Human rights

Human Rights Watch urges governments to meet their global responsibilities ‘not just when it suits their interests’

The 2023 Human Rights Watch World Report, launched today (Thursday), examines the state of human rights in 102 countries and territories in 2022.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urges governments to meet their human rights responsibilities worldwide, not just when it suits their political and economic interests.

The NGO’s acting executive director, Tirana Hassan, says in her introduction to the 712-page report: “After years of piecemeal and often half-hearted efforts on behalf of civilians under threat in places including Yemen, Afghanistan, and South Sudan, the world’s mobilisation around Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realise their human rights responsibilities on a global scale.

“All governments should bring the same spirit of solidarity to the multitude of human rights crises around the globe, and not just when it suits their interests.”

Hassan writes that world leaders have been witnessed “cynically trading away human rights obligations and accountability for human rights abusers in exchange for seeming short-term political wins”.

She says the magnitude, scale, and frequency of human rights crises across the globe “show the urgency of a new framing and new model for action”.

HRW says the Chinese government’s lack of accountability for the mass detention, torture, and forced labour of as many as a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region persists.

“The UN Human Rights Council fell two votes short of passing a resolution to discuss the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report that concluded that abuses in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity,” the NGO said.

“The closeness of that vote shows the growing support among governments to hold the Chinese government accountable and highlights the potential for cross-regional alliances and fresh coalitions to challenge Beijing’s expectation of impunity.”

Hassan (pictured left) cites the Biden administration in the US, which “despite its rhetoric about prioritising democracy and human rights in Asia”, has, she says, tempered criticism of abuses and increasing authoritarianism in India, Thailand, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the region for security and economic reasons, instead of recognising that all are linked.

As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged that he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” because of its human rights record, Hassan points out. However, she says, once Biden was in office and facing high gas prices, that pledge was eviscerated by his “bro-like fist bump” with the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman.

Hassan also cites Pakistan, which, she writes, has supported the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ monitoring of abuses in Muslim-majority Kashmir, but, owing to its close relationship with China, has turned its back on possible crimes against humanity against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

“Pakistan’s hypocrisy is especially glaring given its coordinator role of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,” Hassan writes.

Hassan urges governments to reflect on what the situation would be if the international community had made a concerted effort to hold Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, to account much earlier – in 2014, at the onset of the war in eastern Ukraine; in 2015, for abuses in Syria; or for the escalating human rights crackdown within Russia over the past decade.

“The challenge going forward is for governments to replicate the best of the international response in Ukraine and scale up the political will to address other crises around the world until there is meaningful human rights improvement,” Hassan writes.

“This sort of global action is needed in Ethiopia, where two years of atrocities by all parties to the conflict have received only a tiny fraction of the attention focused on Ukraine, contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

Human Rights Watch notes that the UN Security Council has not been willing to put Ethiopia on its formal agenda because of blocks by African members as well as Russia and China.

The recently concluded African Union-led peace process has resulted in a fragile truce, HRW says, but, for it to hold, the agreement’s backers – including the African Union, the UN, and the US – needed to maintain pressure to ensure that those who committed grave crimes during the war are held to account.

“Accountability is critical for victims to obtain a measure of justice and reparations that has so far been elusive,” HRW said.

HRW also notes that the governments in Australia, Japan, Canada, the UK, the EU, and the US, are reconsidering their relationships with China, but are looking to expand trade and security arrangements with India.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has mimicked many of the same abuses that have enabled Chinese state repression, and deepening ties with India without pressure on Modi to respect rights squanders valuable leverage to protect India’s increasingly endangered civic space,” HRW said.

Hassan added: “Autocrats rely on the illusion that their strong-arm tactics are necessary for stability, but, as brave protesters around the world show time and again, repression is not a shortcut to stability.

“The protests in cities across China against the Chinese government’s strict ‘zero Covid’ lockdown measures show that people’s desires for human rights cannot be erased despite Beijing’s efforts to repress them.”

The months-long protests in Iran in 2022 underline the grave risks for autocracies of imagining that repression is a shortcut to stability, Hassan says.

“The demand for equality triggered by women and schoolgirls has morphed into a nationwide movement by the Iranian people against a government that has systematically denied them their rights, mismanaged the economy, and driven people into poverty,” she writes.

In Sri Lanka, Hassan writes, the new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has walked away from commitments to justice and accountability for egregious violations committed during the country’s 26-year civil war.

“President Wickremesinghe, instead of focusing on the economic crisis and ensuring social justice, cracked down on protests, even using the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain student activists,” Hassan says.


In the section of the World Report that focuses on Afghanistan, HRW points to “the long and growing list of rules and policies that comprehensively prevent women and girls from exercising their fundamental rights, including to expression, movement, work, and education affecting virtually all their rights, including to life, livelihood, shelter, health care, food, and water”.

The report states: “The Taliban’s leadership, which is entirely comprised of men, has not permitted women to participate in governance at any level or hold any senior positions in the civil service, including as judges.

“Authorities announced and frequently enforced rules prohibiting women from travelling or leaving their homes, including to go to the workplace without a male family member accompanying them – an impossible requirement for almost all families – and barred women from holding most types of jobs.

“Authorities also announced rules requiring women’s faces be covered in public – including women TV newscasters – and stipulated that male family members will be punished when a women violate rules regarding movement and dress.”

HRW says the Taliban forces have arbitrarily detained women engaged in public protests, and allegedly subjected some of them to torture or beatings. Members of the women’s families have also been detained.

The NGO also reports on the revenge killings and enforced disappearances of former government officials and security force personnel carried out by Taliban forces.

“They have also summarily executed people they claim are members of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP),” HRW writes in its new report.

“In numerous cases over the year, Taliban forces conducted military operations and night raids targeting residents they accuse of harbouring or providing support for ISKP members.

“During many operations, soldiers assaulted civilians and detained people without due process. Detainees were forcibly disappeared or killed, in some cases by beheading.

“In some provinces, Taliban authorities dumped bodies in public areas or hung bodies on streets or intersections as warnings.”

HRW also says the Taliban carried out search operations targetting communities they alleged were supporting the National Resistance Front.

The Taliban detained and tortured local residents, HRW reports. “Authorities also imposed collective punishment and disregarded protections to which detainees are entitled.”

HRW reports on the exhumation by local residents of a mass grave in a canal in Nangarhar that contained at least 45 bodies. Many of the bodies had signs of torture or brutal execution.

The Taliban’s failure to provide security to at-risk populations and medical and other assistance to survivors and affected families exacerbated the harm caused by attacks carried out by the ISKP, HRW says.

HRW also points to the Taliban authorities’ extensive censorship of, and violence against, Afghan media.

“Hundreds of media outlets were shut down and an estimated 80 percent of women journalists across Afghanistan lost their jobs or left the profession since the Taliban takeover in August 2021,” the NGO writes.

Israel and Palestine

In the section of its World Report that focuses on Israel and Palestine, HRW says: “Under a coalition government made up of a broad range of political parties and with Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid as prime ministers, Israeli authorities doubled down on their severe repression of Palestinians.

“Israeli authorities’ practices, undertaken as part of a policy to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians, amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

HRW reports on the Israeli airstrikes against Gaza and Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

“Israel’s closure policy, exacerbated by Egyptian restrictions on its border with Gaza, has deprived the more than two million Palestinians of Gaza, with rare exceptions, of their right to freedom of movement and opportunities to better their lives, severely limited their access to electricity, health care, and water, and devastated the economy,” the NGO writes.

“About 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.1 million residents rely on humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.”

HRW says that, in the West Bank, following several attacks by Palestinians inside Israel in March 2022, Israeli forces intensified their operations, killing 109 Palestinians as of October 24, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“In May, renowned Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqla was shot to death during an Israeli raid in the northern West Bank. Multiple independent investigations point to Israeli forces having killed her,” the NGO reports.

“As of November 1, Israeli authorities also held 820 Palestinians in administrative detention without charge or trial based on secret evidence, the highest number since 2008, according to Israeli Prison Services figures.”

Israeli authorities also continued to facilitate the transfer of Israeli citizens into settlements in the occupied West Bank, HRW says. This, the NGO states, is a war crime.

HRW also reports on the restrictions imposed on Palestinian civil society by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the parts of the West Bank where it manages affairs and Hamas authorities in Gaza.

The Palestinian statutory watchdog, the Independent Commission for Human Rights, received 120 complaints of arbitrary arrests against the PA and 87 against Hamas; 106 complaints of torture and ill treatment against the PA and 113 against Hamas; and 28 complaints against the PA for detention without trial or charge pursuant to orders from a regional governor between January and September 2022, HRW writes.

HRW says rights-respecting governments have both the opportunity and the responsibility to lend their political attention and stamina to protest movements and civil society groups that are challenging abusive governments in countries like Sudan and Myanmar.

“In Sudan, policymakers from the US, UN, EU, and regional partners engaging with Sudan’s military leadership should prioritise the demands of protest and victims’ groups for justice and an end to impunity for those in command positions,” the NGO said.

“And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should intensify pressure on Myanmar’s junta by aligning with international efforts to cut off the military’s sources of foreign currency.”

Bahrain, Singapore, and Belarus

Bahrain, Singapore, and Belarus are three of the other countries cited in HRW’s new report.

Bahrain’s 2022 parliamentary elections, held in November, were neither free nor fair, HRW says. “All members of previously dissolved political groups were barred from running in the elections. Authorities also have sought to restrict former opposition members from participating in civil society organisations. Independent media has been banned since 2017,” the NGO writes.

“Twenty-six Bahrainis remain on death row. At least eight of these men were convicted and sentenced following manifestly unfair trials based primarily, or in some instances solely, on coerced confessions.

“Prominent opposition figures and human rights defenders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Abdel-Jalil al-Singace, remained in prison without access to adequate medical care. Authorities failed to hold officials accountable for torture and ill treatment in detention.”

The Singapore government uses draconian criminal laws and civil defamation suits to harass and prosecute critical voices, including activists, bloggers, and journalists, HRW says.

“There is little freedom of assembly. In 2022, after a two-year halt, Singapore resumed executions of death row prisoners, despite widespread international condemnation.

“On November 29, Singapore’s parliament voted to repeal the colonial-era law criminalising sexual relations between men. However, there are still no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

HRW says that, in 2022, the Belarusian authorities continued to purge independent voices, “including through bogus prosecutions and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians, and activists”.

At time of writing the World Report, HRW says, at least 1,340 people were behind bars on politically motivated charges and not a single human rights organisation could operate legally in Belarus.

Climate change

HRW urges the international community to apply a human rights lens to “the existential threat of climate change”.

From Pakistan to Nigeria to Australia, every corner of the world faces a non-stop cycle of human-induced catastrophic flooding, massive wildfires, and drought, the NGO says.

“Government officials have a legal and moral obligation to regulate the industries, such as fossil fuel and logging, whose business models are incompatible with protecting basic rights,” it added.

Tirana Hassan said: “Assisting frontline communities and environmental defenders is one of the most powerful ways to push back against corporate and government activities that harm the environment and protect critical ecosystems needed to address the climate crisis.

“In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to reduce Amazon deforestation to zero and defend indigenous rights, and his ability to deliver on his climate and human rights commitments is critical for Brazil and the world.”

Hassan added: “Viewing our greatest challenges and threats to the modern world through a human rights lens reveals not only the root causes of disruption but also offers guidance to address them.”

Positive developments

Hassan notes that Finland, Norway, and Sweden have taken a principled approach to holding Saudi Arabia accountable for war crimes in Yemen.

South Africa, Namibia, and Indonesia have paved the way for more governments to recognise that Israeli authorities are committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians, Hassan adds.

“Pacific Island nations as a bloc have demanded more ambitious emissions reductions from those countries that are polluting the most, while Vanuatu leads an effort to put the adverse effects of climate change before the International Court of Justice …,” she writes.

“And while the US Supreme Court struck down 50 years of federal protection for reproductive rights, the ‘green wave’ of abortion-rights expansions in Latin America – notably Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico – offers a compelling counternarrative.”

HRW’s Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said at the launch of the report in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta: “Once again, we see another member of the Marcos family winning an election in the Philippines after a campaign of disinformation; the military junta in Myanmar once again piling up trumped-up charges and convictions for political leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners …”

Pearson said that, nearly two years after the coup in Myanmar, the junta continued to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes with impunity, jeopardising the lives and freedoms of millions of people in Myanmar and posing a threat to the entire region.

The deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, Phil Robertson, said that, with the election of Marcos, there had been a change in tone, but, in reality, nothing had changed.

“There’s been a greater effort in public relations by the Marcos administration and, so far, unfortunately, that’s being rewarded by the international community that seems thrilled that Marcos is not Duterte, so therefore, things must be better.

“We insist that there have to be real changes on the ground. There has to be accountability. There have to be investigations and prosecutions … a real investigation where accountability is guaranteed.”

Pearson said that thousands of people in the Philippines had been killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs” and this was a crime against humanity for which there had been no accountability. The order that initiated the war on drugs was still in operation, Robertson added.

Robertson noted that former Filipina senator Leila de Lima continued to be detained on bogus charges. “She’s now more than five years in pre-trial detention. The case against her should be dropped. She should be released tomorrow,” he said.

Pearson said that, from India to Pakistan to Vietnam, authorities had choked civil society and prosecuted and imprisoned government critics.

HRW’s senior researcher for Indonesia, Andreas Harsono, said the new criminal code in the country contained provisions that seriously violated international human rights laws and standards.

“Articles in the new law violate the rights of woman, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and undermine rights to freedom of speech and association, including, of course, press freedom.

“The law making consensual sex outside of marriage a criminal offence is a full-scale assault against the right to privacy, permitting intrusion into the most intimate decision of individuals and families.”

Harsono noted that Indonesia had millions of couples, especially among indigenous people, who did not have a marriage certificate, who would theoretically be breaking the new law. Muslims in rural areas who married only using Islamic ceremonies would always be affected, he said.

Pearson spoke about the impact of the National Security Law in Hong Kong – convictions of journalists and high profile-leaders and activists, which, she said, had had a really chilling effect on free speech and freedom of expression and had “neutered the democratic movement in Hong Kong”.

She said that young protesters, whether in Thailand, Myanmar, or Cambodia, had learned and gained courage and inspiration from the young protest leaders in Hong Kong.

Pearson said the thirst and demand for change from young people was probably the message of hope that she saw from the World Report because it showed that, despite the immense crackdowns, despite all of the risks, people were still yearning for change and were willing to take enormous risks in order to be part of that change.

Phil Robertson said it was shocking that, almost eight years after the 2015 boat-people crisis, Rohingya refugees were still fleeing in boats “floating away on the high seas to their deaths”.

Robertson noted that Thailand and Malaysia were sending refugees back out to sea. Indonesia, he said, deserved credit for being willing to bring some of the boats ashore.



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