, in the Xinjiang region. They should be forced to deny their Muslim beliefs and ethnic identity. This attempt at brainwashing is not limited to the sprawling detention facilities: the government has also billeted around one million officials as spies in the private homes of Muslims in order to guarantee their political and cultural loyalty.

In the course of the regular review by the UN Human Rights Council, China had to put up with difficult questions. An alliance of 15 Western ambassadors led by Canada attempted to personally confront Chen Quanguo, the party secretary in Xinjiang, over these offenses. In a speech to the Human Rights Council just a week after taking office, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and ex-President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern about the crackdown on the Uyghurs and called for access to the region.

The 57 majority Muslim member states of the OIC, which had advocated the protection of persecuted Muslims in Myanmar, have so far failed to speak out openly in favor of the protection of Chinese Muslims. Only Turkey raised the issue at the UN. Anwar Ibrahim, head of the ruling coalition in Malaysia, also addressed the issue publicly.

Immigration and asylum

In the western world, the issue of immigration caused great disagreement and was taken over by autocratic politicians, even in Poland or East Germany, where relatively few immigrants live. Some moderate politicians have followed the rule that the best way to stem the threat posed by the autocrats is to emulate them, even if that means spreading the rhetoric of hatred and division into the middle of society. This strategy failed miserably, as the example of Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer showed. His Christian Social Union lost significantly in votes in the state elections in Bavaria, while the extreme right gained. In contrast, the Greens, the strongest critics of the far right, achieved unprecedented success. The results of the local elections in the Netherlands and Belgium and the parliamentary elections in Luxembourg sent out a similar signal.

However, opposition to the xenophobic response to immigration - and the Islamophobia that often accompanies it - has not been strong enough. European governments invested too little energy in putting political approaches to the test, with which long-established immigrant groups have so far been poorly integrated. This failure favors the demonization of the newcomers. Instead, Europe's heads of state and government tried to close their borders to asylum seekers, who have the right to have their vulnerability checked.

They also tried to restrict asylum access for those who make it to Europe. This is based on the assumption that asylum seekers could already have applied for protection in a country outside the EU classified as “safe”, although many of these states cannot offer effective protection and do not have the capacity to process asylum applications. The deportations of migrants who immigrate for economic reasons and who, for the most part, are not given the right to enter or stay, have often not been carried out in a humane or safe manner. Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Spain and Greece forced people to return to non-EU countries, sometimes with violence. Italy has spearheaded efforts to get the Libyan Coast Guard to return migrants to the nightmarish conditions in Libya. Italy also blocked humanitarian rescue missions in the Mediterranean, apparently in the cynical hope that more drowned people would deter future migrants. The EU also courted troubled governments like those in Sudan and Mali to reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers entering Europe.

In the United States, President Trump exploited the alleged threat posed by a caravan of asylum seekers fleeing the violence in Central America in order to mobilize his political base before the congressional elections. He even went so far as to station 5,000 US soldiers on the border with Mexico in a lavish political staging.

Despite widespread criticism that immigrant families were separated, Trump's political opponents mostly failed to formulate an alternative, positive vision of immigration - for example, an immigration policy that distinguishes between long-established immigrants who, except on paper, have actually become Americans ( often with children and spouses who are US citizens and have a permanent place in the world of work and society), and newcomers who are not seeking asylum and typically do not have solid entitlement to a right to stay.

Despite the great disagreement in US politics, a broad consensus for reforming immigration law has been found in the past. It should therefore be possible to formulate a vision that enables strong border protection, respects the right to asylum and takes into account the humanitarian reasons that should save most long-established immigrants from deportation.

Beyond the anniversary

While the human rights movement has faced many challenges over the past year, the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20th anniversary of the ICC founding document, and the 40th anniversary of Human Rights Watch. But we shouldn't become complacent. Human rights are now an established and proven gauge of how governments treat their populations. But they are constantly threatened.

Despite strong headwinds, the defense of human rights is still worthwhile and necessary. The past year has proven this.If governments expect political and economic benefits from violating human rights, we have to raise the price for the injustice committed and postpone the cost-benefit calculation - until those responsible realize that oppression is not worthwhile. The arenas of this fight have shifted, many longtime comrades-in-arms have either gone missing or changed sides. But assertive alliances have emerged. They stand up to governments that do not hold their people accountable and trample on their rights. With this report, Human Rights Watch aims to help empower all those around the world who are renewed to defend human rights.