ARCHIVES
2022

This year the question participants were asked to address was: Respect for human rights seems to be eroding in many countries. Do you agree? If so, provide examples and explain what you think is the major cause of the problem and how it should be addressed? If you disagree, explain the reason you disagree. There were two contests: one for students in the U.S. and one for students abroad. 214 students from 32 states* in the U.S. and 140 students from 37** countries participated in the contests. First place winners won $3000, second place winners $1500 and third-place prize $750. *Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. **Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Botswana, Burundi, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Ghana, India, Iran, Israel, Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe

2022 ESSAY EXCERPTS

The probability of finding a violence-free era is as possible as catching microorganisms by hand.  Manha AK,  Decline for human rights in the 21st Century, Zaitoon International Girls School, Kerala, India

It is crucial to distinguish the different conception of human rights across cultures…Moral universality is a moral standard to be applied to everyone…Moral relativism holds that “there is irrevocable variation in moral frameworks” [Quintelier, Katinka J.P. 216)…Applying moral universality to human rights results in a concept of “universal human rights”…The concept of universal human rights is fundamentally Western….the Universal Declaratioin of 1948 …was created without the input of the majority of the global population.  As a result, globalized localism…occurs as countries must follow the standards for human rights dictated by the United Nations…Islamic and indigenous cultures…have differentiated moral approaches based on religion…Hence, I argue that the enforcement of ‘universal’ human rights is harmful to non-Western cultures…Human rights is inherently a Western liberal concept… a way for the West to extend its hegemony…Respect for human rights is eroding due to the application of Western ideals to non-Western people and cultures.’  Yewon Jung, Progressive Multiculturalism: A “From Below” Solution for Global Human Rights Violations, Chadwick International, Korea. 

We are missing basic education and knowledge needed to share information about human rights and their impact on society.   Alexis O’Neal, Human Rights Within the Modern World, Casa Grande Union High School, AZ

The process of democratization can threaten existing leaders, who then resort to abnormal abuses to hold onto their power.  Jordan Chang, Human Rights: The Ever-lasting Issue, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, NY

We need to adjust the education system, by ensuring that some type of course in American government or civics is offered in every high school, and it’s important that these courses cover the current controversial topics of America, not just historyJulianna Igo, The Fight for Human Rights Voices in the Dark, Avon Grove High School, West Grove, PA

Our society prioritizes its self-interest far above utilitarianism.  Naina Jacob, The Erosion of Human Rights, Liberal Arts and Science Academy, Austin, TX

Those without a nation are not without humanity; it’s vital that global powers, especially leading democracies, return them their dignity and enact policy that treats them not like burdens or pawns, but like human beings.  They must acknowledge their moral obligation to those in this vulnerable situation and take responsibility for the causes that have created it.  Kristen Konkoth, Ghost Country: The Plight of Refugees, Cherry Creek High School, CO. 

Ultimately the erosion of human rights is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires a coordinated and comprehensive response. This response should focus on addressing the root causes of the problem, such as economic inequality and discrimination, and on supporting and strengthening the international human rights system…. By working together, it is possible to reverse the trend of erosion and to build a more just and equitable world.  All these solutions begin with raising awareness…which is what organizations like the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation do.  Pratheek V. Tangirala, COVID-19, The Killer of Both Bodily and Sociopolitical Goodness, Chantilly High School, Chantilly Virginia.

The public need to be educated about human rights, ethic and the code of law.  Sana Faisal, Humanity: A Diminishing Culture, Beaconhouse School System Johar Campus, Karachi, Pakistan.

One major cause of the erosion of respect for human right is the rise of authoritarian regimes and populist leaders who prioritize their own interests over the rights of their citizens. Liam Harte, Holy Cross College, Strabane, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

When those in charge are the ones who violate human rights, then outside help is required…to stop the abuse.  Lazy Mel Lato, The book of cruelty, Assemblywoman Felicita G. Bernardion Memorial Trade School, Bulacan, Philippines.

The American experiment has gone on too long.  All we want to do is take and covet.  Capitalism in our society has created a system of taking…according to the 2021 census on wealth distribution in America, 41.4% of Americans are classified as low income.  The top 1% of earners in America earn more per person that the rest of the population combined. – Morgan Wade, North Lenoir High School, La Grange, NC. 

Human rights are eroding in the pursuit of something many seem to regard as superior: money.  Yashica Sadam, Byron Nelson High School, Trophy Club, TX.

Most people … lack basic education on the topic of human rights. Alexis O’Neal, Human Rights Within the Modern World, Casa Grande Union High School, AZ.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote: “A fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired.” Amber Kate Briggs, Wilson Central High School, Lebanon, TN. 

We need to adjust the education system, by ensuring that some type of course in American government or civics is offered in every high school, and it’s important that these courses cover the current controversial topics of America, not just historyJulianna Igo, The Fight for Human Rights: Voices In the Dark, Avon Grove High School, West Grove, PA.

The U.N. could slow down the erosion of human rights if we allowed for more transparency, diversity, and inclusion in the Security Council.  The UN is a flawed institution, but it can be improved.  Ashley G. Petgrave, Corruption at the Heart: The Abuse of the Veto Power by the Permanent Five, Francis Lewis High School, Queens, NY. 

Aminta Ossom, a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School, laid out a crucial obstacle in solving poverty: “One major challenge is the failure to perceive impoverishment and economic inequality as matters of justice…The policy choices we make about whether to condone torture, persecution, and discrimination are rightfully subject to human rights scrutiny.  The policy choices we make about stewardship over our shared resources should be subject to just as much scrutiny considering the enormous impact these choices have on human welfare and survival.”  Alesia Dickey, The Power of Hope: A Human Rights Essay, Oak Grove High School, Oak Grove, MO. 

The United States is not a perfect nation, and although it has perpetuated a number of human rights atrocities…its founding ideals have imbued the nation with unparalleled success … The biggest strength of our country… was the enthusiastic acceptance of diverse thinking that arose from the melting pot of distinct cultures….And while discrimination of all forms has always existed….taking steps to consciously eliminate it has given rise to a nation where opportunities abound for those who are willing to pursue them.” Ryan Lynde, Preserving and Advancing Respect for Human Rights: Small Steps, Together, Lowell Catholic High School, Lowell, MA.

Humanity has reached unimaginable heights.  We’ve experimented even below the cellular level, gone from the depths of the sea to the moon and seen even further.  But even with all these advancements, we haven’t been able to solve an issue vital to humanity:   human rights.   Eden Rose, A New Era, How Age-Old Issues Have Been Impacted by the Modern World, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY.

Ultimately the erosion of human rights is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires a coordinated and comprehensive response. This response should focus on addressing the root causes of the problem, such as economic inequality and discrimination, and on supporting and strengthening the international human rights system…. By working together, it is possible to reverse the trend of erosion and to build a more just and equitable world.  All of these solutions begin with raising awareness…which is what organizations like the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation do.  Eli Asolas, Protecting the Right to be Human, Williams Field High School, Gilbert, AZ.

Sylvie Raab
9th Grade
The Ramaz School
New York, NY
Shared 1st Prize

Creeping Authoritarianism
and the Global Erosion of Human Rights

In May 2019, following a meeting in the White House, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sat next to the U.S. President in the Oval Office’s plush chairs beneath a portrait of George Washington and flags of American military forces.  Together, the two men broadcast around the world their strong rapport and shared approach. The President had invited Orban to the White House and praised Orban for doing a “tremendous job in so many different ways” (Baker). In fact, Orban, nicknamed “the Viktator,” has been cited as “killing democracy” in Hungary by packing the courts, changing the constitution, and helping his wealthy allies buy up the news media to limit the flow of public information (Baker, Zerofsky).

Almost 75 years ago, in the wake of World War II, nations came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere (189 UNTS 137). But in the past decades, perhaps fueled by a vacuum of leadership on human rights from the U.S., countries around the world have reneged on this common goal. With authoritarianism on the rise and democratic backsliding on several continents, respect for human rights has waned in many countries. In particular, human rights abuses and violations with respect to freedom of speech, protection of asylum seekers and reproductive rights urgently threaten the fundamental freedoms and dignity of people everywhere. Reversing these trends will require nations to renew their commitment to the centrality of human rights.

The threat to human rights and democracy has reached a critical moment in the past few years, catapulted by creeping authoritarianism around the world facilitated by the Covid-19 pandemic (Maunganidze). In countries where there was already a trend toward autocracy, such as Hungary, Turkey or the Philippines, the crisis of the pandemic gave leaders the opportunity to consolidate their power, whether by eroding media independence as in Hungary and the Philippines or censoring social media through new legislation (Schenkkan). In China, under the guise of fighting the spread of the virus, Beijing authorities muzzled dissenting voices through mass surveillance, tracking intelligence and internet censorship. And the Russian Government’s brutal war on Ukraine, where evidence of widespread atrocities continues to mount, has strikingly demonstrated the human consequences of this alarming decline in democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Government clampdowns on dissenting opinions are especially troubling because freedom of speech is often a bellwether–how a society tolerates those with opposing views often correlates with its respect for human rights generally. In the past few years, efforts to control speech and information have accelerated, with governments around the world jailing dissidents, journalists and human rights activists in order to silence them (Blinken). According to the U.S. State Department, more than a million political prisoners are being held in over 65 countries, including more than 600 people unjustly imprisoned in Cuba for taking part in peaceful protests, countless Russian anti-corruption activists and opposition leaders, and Egyptian advocates like human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer (2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices). Notably, in Belarus, emboldened by the pandemic, authorities weaponized the justice system, using massive police violence against protesters as part of a brutal crackdown on dissent in the wake of post-election mayhem and systematic arrests to silence human rights defenders and journalists (United Nations, 2022). In Iran, authorities have moved aggressively to quell public protests that erupted in September 2022 after the death of a woman while she was in police custody for allegedly violating the country’s hijab law. Protesters are demanding social freedom and political change. In response, the Iranian government has deployed violent tactics, killing hundreds of people, including children, and arresting thousands. In November 2022, Iran’s Revolution Court, which prosecutes political cases, sentenced to death a person accused of setting fire to a government building and another protester for being an “enemy of God” and wielding a knife (Fassihi). Freedom of speech has been called the “bedrock of democratic self-government” (America Has a Free Speech Problem). To protect democratic values, we must preserve dissenters’ right to speak freely and participate in public discourse.

Human rights abuses against migrants have similarly reached an urgent moment in the past few years, particularly as the number of migrants ballooned during the Covid-19 pandemic, with refugees seeking asylum from the increasingly desperate conditions in their countries. Refugees’ rights around the world are protected by the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, whose core principle is non-refoulement, which prohibits states from returning or turning away people to territories where their “life or freedom” would be threatened (1951 Convention, Article 33). In the UK, the government has sought to dismantle its international refugee protection framework by passing in April 2022 the Nationality and Borders Act, dubbed the “anti-refugee bill”­ because it reneges on the principle of non-refoulement (McDonnell). The Bill empowers the UK Government to send asylum seekers to a “safe” third country for offshore asylum processing (Nationality and Borders Bill, clause 28 and schedule 3) and push back boats at sea (id., clause 44 and schedule 6). The UK also reached an agreement with Rwanda to expel UK asylum seekers there, an agreement that human rights advocates have decried as “a clear abrogation of the UK’s international responsibilities and obligations to asylum seekers and refugees” (Ahmed and Mudge). By pushing back refugees, countries abdicate responsibility for examining the individual cases of the refugees.

Human rights advocates suggest that the UK Government has drawn inspiration from Australia and the U.S., which are well known for their attempts to bypass their obligations toward asylum seekers through offshore detention and pushbacks (McDonnell). Since 2013, the Australian government has forcibly transferred asylum seekers seeking to reach Australia by boat to offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where individuals spent years suffering severe abuse, inhumane treatment and medical neglect (Australia: 8 years of Abusive Offshore Asylum Processing). In the United States, U.S. law prohibits border authorities from pushing back asylum seekers and requires them to refer such persons to an asylum officer to conduct an individual assessment of any risks of persecution or danger they may face if they are returned to their countries (8 U.S.C. §1158). Under President Trump, the U.S. implemented multiple policies–including mass illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, family separations and indefinite detention of asylum seekers–in an attempt to keep asylum seekers out of the U.S. Using the pandemic as a pretext and under pressure from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2020 issued a mass migrant expulsion order under Title 42, which allows border officials to expel asylum seekers without screening them (Blazer and Hoeppner). While President Biden promised a return to humane treatment of refugees, his administration has been slow to fully reverse Trump’s policies. Although Title 42 was set to expire in May 2022, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a nationwide injunction that has extended the Title 42 policy, despite calls from public health experts referring to the policy as “scientifically baseless” (Columbia Public Health, 2022). The policy has led to thousands of documented cases of violence against asylum seekers that the U.S. expelled, including rape, abduction and torture (Blazer and Hoeppner).

The past few years have also brought a shocking decline in reproductive rights protections around the world. Access to abortion is a critical element of reproductive freedom, as forcing someone to remain pregnant or give birth violates personal autonomy. In the U.S., where the constitutional right to abortion was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1973 in Roe v. Wade, abortion care nevertheless remained controversial, with state and federal lawmakers proposing endless barriers to abortion access. As a result of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs case in June 2022, half of the states in the country are expected to ban abortion, which will deny 36 million people access to care (Karas 5) and will impact disproportionately the health, safety and rights of pregnant people who are people of color, low income and live in rural places (Dolan). The grave reality is that abortion access in the U.S. now depends on where someone lives, the resources they have and whether they have health insurance that includes abortion care.

Across the Atlantic, Europe has seemingly fared better in protecting access to abortion, as the European Parliament in 2021 declared access to safe abortion a human right. But in practice, access varies widely across Europe, with broad variation in the period during which abortion is permissible. Poland has implemented a near-total ban on abortion, with rape, incest or life-threatening risk to the mother as the only exceptions. While influential Catholic groups have promoted the ban, it has also met with stiff opposition within the country, highlighting divides between liberal cities and more conservative rural areas (Martuscelli and Bencharif). Time will tell whether the attack on reproductive rights in the U.S. will have a ripple effect across Europe, where conservative activists have been making their own push to chip away at women’s rights.

Defending human rights requires not only curbing autocratic abuses, but also improving democratic leadership globally. The challenge is to get countries to return to principles and work toward advancing human rights as truly universal (Maunganidze). In the U.S., Congress must step in to stem further erosion of human rights, and advocates should simultaneously work to enshrine protections in state constitutions and through state courts. With the Supreme Court closing the door to human rights litigation in the federal courts, state courts represent an important alternative forum for state remedies for human rights (Davis and Whytock 398). In addition, the United Nations should exert pressure on all governments worldwide to protect human rights and democracy. Beyond government, if nations fail to protect and promote human rights, it may be up to citizens to push their governments back in line (Waller). Grassroots organizations can play prominent roles in supporting society’s most vulnerable groups, strengthening the citizen base and instilling a sense of solidarity within communities (id.). Public engagement and protests may go far in forcing governments to protect freedom and human rights.

Despite the backsliding of human rights globally, there are glimmers of hope that a better moment is within our grasp. In October 2021, the U.S. rejoined the UN Human Rights Council, three years after the preceding administration had abandoned its seat, an important step toward restoring the credibility of the U.S. as a human rights leader. In the wake of Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine, democracies worldwide have banded together to repudiate Russia diplomatically, economically and militarily. Countries have painfully cut off trade with Russia, and public protests worldwide have deepened Putin’s isolation. The collective support for Ukraine and rejection of the Russian war is perhaps the most unified response to human rights violations since World War II. Moreover, in their steadfast refusal to cave to overwhelming Russian forces, Ukrainians have shown the world what it means to fight for democracy and the mettle that will be required across the globe if we are to reverse decades of democratic decline and authoritarian expansion. The fight will not be easy, or cost-free, but we must put the strength of democracy in action once again to work collectively to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere.

Works Cited

8 U.S.C. §1158–Asylum, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/8/1158. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.

Ahmed, Yasmine, and Lewis Mudge. “Public Letter to UK Home Secretary on Expulsions to Rwanda.” Human Rights Watch, 13 June 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/11/public-letter-uk-home-secretary-expulsions-rwanda.

“America Has a Free Speech Problem.” Opinion, The New York Times, 18 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/opinion/cancel-culture-free-speech-poll.html.

“Australia: 8 years of Abusive Offshore Asylum Processing.” Human Rights Watch, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/15/australia-8-years-abusive-offshore-asylum-processing.

Baker, Peter. “Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Far-Right Leader, Gets Warm Welcome from Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/13/us/politics/trump-viktor-orban-oval-office.html.

Blazer, Jonathan, and Katie Hoeppner. “Five Things to Know about the Right to Seek Asylum.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 30 Sept. 2022, https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/five-things-to-know-about-the-right-to-seek-asylum.

Blinken, Antony J. “Remarks.” Secretary Antony J. Blinken on the Release of the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 12 April 2022, Press Briefing Room, Washington, D.C.

Columbia Public Health. 14 Jan. 2022. “Epidemiologists and Public Health Experts Reiterate Urgent Call to End Title 42,” Press Release. https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/research/program-forced-migration-and-health/epidemiologists-and-public-health-experts-reiterate-urgent-call-end-title-42.

Davis, Seth, and Christopher A. Whytock. “State Remedies for Human Rights.” Boston University Law Review, vol. 98, no. 397, 2018, pp. 397-484.

Dolan, Mara. “The US Supreme Court and the Ongoing Erosion of Rights.” WEDO, 20 Sept. 2022, https://wedo.org/an-ongoing-erosion-of-rights/.

Fassihi, Farnaz. “Iran Cracks down as Protests Show No Sign of Easing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/15/world/middleeast/iran-protests-tehran-metro-shooting.html.

Karas, Marisa Taylor. “Front Line: Abortion After Roe.” ACLU Magazine, Fall 2022, pp. 5-6.

Martuscelli, Carlo, and Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif. “Abortion Rights in Europe Vary Widely – and Are Getting Squeezed.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 4 May 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/abortion-right-europe-vary-widely-getting-squeezed/.

Maunganidze, Ottilia Anna. “Countering the Erosion of Human Rights.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 27 Sept. 2019, https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global-memos/countering-erosion-human-rights#.

McDonnell, Emilie. “UK’s Rights Record under Global Spotlight at UN.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 8 Nov. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/08/uks-rights-record-under-global-spotlight-un.

Nationality and Borders Bill (2022), HL BILL 82, https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/44307/documents/1132.

Schenkkan, Nate. “Covid-19 and the Erosion of Human Rights.” Freedom House, 23 July 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/article/covid-19-and-erosion-human-rights.

UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), 189 UNTS 137, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/3b66c2aa10.

United Nations. 26 Oct. 2022. “Belarus: Crackdown on Rights Forcing Citizens to Flee Says UN Expert,” Press Release. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/10/belarus-crackdown-rights-forcing-citizens-flee-says-un-expert.

U.S. State Department. 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department, 12 Apr. 2022, https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/.

Waller, Nicholas. “Stop the Erosion of Human Rights in Europe.” New Europe, 12 Feb. 2021, https://www.neweurope.eu/article/stop-the-erosion-of-human-rights-in-europe/.

Zerofsky, Elisabeth. “How Viktor Orbán Used the Coronavirus to Seize More Power.” The New Yorker, 9 Apr. 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-europe/how-viktor-orban-used-the-coronavirus-to-seize-more-power.

Matthew Oh
12th Grade
Laurel Springs School
Ojai, CA
Shared 1st Prize

Institutional Integrity: The Last Bulwark Against Democratic Backsliding and the Human Rights Violations It Precipitates

Democracy is on the defensive. The 2010s have been characterized by established and developing democracies succumbing to the caesarian charm of illiberal leaders that have suppressed free speech, targeted vulnerable groups, and committed other human rights abuses to consolidate their power. As humanity enters a new decade, that trend has not reversed itself. According to a 2022 report by the Freedom House, this is the sixteenth year in a row in which countries with a decline in their aggregate freedom score have outnumbered those who have seen gains.[1] In this year alone, the number of countries that have backslid more than doubled the twenty-five that have improved.[2] Authoritarianism is back in vogue as if it were the 1930s; consequently, respect for human rights teeters on the edge of darkness. Securing democracy, and by extension, human rights, will require resilient institutions with robust countermeasures that can resist illiberal encroachment. To demand these institutional countermeasures, democracy supporters must build political pressure through efforts at the grassroots and international levels.

While the first impulse might be to point to less economically developed countries (LEDCs) in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, the recent rise in illiberal leaders has been much closer

[1] Sarah Repucci et al., “The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule,” www.freedomhouse.org. (Freedom House, February 2022), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule, 4.

[2] Sarah Repucci et al., “The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule,” www.freedomhouse.org. (Freedom House, February 2022), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule, 4.

closer to home in the West’s established democracies.[3] A standout example would naturally be Trump and how his role in the United States’ democratic regression has marred its human rights record. By stoking nativist and nationalist fears, Trump positioned himself as the strongman candidate for white, less-educated voters in key battleground states.[4] Despite his Electoral College win, Trump lost the popular vote to Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, by nearly three million votes.[5] His subsequent allegations that millions of votes for Clinton were cast by undocumented immigrants attacked election integrity and emboldened xenophobic supporters.[6] These baseless accusations formed part of the rationale for draconian immigration policies, most notably the 2018 “zero-tolerance” policy that separated families of undocumented immigrants.[7] After reports surfaced of the suboptimal conditions endured by detained children, various human rights[8] and medical professional groups[9] lambasted the policy. Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, also demanded the end to the family separation policy, describing it as “unconscionable” and citing descriptions of the policy by pediatric experts as “government-sanctioned child abuse”.[10]

Even two years after his exit from office, Trump’s role in the United States’ democratic backsliding continues to strain its commitment to human rights. On the twenty-fourth of June, 2022, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned federal

[3] Pippa Norris, “It’s Not Just Trump. Authoritarian Populism Is Rising across the West. Here’s Why.,” The Washington Post (WP Company, December 7, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/11/its-not-just-trump-authoritarian-populism-is-rising-across-the-west-heres-why/.

[4] Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Had an Edge in the Electoral College,” The New York Times (The New York Times, December 19, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/upshot/why-trump-had-an-edge-in-the-electoral-college.html.

[5] Gregory Krieg, “It’s Official: Clinton Swamps Trump in Popular Vote | CNN Politics,” CNN (Cable News Network, December 22, 2016), https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/index.html.

[6] Ken Thomas and Erica Werner, “AP Report: Trump Advances False Claim That 3-5 Million Voted Illegally,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, January 24, 2017), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ap-report-trump-advances-false-claim-3-5-million-voted-illegally.

[7] “Family Separation – a Timeline,” Southern Poverty Law Center, March 23, 2022, https://www.splcenter.org/news/2022/03/23/family-separation-timeline.

[8]Colleen Long, “Watchdog: DOJ Bungled ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration Policy,” AP NEWS (Associated Press, January 14, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/aclu-doj-zero-tolerance-policy-failure-b8e6e0a189f5752697335f51d57b1628.

[9] “Biggest U.S. Doctors Group Condemns Family Separation Policy,” POLITICO, June 20, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/06/20/american-medical-association-family-separation-policy-655677.

[10] Nahal Toosi, “U.N. Rights Chief Blasts Trump’s ‘Unconscionable’ Child Separation Policy,” POLITICO, June 18, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/06/18/un-rights-chief-trumps-child-separation-650877.

Federal protections for reproductive rights established in Roe v. Wade[11], opening the floodgates for waves of anti-abortion legislation at the state level that undid decades of progress in women’s rights.[12] The court’s decision, the direct result of the partisan appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett by Trump, undermined judicial independence, a key element of healthy democracy.[13] In the aftermath of the ruling, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) urged the United States to adhere to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it has signed but not ratified.[14] The CEDAW’s statement drew special attention to Article Sixteen of the convention which affirms the right of women “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children” as well as Article Twelve which spells out protections for women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom.[15] During and after its tenure, the Trump Administration strained America’s institutions by baselessly attacking electoral integrity and judicial independence, key elements of working democracy.[16] The ethical and human rights violations that have come as a result have harmed the nation’s credibility as a champion of human rights.

The United States is just one of seven established democracies that have regressed, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).[17] Hungary, another declining democracy identified by the International IDEA, has attracted the attention of rights groups and European justice institutions in recent years for a growing litany of human rights abuses.[18] The breakdown of Hungary’s democratic institutions,

[11] “Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” Oyez, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2021/19-1392.

[12] Megan Diamondstein, “Abortion Is Now Illegal in 11 U.S. States,” Center for Reproductive Rights, August 30, 2022, https://reproductiverights.org/abortion-illegal-11-states/.

[13] Malcolm Stewart, “The Rule of Law: Roe v Wade and Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation,” Rule of Law Education Centre, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.ruleoflaw.org.au/the-rule-of-law-in-roe-v-wade/.

[14] “US Abortion Debate: Rights Experts Urge Lawmakers to Adhere to Women’s Convention  | UN News,” United Nations (United Nations, July 1, 2022), https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/07/1121862.

[15] UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations 18 December 1979, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1249, p. 13, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3970.html [accessed 8 December 2022]

[16] “The Global State of Democracy 2022,” International IDEA (International IDEA, 2022), https://www.idea.int/democracytracker/sites/default/files/2022-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2022.pdf, 3.

[17]“The Global State of Democracy 2022,” International IDEA (International IDEA, 2022), https://www.idea.int/democracytracker/sites/default/files/2022-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2022.pdf, 7.

[18]“Hungary Archives,” Amnesty International, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/europe-and-central-asia/hungary/report-hungary/.

once considered to be more stable than those of its former Soviet comrades[19] , has largely been catalyzed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his hardline conservative party, Fidesz. This has been a subtle dissolution of democracy twelve years in the making since an alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party won enough seats in Parliament to amend the country’s constitution.[20] Since then, the “magic two-thirds” supermajority has unleashed a deluge of new laws and constitutional amendments that have established Fidesz as the sole arbiter of Hungarian national policy.[21] Aging Constitutional Court judges were fired and replaced by Orbán loyalists, essentially removing any meaningful application of the court’s power of judicial review.[22]

To cement its power in an increasingly undemocratic environment of its own making, the Orbán government has accrued a number of human rights violations by suppressing opposition voices and media freedom.[23] Sixty to seventy percent of all Hungarian media is currently owned by Fidesz or its allies.[24] The few remaining independent media outlets eke out a meager existence in the face of constant government harassment.[25] For example, Klubrádió, one such independent radio program, had its license revoked by Hungary’s media regulator in September 2020 for dubious compliance issues with the country’s restrictive media laws.[26] The Media Council cited fines paid by Klubrádió for such breaches as admissions of guilt, including one for “playing slightly less

[19] “Hungary (08/07),” State.gov (U.S. Department of State), accessed December 8, 2022, https://2009-2017.state.gov/outofdate/bgn/hungary/100721.htm.

[20] Fanny Facsar, “Center-Right Fidesz Party Sweeps to Victory in Hungary,” CNN (Cable News Network, April 26, 2010), http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/04/26/hungary.election.results/index.html.

[21] Scheppele, Kim Lane. “Understanding Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution.” In Constitutional Crisis in the European Constitutional Area: Theory, Law and Politics in Hungary and Romania, edited by Armin von Bogdandy and Pál Sonnevend, 111–124. London: Hart/Beck, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2022. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474202176.ch-003, 113.

[22] Gabor Halmai, “Dismantling Constitutional Review in Hungary,” European University Institute, 2019, https://me.eui.eu/gabor-halmai/wp-content/uploads/sites/385/2018/11/Bocconi_HCC_Halmai.pdf, 4.

[23]“Hungary Archives,” Amnesty International, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/europe-and-central-asia/hungary/report-hungary/.

[24] Joanna Kakissis, “Outlets Strive for Independence in Hungary, Where Most Media Back the Government,” NPR (NPR, May 8, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/05/08/720015059/outlets-strive-for-independence-in-hungary-where-most-media-back-the-government.

[25] Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2022,” hrw.org (Human Rights Watch, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2022/01/World%20Report%202022%20web%20pdf_0.pdf, 315.

[26] “Újra Pályázható Lesz a Budapest 92,9 MHz Frekvencia,” NMHH (National Media and Communications Authority, September 11, 2020), https://nmhh.hu/cikk/214598/Ujra_palyazhato_lesz_a_Budapest_929_MHz_frekvencia.

Slightly less Hungarian music on a given day than required by national law”. [27] Klubrádió’s subsequent Constitutional Court appeal in August 2021 was predictably denied.[28]

More infamously, a scandal that broke in early 2021 revealed more than 300 Hungarian citizens[29] had been targeted by the Orbán government with Pegasus surveillance software purchased by the Interior Ministry.[30] While the government has never officially confirmed or denied the extent to which the software was deployed, it is clear the surveillance targeted journalists and individuals critical of the government. This flagrant violation of the right to privacy as outlined by Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights is nothing new for Fidesz.[31] While the Pegasus scandal has yet to result in any legal consequences for the Hungarian government, its Anti-Terrorism Task Force, another element of the state security apparatus, was found to be in violation of Article Eight by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Szabó and Vissy v. Hungary.[32] Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Court of Hungary had failed to penalize the task force in a previous appeal due to the court’s lack of judicial independence.[33] Democratic backsliding weakens institutions like the Constitutional Court that are unable to stop human rights abuses when they are in the interest of illiberal forces.

In addition to democratic deterioration in established democracies, it is evident that developing democracies have not been spared from this worrying trend either. An immediate example would be Myanmar’s 2021 coup which saw the return of military rule that had remained dormant for years under the country’s 2008 Constitution. On the first of February, internet and phone services across the nation were suspended[34] as pro-democracy lawmakers and National League of

[27] Lydia Gall, “Hungary Renews Attacks on Independent Radio Station,” Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020), https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/hungary-renews-attacks-independent-radio-station.

[28] Lydia Gall, “Hungary Forces Klubradio Off Air,” Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, February 10, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/10/hungary-forces-klubradio-air.

[29] “Hungary Archives,” Amnesty International, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/europe-and-central-asia/hungary/report-hungary/.

[30] “Hungary Admits to Using Pegasus Spyware – DW – 11/04/2021,” dw.com (Deutsche Welle, November 4, 2021), https://www.dw.com/en/hungary-admits-to-using-nso-groups-pegasus-spyware/a-59726217.

[31] Council of Europe, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, 4 November 1950, ETS 5, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3b04.html [accessed 8 December 2022], 11.

[32] ​​Szabó and Vissy v. Hungary (European Court of Human Rights January 12, 2016).

[33] EHCR/Hungary:Mass Surveillance Activities by Police Force Violate the Right to Privacy, Home and Correspondence. 2016. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2016-02-09/ehcrhungary-mass-surveillance-activities-by-police-force-violate-the-right-to-privacy-home-and-correspondence/.

[34] Christopher Giles, “Myanmar Coup: How the Military Disrupted the Internet,” BBC News (BBC, February 4, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55889565.

Democracy (NLD) leaders were arrested.[35] This most notably included Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Laureate and State Counsellor of Myanmar, who had championed the pro-democracy movement for decades.[36] While Myanmar has known periods of military rule in the past, this recent overreach has reversed decades of progress in the Burmese struggle for democracy. The democratic backsliding in Myanmar as a result of the coup has opened the floodgates for human rights abuses as the military has attempted to consolidate its power and even cover up past abuses. To understand how the military had been well-positioned to launch its coup, one can look to the 2008 Constitution and the undue influence the military had on its creation.

In the lead-up to the 2008 Constitutional Referendum, domestic and international pressures on the military-controlled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) prompted the Burmese military to seek further legitimacy for its rule. The making of the draft constitution had been tightly controlled by the SPDC such that the final product contained special provisions to perpetuate the military’s undue influence on the country.[37] A quarter of seats in both houses of parliament were reserved for military personnel appointed by the commander-in-chief[38], and Article 436 required any constitutional amendments to achieve more than seventy-five percent of parliamentary votes[39], thereby ensuring that the military could always veto amendments unfriendly to its interests. Furthermore, control over key national security institutions like the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Defense and Security Council remained firmly in the hands of the military.[40] These constitutional guarantees for the military ensured it remained a dominant force in Burmese politics even as it hid behind the veneer of civilian government. Nonetheless, the NLD and other pro-democracy groups steadily grew in popularity in the years after. However, when the NLD won an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary elections of November 2020, the military alleged election fraud and launched its coup d’état. The coup, launched by an already unpopular military, was met with overwhelming civilian resistance. The junta, the agent of democratic backsliding in this instance, resorted to egregious human rights violations to suppress the voices of the millions

35 “Hundreds of Myanmar Lawmakers under House Arrest after Coup,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, February 2, 2021), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/hundreds-of-myanmar-lawmakers-under-house-arrest-after-coup.

36 “Myanmar Military Seizes Power, Detains Elected Leader Aung San Suu Kyi,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, February 1, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-idUSKBN2A00VC.

37 “Vote to Nowhere,” Human Rights Watch, June 24, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/04/30/vote-nowhere/may-2008-constitutional-referendum-burma.

[38] Vikram Nehru, “Myanmar’s Military Keeps Firm Grip on Democratic Transition,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2, 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/06/02/myanmar-s-military-keeps-firm-grip-on-democratic-transition-pub-60288.

[39] “Myanmar: Fahrenheit 436,” Human Rights Watch (The Diplomat, January 5, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/05/myanmar-fahrenheit-436.

[40] Vikram Nehru, “Myanmar’s Military Keeps Firm Grip on Democratic Transition,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2, 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/06/02/myanmar-s-military-keeps-firm-grip-on-democratic-transition-pub-60288.

junta, the agent of democratic backsliding in this instance, resorted to egregious human rights violations to suppress the voices of the millions that took to the streets. These violations included forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, and other inhumane acts tantamount to crimes against humanity as outlined by Article Seven of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.[41] Figures from the UN state that over 1,500 people, including children, were killed during the coup, with 8,792 individuals also wrongfully detained by security forces at the time of the UN’s statement in February 2022.[42]

Beyond its harsh suppression of political dissent, no discussion of Myanmar’s human rights record can ignore the ongoing Rohingya genocide in the Rakhine State, which predates the coup by five years.[43] The persecution of the Rohingya for their ethnic and religious background dates back to the 1970s[44] but was greatly intensified by the Burmese military in 2016.[45] Described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”[46], the brutal campaign against the Rohingya has claimed tens of thousands of lives with 943,000 displaced and stateless as of October 2022.[47] It is important to note these abuses persisted as pro-democracy groups like the NLD gained prominence and rose to national leadership. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has also faced criticism for years of silence and supposed inaction on the matter.[48] However, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement in the Rohingya genocide is debatable, there can be no equivocation in assessing the military’s guilt. With the transition to military rule complete and Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to twenty-six years in prison on trumped-up charges, any possibility of a peace plan to end the genocidal campaign

[41] UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998, ISBN No. 92-9227-227-6, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3a84.html [accessed 8 December 2022], 3.

[42] “Myanmar Death Toll Exceeds 1,500 with Nearly 8,800 in Custody – Un,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, February 1, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/myanmar-death-toll-exceeds-1500-with-nearly-8800-custody-un-2022-02-01/.

[43] “Burma Genocide,” State.gov (U.S. Department of State, August 25, 2022), https://www.state.gov/burma-genocide/.

[44] “Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis,” BBC News (BBC, January 23, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[45] “Burma Genocide,” State.gov (U.S. Department of State, August 25, 2022), https://www.state.gov/burma-genocide/.

[46] “UN Human Rights Chief Points to ‘Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing’ in Myanmar | UN News,” United Nations (United Nations, September 11, 2017), https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/09/564622-un-human-rights-chief-points-textbook-example-ethnic-cleansing-myanmar.

[47] “Rohingya Refugee Crisis,” OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair, October 3, 2022), https://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis#:~:text=As%20of%20October%202022%2C%20over,more%20than%20635%2C000%20Rohingya%20refugees.

[48] “How Aung San Suu Kyi Sees the Rohingya Crisis,” BBC News (BBC, January 25, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42824778.

twenty-six years in prison on trumped-up charges, any possibility of a peace plan to end the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people is unlikely for the foreseeable future.[49] With democratic degradation as severe as it is in Myanmar, no accountability can be expected for the human rights abuses against the Rohingya and others. As much as the 2008 Constitution was a fait accompli for the NLD, the party leaders still failed to effectively push for stronger parliamentary institutions that would have curbed the military’s influence, advanced the people’s interests, and secured protections for ethnic minorities like the Rohingya. The passage of an alternative constitution, like one of several proposed by pro-democracy groups in 2008[50], could have prevented democratic regression and the deluge of human rights abuses it precipitated.

The three examples explored thus far have all featured agents of democratic deterioration attacking or modifying national institutions to promote their own power. Common strategies included attacking electoral integrity, manipulating the judiciary, and misusing constitutional provisions for political ends, just to name a few. To keep established and developing democracies on a positive trajectory, there must be demands for institutional reform at the grassroots and international levels. The combined efforts of internal and external pressures motivate governments to adopt reforms such as calling for a constitutional referendum or ending ongoing human rights abuses. Democracy advocates must develop strategies along two frameworks by amplifying popular voices while enlisting the international community to pressure illiberal establishments. Of course, this two-pronged approach becomes much harder to implement in non-democracies, which often criminalize dissent, limit meaningful spaces for civic participation, and restrict communications across national borders.

Nevertheless, a recent example of a popular movement  achieving its  goals with the help of the international community illuminates the path forward. After a protracted economic crisis as a result of mismanagement and undemocratic decision-making, some 100,000 Sri Lankans stormed the presidential palace in July to call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.[51] For years, Rajapaksa had undermined key institutions like the judiciary and Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, paving the way for the economic mismanagement and subsequent crisis that spurred popular resistance.[52] The economic crisis blemished Sri Lanka’s human rights record as basic access to food and healthcare, protected by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, became unattainable for countless Sri.

[49] Rebecca Ratcliffe, “Aung San Suu Kyi Faces Total of 26 Years in Prison after Latest Corruption Sentencing,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, October 12, 2022),

[50] “Alternative Constitution for Myanmar,” dw.com (Deutsche Welle, March 26, 2008), https://www.dw.com/en/alternative-constitution-for-myanmar/a-5213264.

[51] “In Pictures: Protesters Storm Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s Office as President Flees,” CNN (Cable News Network, July 13, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/09/asia/gallery/sri-lanka-crisis-protests/index.html.

[52] United Nations, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Situation of human rights in Sri Lanka – Comprehensive report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. New York, NY: UN Headquarters, 2022, 4.

Lankans.[53] Upset by the prolonged and unbearable economic conditions, thousands marched against Rajapaksa, who eventually resigned. While the human rights situation is still tenuous as the interim government relies on security forces to end lingering protests[54], there is hope that constitutional changes will rebuild democratic institutions to resist future illiberal encroachments like Rajapaksa’s.[55]

The international community’s reaction has also exerted enormous influence in reorienting Sri Lanka towards economic and political recovery. In the aftermath of Rajapaksa’s resignation, India and other regional neighbors quickly provided emergency funds earmarked for food and medicine.[56] A bailout agreement reached by the International Monetary Fund also included institutional reform, monitored through accountability mechanisms, to guard against corruption and establish financial transparency.[57] Most importantly, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a degree of cooperation from the new Sri Lankan government, published a report urging the end of the militarized response to protests while recognizing the steps taken by the new administration to redraft its constitution and better protect human rights.[58] While Sri Lanka faces a long road of recovery ahead, it is a refreshing example of how pressure from popular movements and the international community can push for institutional reforms to reverse democratic backsliding and secure human rights.

As humanity advances into a new decade, the lessons of the 2010s have warned democracies to remain vigilant of illiberal encroachment. Bad actors in established and developing democracies like the United States, Hungary, and Myanmar have a recurring pattern of dismantling democratic institutions like the judiciary or attacking election integrity to take power and hold it by violating basic freedoms. Democracy supporters in this new decade must fight harder than ever to maintain or reform liberal institutions whether by pursuing constitutional reform, maintaining judicial independence, or calling out attacks on electoral integrity. Only by enlisting the help of grassroots movements and the international community can democracy supporters generate the political pressure needed to accomplish their goals and uphold human rights for all.

[53] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html [accessed 8 December 2022], 5.

[54] “Sri Lanka: Heightened Crackdown on Dissent,” Human Rights Watch, August 2, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/02/sri-lanka-heightened-crackdown-dissent.

[55] Uditha Jayasinghe, “Sri Lanka Passes Constitutional Amendment Aimed at Trimming Presidential Powers,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, October 21, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/sri-lanka-passes-constitutional-amendment-trim-presidential-powers-2022-10-21/.

[56] Krishan Francis, “India Ships Rice, Other Essentials to Crisis-Hit Sri Lanka,” AP NEWS (Associated Press, May 24, 2022), https://apnews.com/article/health-india-sri-lanka-government-and-politics-452bb3642c875f5c144fb4217fcfa3f2.

[57] “IMF Staff Reaches Staff-Level Agreement on an Extended Fund Facility Arrangement with Sri Lanka,” IMF (International Monetary Fund, September 1, 2022), https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2022/09/01/pr22295-imf-reaches-staff-level-agreement-on-an-extended-fund-facility-arrangement-with-sri-lanka.

[58] United Nations, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Situation of human rights in Sri Lanka – Comprehensive report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. New York, NY: UN Headquarters, 2022, 5.

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Szabó and Vissy v. Hungary (European Court of Human Rights January 12, 2016).

Thomas, Ken, and Erica Werner. “AP Report: Trump Advances False Claim That 3-5 Million Voted Illegally.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, January 24, 2017. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ap-report-trump-advances-false-claim-3-5-million-voted-illegally.

Toosi, Nahal. “U.N. Rights Chief Blasts Trump’s ‘Unconscionable’ Child Separation Policy.” POLITICO, June 18, 2018. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/06/18/un-rights-chief-trumps-child-separation-650877.

UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations 18 December 1979, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1249, p. 13, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3970.html [accessed 8 December 2022]

UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998, ISBN No. 92-9227-227-6, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3a84.html [accessed 8 December 2022]

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html [accessed 8 December 2022]

“UN Human Rights Chief Points to ‘Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing’ in Myanmar | UN News.” United Nations. United Nations, September 11, 2017. https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/09/564622-un-human-rights-chief-points-textbook-example-ethnic-cleansing-myanmar.

United Nations, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Situation of human rights in Sri Lanka – Comprehensive report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. New York, NY: UN Headquarters, 2022.

“US Abortion Debate: Rights Experts Urge Lawmakers to Adhere to Women’s Convention  | UN News.” United Nations. United Nations, July 1, 2022. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/07/1121862.

“Vote to Nowhere.” Human Rights Watch, June 24, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/04/30/vote-nowhere/may-2008-constitutional-referendum-burma.

“Újra Pályázható Lesz a Budapest 92,9 MHz Frekvencia.” NMHH. National Media and Communications Authority, September 11, 2020. https://nmhh.hu/cikk/214598/Ujra_palyazhato_lesz_a_Budapest_929_MHz_frekvencia.

Gideon Witchel
11th Grade
Liberal Arts and Science Academy
Austin, TX
3rd Prize

Combating the Paradox of
Interventionism in Human Rights

Introduction

Fahad, a Syrian from Aleppo, was kicked to the floor and beaten with a wooden stick.[1] Five Turkish guards smoked over his crumpled body. Around him lay black and blue captives. An innocent tailor, Fahad had been arrested by Turkish police, taken to the Tulza Removal Center, and battered until his will was broken and his teeth were shattered. He had not committed a crime. Shelir Rasouli died after leaping from a second story window in Marivan, Iran, to escape being raped or killed for protesting systemic violence against women.[2] Her home had been invaded by an armed man who tried to threaten her into submission. Payton Gendron murdered ten shoppers in Buffalo, New York, in a terrifying, white-nationalist shooting.[3] He thought Jews ran the world and were trying to dest roy his freedoms. His paradigm, ‘great replacement theory,’ alleges that nonwhite people are coordinating to replace white Americans.[4] Cracks in the delicately decorated vase of global stability snake across borders and cultures; civilization seems ready to shatter under the pressure of its own horrors.

There is an undeniable degradation of human rights across the globe. Russia’s authoritarianism and censorship surrounding Ukraine, China’s total surveillance, and Iran’s theocratic oppression of women are especially dark streaks in the sky that drifts ever closer to midnight. These brooding artists share more in common than violence; their destruction is motivated by backlash against western liberal democratic principles. The United States has historically noticed the degradation of Human Rights only in specific situations for political purposes, creating a paradox of interventionism; by expanding western liberal democratic ideals in tandem with military control and political influence, America has fused the concepts. Spreading democracy now creates a perverse incentive to increase authoritarianism because leaders do not want to be under the West’s thumb. World leaders view human rights as an extension of American power and reject them, making long-lasting protections challenging.

            The path forward is unclear. Protecting human rights fails under the pressure of interventionism’s paradox, with actions meant to spread peace and safety provoking aggression. A measured approach should recognize the dual legitimacy of human rights and illiberal, undemocratic governments. This cycle of failure can be broken.

Global Devastation

Russia’s war in Ukraine is currently the most significant instance of human rights violations. Over the last two decades, Russia has conducted expansionist wars across its western front. Vladimir Putin physically invaded Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea.[5] He crushed Estonia with cyberattacks that disconnected its internet and banking.[6] Currently, Putin is invading Ukraine in a destructive rampage, launching explosives indiscriminately into civilian areas while ordering “summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence.”[7] Russia has also suspended its participation in a grain trade, halting food exports from Ukraine which could launch the world into a massive famine.[8] These acts of international destruction demonstrate a disturbing detachment from suffering; the Kremlin is aloof to the death and destruction of their military’s war crimes.

Outside their international imperialism, Russia has become a hub for domestic racialized violence. The federation was designated as the “white world’s future” by David Duke, leader of the Ku Klux Klan.[9] Nationalist neo-Nazis terrorize racial minorities under the systemic support of the Russian government; there was a higher level of systematic racist violence for one year in Russia than an entire decade in the U.S.[10] Anti-immigration, scientific racism, and Aryan ideals influence Russian academia and government policy[11] as conservative think tanks such as the Ateney Organization[12] and the Isbork Club[13] win official backing. Destruction of human rights has become the norm rather than the exception.

To Russia’s south sits China, another site of escalating human rights abuses. Under the guise of a ‘counter-terrorism’ program, the CCP detains members of Islamic minority communities like the Uyghurs and imprisons them in ‘re-education centers’, even if their offenses are not criminal.[14] Detainees are shackled, refused food, and suffer extreme weight loss. Cell lights are toggled throughout the night to deprive captives of sleep. Political indoctrination and torturous teaching tactics force the memorization and recitement of “patriotic song after patriotic song every day, as loud as possible and until it hurts, until our faces become red and our veins appeared on our face.”[15] Far from retreating in the face of Western condemnation, satellite imagery shows that “prisons have been expanded in numerous locations.”[16] China’s strategy is structurally antagonistic with the West; denouncement causes expansion, not contraction. Foreign leaders have become tired of being dominated and commanded, resulting in violence against their own people.

In the Middle East, Iran exemplifies systemic suppression. Morality police have launched an assault on women’s rights, arresting, abusing, and killing those who refuse to comply with mandatory Hijab laws.[17] These confusing, qualitative laws function as an excuse for state-sanctioned violence along poverty lines.[18] Sparked by 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in a detention center, protests exploded across the country, met with “deliberate and unlawful use by the Iranian security forces of live ammunition, metal pellets and buckshot” which killed an “alarming number of protesters.”[19] These discriminatory practices reify gender-based discrimination and turn back the metaphorical clock of equality which had been slowly ticking forward since the Iranian revolution of 1979.[20]

            The world lives at dusk, ever darkening. These disturbing events are distinctly present and real. They indicate pain and suffering. They are a call to action. Yet they are useless as abstract complaints, descriptions of mutilations, without an understanding of why they occur. They are symptoms. The disease is far more difficult to treat.

Interventionism’s Paradox

Across these modern abuses, there is a common thread: backlash. States lash out when confronted with mandatory western democratic ideals. Russia, China, and Iran violently reject paradigmatic U.S. idealism. Once recognizing this root cause, responses become complicated; aggressive intervention would exacerbate the problem. Recognizing the historically inconsistent definition of personhood and the erratic use of universal rights for political purposes can assist Western nations in identifying the motivations of aggressive actors and formulating pragmatic solutions.

During the colonization of the Americas, settlers regulated the designation of being a legitimate human to consolidate power. De Sepulveda, a Spanish philosopher serving his Emperor[21], argued that Native people, “barbarous and impious and inhuman, [should] accept the Christians, cultivators of human virtues and the true faith,” as their rulers.[22] Personhood was sequestered to white, European, Christian men. This is evidenced by the United States’ early economic base being predicated on the appalling system of slavery. The Constitution itself dehumanized slaves[23], reducing them to three-fifths of a person.[24] Yet explicit control of personhood to exclude and perpetrate violence against minorities retreated during the twentieth century. Oppression assuredly continued[25], but it wasn’t justified by consigning the oppressed to an inhuman status. Society had explored and abandoned this strategy of political control.

In a new age of enlightened modernism, everyone was human. Theoretically. As modes of control shifted from explicit to implicit suppression, human rights came to the forefront of politics. Xenophobia wasn’t dead – it had morphed into a new beast, exemplified in U.S. Exceptionalism.[26] Modern human rights were created to replace ablated personhood as the new strategy to defend interventionist violence. The U.S. led Liberal International Order (LIO) was inextricably tied to human rights; the rules were bound to the institution’s legitimacy and the institution would crumble without the rules. Unsurprisingly, the explicit goals of the LIO were always spreading democracy and promoting human rights.[27] This created the foundations of interventionism’s paradox by beginning to fuse democratic liberal ideals with western influence.

Neo-colonialism in the late twentieth century optimized this strategy to legitimize countless interventions and projects of geopolitical dominance. After the Cold War, the U.S. led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) used ‘false flag’ operations to invade and dismantle sovereign nations who opposed the West. Operation Gladio sent terrorists to kill anti-communist operatives.[28] The CIA and MI6 coordinated the assassination of Aldo Moro for sustaining the Italian Communist Party.[29] Secret armies staged coups in Turkey, Algeria, Greece, and Spain, synchronizing mass shootings and stabbings to silence resistance.[30] Human rights violations became a cynical excuse to advance U.S. hegemony.

This tortured history sets the backdrop for modern humanitarian crises. The Kremlin views Western expansion as combative, tracking back to NATO’s “not one inch” promise after the Cold War.[31] China sees U.S. ideals as fundamentally incompatible with theirs, a second volume of the battle between capitalism and communism. Iran sees America as a blasphemous threat to Islam, vying for total religious autonomy and the destruction of the theocratic state, especially given the War on Terror’s failures. The U.S. participates in and perpetuates this cycle of securitization[32] by viewing foreign powers as inherently predatory, aggressive, and threatening.[33] When faced with the totality of U.S. hegemony, states lash out in the ways they can: combating democracy by reforming laws and practices to increase authoritarianism, beating back liberalism by restricting economic freedom and social mobility, and reducing Western media influence by extending mass surveillance and corporeal punishment systems designed to deter dissent.

This is the impossibility of progress when progress is Western; ideology is power, and no state wants to give up power. Solutions are not easy. Intervention could prompt broader international conflict. Continuing the pattern of U.S. exceptionalism could justify future abuses under the aegis of human rights protection. Assuming every struggling country needs American support would be a narcissistic suppression of autonomy which could curb sovereignty.

Rights, however, should not be abandoned in a nihilistic acceptance of corruption and suffering. There are legitimate crises across the world which should be responded to. Recognizing human rights as a political tool reframes its use as a pretext for action. Human rights can be used as a weapon for good; once culture wars and power grabbing are avoided, focus can be centered on real suffering. Hegemony can be a liberating power if legitimate degradations of human rights and interventionism’s alibis can be differentiated.

Even though trying to optimize current power dynamics would encounter significant hurdles, there is no better alternative. Russia’s ambitions for territorial domination and imperial expansion[34] would create the pretense for massive violence. China’s authoritarian tendencies and suppression of basic freedoms with constant surveillance, the great firewall, and political corruption[35] would create an unstable, oppressive regime. Every other state or international actor would lack the economic or military might to compete. Even though Western domination of the international sphere sparked these antagonisms, destructive countries have built momentum and cannot be internally revised. Human rights are collapsing globally, and while history should be a guidepost and a cautioning voice, it shouldn’t be an impasse which suppresses the possibility of legitimate progress.

Solutions

Western liberal democracies, especially the United States, must find closure with their past and embark on a better path towards the improvement of global human rights. These crises have origins and symptoms, both of which can be treated with proper attention. The scepter of humanitarian disaster can be wielded to great effect when targeted with purpose and precision.

First, the United States should identify which humanitarian crises are legitimate. The line between Iraq in 2003[36] and Ukraine in 2022[37] is thinner than expected given media frenzy and political influencers. The U.S. should internally establish a set of qualifiers for what it considers a disaster worth intervening in based on its failures and successes after World War II, at least incorporating the number of people affected, how they are affected, the time frame, existing pacification efforts, and the intentions of the aggressing power. Qualifying the process would force the government to cut back on arbitrary interventions for the sake of profit or political influence. These standards, however, should not promote isolationism; finding a balance between detecting crises and avoiding ruses while still giving some autonomy to those in power is critical.

Second, democracies should address the symptoms of crises. Foreign aid empirically “reduces the supply of terrorist attacks” while “military interventions are liable to increase this supply.”[38]  Prioritizing aid for the victims of humanitarian disasters would be, at least initially, more effective than trying to combat ephemeral malicious actors. In war-torn regions, social institutions could provide food, water, shelter, and evacuation.

Third, liberal countries should indirectly encourage freedom. The United States’ control over the internet could encourage protest and lessen the effects of censorship, providing avenues for people to browse freely via internationally accessible search engines and Virtual Private Networks.[39] Alleviating these pressures would prevent suffering, encourage local activism, and reduce the influence of oppressors.

Fourth, Western forces should combat threat actors. Authoritarian, expansionist, or corrupted powers stand behind almost every humanitarian crisis. Interventionism could be a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer by empowering local groups to continue resistance and reach sovereignty. The focus must be on sustainability; even if the Taliban was suppressed for twenty years, their core remained untouched, and they sprung back to power after the U.S. military evacuated.[40] By treading carefully but with competence, military might can create positive change.

These strategies could simultaneously address human rights abuses and avoid triggering further crackdowns. Interventionism’s paradox could be broken with a new contradiction. The U.S. could more effectively tackle global crises by reducing explicit international influence. Doing so would allow the West to avoid the ideological, propagandized missions that originally created volatile international tensions and herald in a new era of international security.

[1] “Turkey: Hundreds of Refugees Deported to Syria.” Human Rights Watch, 24 Oct. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/24/turkey-hundreds-refugees-deported-syria.

[2] “Horrific Death of a Woman in Kurdistan Province Sparks Protests.” Human Rights Watch, 15 Sept. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/iranian-society-under-crackdown.

[3] Burley, Shane. “How Buffalo Suspect’s Hateful Propaganda Connects Black Americans and Jews.” NBC News, 18 May 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/buffalo-suspects-hateful-propaganda-connects-black-americans-jews-rcna29390.

[4] Yousef, Odette. “The ‘Great Replacement’ Conspiracy Theory Isn’t Fringe Anymore, It’s Mainstream.” NPR, 17 May 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/05/17/1099233034/the-great-replacement-conspiracy-theory-isnt-fringe-anymore-its-mainstream.

[5] Timtchenko, Ilya. “Fear of Provoking Putin Is Leading the Western World toward Disaster.” Atlantic Council, 21 Mar. 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/fear-of-provoking-putin-is-leading-the-western-world-toward-disaster/.

[6] Ottis, Rain. “Analysis of the 2007 Cyber Attacks Against Estonia from the Information Warfare Perspective.” Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, https://ccdcoe.org/uploads/2018/10/Ottis2008_AnalysisOf2007FromTheInformationWarfarePerspective.pdf.

[7] “‘Undeniable Need for Accountability’ in Ukraine as Violations Mount.” UN News, 18 Oct. 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/10/1129652.

[8] Raza, Madiha. “Russia Halting Ukraine Grain Exports Will Most Heavily Hit Those Already Facing Extreme Hunger, Warns IRC.” International Rescue Committee, 30 Oct. 2022, https://www.rescue.org/press-release/russia-halting-ukraine-grain-exports-will-most-heavily-hit-those-already-facing.

[9] Arnold, R. (2015). Systematic racist violence in Russia between ‘hate crime’ and ‘ethnic conflict.’ Theoretical Criminology, 19(2), 239–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362480615581102

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ateney.ru/

[13] http://www.dynacon.ru/

[14] OHCHR Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 31 Aug. 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Moaveni, Azadeh. “’It’s Like a War Out There.’ Iran’s Women Haven’t Been This Angry in a Generation.” NYTimes, 7 Oct. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/07/opinion/iran-women-protests.html.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Pilloud, Hélène. “Iran: Crackdown on Peaceful Protests since Death of Jina Mahsa Amini Needs Independent International Investigation, Say UN Experts.” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 26 Oct. 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/10/iran-crackdown-peaceful-protests-death-jina-mahsa-amini-needs-independent.

[20] Lakhiani, Karuna. “The Past and Present of Women’s Rights in Iran.” The Borgen Project, 24 Oct. 2021, https://borgenproject.org/womens-rights-in-iran/.

[21] Calle, Simón. “Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.” Columbia College, https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/juan-gin%C3%A9s-de-sep%C3%BAlveda.

[22] De Sepulveda, Juan Ginés. “Democrates Alter, Or, on the Just Causes for War Against the Indians.” Columbia Archives, 1544, http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/sepulved.htm.

[23] Oh, Reginald, “Black Citizenship, Dehumanization, and the Fourteenth Amendment” (2020). Law Faculty Articles and Essays. 1202.
https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/fac_articles/1202

[24] Augustyn, Adam. “Three-Fifths Compromise.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/three-fifths-compromise.

[25] “Japanese Internment Camps.” History, 22 Dec. 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation.

[26] Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[27] Lake, David A., et al. “Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization.” International Organization, vol. 75, no. 2, 2021, pp. 225–257., doi:10.1017/S0020818320000636.

[28] Campbell, Horace. “Global NATO: A 70-Year Alliance of Oppressors in Crisis.” CounterPunch, 9 Apr. 2019, https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/04/09/global-nato-a-70-year-alliance-of-oppressors-in-crisis/.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Julie Wilhelmsen & Anni Roth Hjermann. “Russian Certainty of NATO Hostility: Repercussions in the Arctic.” Arctic Review on Law and Politics, Vol. 13, 2022, pp. 114–142. http://dx.doi.org/10.23865/arctic.v13.3378

[32] Eroukhmanoff, Clara. “Securitisation Theory: An Introduction.” E-International Relations, 14 Jan. 2018, https://www.e-ir.info/2018/01/14/securitisation-theory-an-introduction/.

[33] Walt, Stephen. “Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War.” Foreign Policy, 30 June 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/30/china-united-states-new-cold-war-foreign-policy/.

[34] Tharoor, Ishaan. “Putin Makes His Imperial Pretensions Clear.” The Washington Post, 13 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/13/putin-imperial-russia-empire-ukraine/.

[35] Bateman, Jon. “Denying Support for Chinese and China-Enabled Authoritarianism and Repression.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 Apr. 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/04/25/denying-support-for-chinese-and-china-enabled-authoritarianism-and-repression-pub-86924.

[36] “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention.” Human Rights Watch, 25 Jan. 2004, https://www.hrw.org/news/2004/01/25/war-iraq-not-humanitarian-intervention.

[37] “Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine and Neighbouring Countries.” International Committee of the Red Cross, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.icrc.org/en/humanitarian-crisis-ukraine.

[38] Azam, J.-P., and Thelen, V. (2010). Foreign Aid Versus Military Intervention in the War on Terror. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54(2), 237–261. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002709356051

[39] Liao, Rita, and Zack Whittaker. “Popular Censorship Circumvention Tools Face Fresh Blockade by China.” TechCrunch, 5 Oct. 2022, https://techcrunch.com/2022/10/05/china-censorship-vpn-ban-party-congress/.

[40]Menon, Shruti. “Afghanistan: What’s Changed a Year after Taliban Return.” BBC News, 16 Aug. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/62469204.

Combating the Paradox of
Interventionism in Human Rights

Noh Sangeun
Grade 11
Raffles Institution
Singapore
1st Prize

Universal, Undermined:
Human Rights Violations that Illustrate
Eroding Respect for Human Rights

In an era otherwise characterized by breathtaking growth of the human race, the cause for human rights is suffering. Most significantly, this is due to the impunity shielding problematic actors from scrutiny. Overpowered and unchecked governments propagate discriminatory beliefs, enforce oppressive regimes and engage in egregious violations of human rights. Similar patterns appear in developed and developing countries, across the spectrum of rights laid out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1] (hereinafter the Declaration).

In recent years, appalling incidents of war, oppression, torture, discrimination and crime have occurred with growing frequency and flagrancy. This is a key symptom of the fall from prominence of human rights. The preservation of power trumps human rights in the priority list of certain actors, with devastating consequences on the citizens who suffer — most often disenfranchised groups like racial and religious minorities.

The Violations

[1] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

Conflicts that threaten such basic rights as those to life, liberty and personal security have exacerbated. For instance, historic enmity ballooned into war in Ukraine in 2022. The Russian army’s use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated Ukrainian cities[2] has killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians[3]. Over the course of the war, Russia has only escalated air raids and bombardments, increasingly targeting residential areas and energy infrastructure crucial to civilian lives[4]. There has also been evidence of summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence committed in occupied areas[5]. In short, the war directly jeopardizes right to life and security[6].

In the chaos and widespread destruction caused by similar armed conflicts, where triumph is the sole goal, rights take the backseat[7]. These conflicts are on the rise[8], with cases such as the war in Yemen. Given that rights violations are, as mentioned, commonplace in afflicted regions[9], the increasing prevalence of armed conflicts signals an erosion of the respect for human rights. Leaders seemingly prioritize victory[10] over upholding rights for the general populace.

Elsewhere, conflicts concerning political minorities have developed into not war but severe oppression. Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained millions of Uyghur Muslims in grossly abusive “re-education camps”[11][12]. These detentions were for the purposes of religious conversion and political indoctrination[13] . This is considered arbitrary detention, which stands

[2] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2022). Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/A-77-533-AUV-EN.pdf

[3] Statista. (2022). Number of civilian casualties in Ukraine during Russia’s invasion verified by OHCHR as of December 4, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1293492/ukraine-war-casualties/

[4] Agrawal, R. (2022). Why Putin Is Escalating Aerial Bombings in Ukraine. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/10/17/putin-russia-ukraine-war-drone-attacks/

[5] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2022). Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/A-77-533-AUV-EN.pdf

[6] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[7] International Committee of the Red Cross. (2004). What is International Humanitarian Law? https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/what_is_ihl.pdf

[8] Rodriguez, L. (2022). Number of Violent Conflicts Worldwide Is Highest It’s Been Since WWII: UN. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/violent-conflict-wwii-un-antonio-guterres/

[9] Lowery, T. (2022). 10 Heartbreaking Facts About Ongoing Conflicts Around The World. ​​https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/facts-about-world-conflicts/

[10] Daddis, G. (2022). The promise and folly of war — why do leaders enter conflict assuming victory is assured? https://theconversation.com/the-promise-and-folly-of-war-why-do-leaders-enter-conflict-assuming-victory-is-assured-178701

[11] Maizland, L. (2022). China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-xinjiang-uyghurs-muslims-repression-genocide-human-rights

[12] Al Jazeera. (2018). One million Muslim Uighurs held in secret China camps: UN panel. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/8/10/one-million-muslim-uighurs-held-in-secret-china-camps-un-panel

[13] Le, M. Behind the Walls: Uyghurs Detail Their Experience in China’s Secret ‘Re-education’ Camps’. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/special/uyghur-detention/

contrary to the right to trial[14]. Furthermore, the oppression and forced indoctrination of Uyghurs based on their religion and ethnicity violates the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of discrimination[15]. Much of the treatment undergone by Uyghurs also inherently flouts the prohibition of torture and slave labour[16], illustrating the contempt for rights underlying the decision-making calculus of the Chinese government.

Generally, Islamophobia — defined as prejudice translating to structural and cultural racism targeted against Muslims[17] — is increasing. Since 2017, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been subjected to the destruction of their hometowns, as well as mass killings and rapes[18]. Those among the majority Buddhist population who are aware of such rights abuses are unsympathetic towards Rohingyas[19], revealing lack of respect for equal rights. Infamously, in New Zealand, 2019, a gunman killed 51 people in a shooting that targeted Muslims[20]. States discriminate in insidious ways like the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, which was passed in 2019. It granted Indian citizenship to previously illegal, non-Muslim immigrants, illustrating the government’s hostility towards Muslims[21]. In the United States, where Donald Trump, after commenting “I think Islam hates us”, was elected President in 2016, Islamophobia has also been on the rise. In 2021, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received 9% more civil rights complaints from Muslims in the United States than in 2020[22].

Muslims are not the only group suffering from increasingly religious persecution. In countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Christians face mob violence[23] and arbitrary arrest and targeted sexual

[14] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[15] https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/countries/2022-08-31/22-08-31-final-assesment.pdf

[16] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[17] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2022). OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Religion/Islamophobia-AntiMuslim/Civil%20Society%20or%20Individuals/ProfAwan-2.pdf

[18] British Broadcasting Corporation. (2020). Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561

[19] Hunt, K. (2017). How Myanmar’s Buddhists actually feel about the Rohingya. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/19/asia/myanmar-yangon-rohingya-buddhists/index.html

[20] British Broadcasting Corporation. (2020). Christchurch shooting: Gunman Tarrant wanted to kill ‘as many as possible’. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53861456

[21] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Islamophobia in Three Asian Contexts: India, Myanmar and China. Justice for All Analysis for OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Religion/Islamophobia-AntiMuslim/Civil%20Society%20or%20Individuals/JusticeForAll.pdf

[22] VOA News. (2022). US Muslims See Rise in Islamophobia. https://www.voanews.com/a/us-muslims-see-rise-in-islamophobia-/6565523.html

[23] Haider, H. (2017). The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/59786a0040f0b65dcb00000a/042-Persecution-of-Christians-in-the-Middle-East.pdf

and deny permits for the construction of new religious spaces[24]. Extremist groups have issued ultimatums to Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed[25]. Christians, who formed about 20% of the population in the Middle East a century ago, now comprises less than 4%[26]. Separately, these acts are in and of themselves violations of human rights, including freedom of religion, protection from arbitrary arrest, protection from arbitrary seizure of property, and right to life[27]. Together, they form a dire profile of religious persecution, which adds an additional violation of the prohibition of discrimination based on religion[28].

The prevalence of religious persecution in the world today belies the lack of respect for prohibition of discrimination and freedom of religion. On the whole, discrimination is an increasingly significant theme. For instance, ethnic Asians have been subjected to intensifying xenophobia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Racist language in online and offline media increased: Le Courier Picard in France referred to it as “alerte jaune” or “yellow alert”[29], anti-Chinese slurs circulated on 4chan[30] and prominent politicians like Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo called the virus “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” respectively[31]. A governor in Italy claimed that Chinese people ate mice alive, and people of Asian descent faced similar ridicule and even physical violence worldwide[32]. These remarks denigrate and condemn Asians, sketching a highly unflattering caricature and directly attacking their personal esteem and honor. In utilizing such language, the perpetrators betray their lack of respect for the universal right to dignity[33].

[24] Haider, H. (2017). The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/59786a0040f0b65dcb00000a/042-Persecution-of-Christians-in-the-Middle-East.pdf

[25] Haider, H. (2017). The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/59786a0040f0b65dcb00000a/042-Persecution-of-Christians-in-the-Middle-East.pdf

[26] Wintour, P. (2019). Persecution of Christians ‘coming close to genocide’ in Middle East – report https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/02/persecution-driving-christians-out-of-middle-east-report

[27] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[28] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[29] British Broadcasting Corporation. (2020). Coronavirus: French Asians hit back at racism with ‘I’m not a virus’. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51294305

[30] Timberg, C. Chiu, A. (2020). As the coronavirus spreads, so does online racism targeting Asians, new research shows. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/08/coronavirus-spreads-so-does-online-racism-targeting-asians-new-research-shows/

[31] Human Rights Watch. (2020). Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide

[32] Human Rights Watch. (2020). Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide

[33] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rightshttps://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

Complicating the problem, the anti-Asian rhetoric pervading the era of COVID-19 allowed political parties in Europe and America to advance white supremacist and xenophobic agendas[34]. This was done through the propagation of anti-semitic[35], anti-immigration[36] or homophobic[37] conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. Such theories are blatantly racist and breach the prohibition of discrimination[38].

Despite the gains in women’s rights due to the several waves of the feminist movement[39], some regions are backsliding. In Afghanistan in particular, respect for women’s rights has been fast eroding since the Taliban took power in August 2021[40]. The Taliban has effectively banned secondary education for girls[41], infringing women’s right to education and to equal opportunity[42]. They also restrict women’s access to work by dictating the sectors available to women and their places at work[43], thus violating women’s right to work and to free choice of work[44]. For those women still working in the few sectors deemed acceptable by the Taliban, primary education and healthcare, remuneration has been minimal due to loss of funding by foreign donors[45]. This disregards their right to just pay[46].

Undoubtedly, repressive authoritarian regimes like the Taliban oppress far more than the right against discrimination. Like many other such regimes, the Taliban violates freedom of

[34] Human Rights Watch. (2020). Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide

[35] Anti-Defamation League. (2020). Coronavirus: Antisemitism. https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-antisemitism

[36] Anti-Defamation League. (2020). Anti-Immigration, Xenophobia and Homophobia. https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-anti-immigration-xenophobia-and-homophobia

[37] Anti-Defamation League. (2020). Anti-Immigration, Xenophobia and Homophobia. https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-anti-immigration-xenophobia-and-homophobia

[38] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[39] Council of Europe. Feminism and Women’s Rights Movements. https://www.coe.int/en/web/gender-matters/feminism-and-women-s-rights-movements

[40] Human Rights Watch. (2022). Afghanistan: Taliban’s Catastrophic Year of Rule. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/11/afghanistan-talibans-catastrophic-year-rule#:~:text=Since%20taking%20power%2C%20the%20Taliban,care%2C%20food%2C%20and%20water.

[41] Human Rights Watch. (2022). Afghanistan: Toll of Ban on Girls’ Secondary Education. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/13/afghanistan-toll-ban-girls-secondary-education

[42] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[43] Human Rights Watch. (2022). Afghanistan: Taliban Deprive Women of Livelihoods, Identity. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/18/afghanistan-taliban-deprive-women-livelihoods-identity

[44] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[45] Human Rights Watch. (2022). Afghanistan: Taliban Deprive Women of Livelihoods, Identity. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/18/afghanistan-taliban-deprive-women-livelihoods-identity

[46] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

expression[47]; many activists have been harassed, threatened, detained and even killed in retaliation for their advocacy work[48]. On 19 September 2021, the Taliban’s Government Media and Information Centre issued an order that forbid journalists from publishing stories “contrary to Islam” or “insulting to national figures”[49]: catchall phrases that essentially allow the Taliban to delegitimize any press coverage they find objectionable. The militant regime’s abuse of power encroaches on a number of other rights, including right to peaceful assembly and prohibition of arbitrary arrest and torture[50]. Their security forces crack down on peaceful protests using military force, and hundreds of civilian protesters have been detained with no court hearings, nor legal charges nor due process[51]. Those arrested are beaten and whipped to the point of serious injury[52].

The Cause

The main cause of the aforementioned violations is that authoritarian rule is becoming more common and more consolidated[53]. Authoritarianism refers to the principle of concentrating power in the hands of an individual or a party with citizens getting little to no political power[54]. For the past 16 years, countries with aggregate liberal-democracy-score declines in the Freedom in the World rankings have outnumbered those with aggregate score improvements every year[55]. In Nicaragua, 2021, President Daniel Ortega entered a fifth term in office following the political persecution of his rivals[56]. The European Parliament declared Hungary an “electoral autocracy”

[47] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[48] Relief Web. (2022). The Rule of Taliban: A Year of Violence, Impunity and False Promises. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/rule-taliban-year-violence-impunity-and-false-promises#:~:text=The%20Taliban’s%20crackdown%20on%20freedom,has%20also%20come%20under%20attack.

[49] Relief Web. (2022). The Rule of Taliban: A Year of Violence, Impunity and False Promises. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/rule-taliban-year-violence-impunity-and-false-promises#:~:text=The%20Taliban’s%20crackdown%20on%20freedom,has%20also%20come%20under%20attack.

[50] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[51] Relief Web. (2022). The Rule of Taliban: A Year of Violence, Impunity and False Promises. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/rule-taliban-year-violence-impunity-and-false-promises#:~:text=The%20Taliban’s%20crackdown%20on%20freedom,has%20also%20come%20under%20attack.

[52] Relief Web. (2022). The Rule of Taliban: A Year of Violence, Impunity and False Promises. https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/rule-taliban-year-violence-impunity-and-false-promises#:~:text=The%20Taliban’s%20crackdown%20on%20freedom,has%20also%20come%20under%20attack.

[53] Repucci, S., Slipowitz, A. (2022). The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule

[54] Britannica. (2022). Authoritarianism: Definition. https://www.britannica.com/topic/authoritarianism

[55] Repucci, S., Slipowitz, A. (2022). The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule

[56] Hu, C., Gallón, N.&Alberti, M. (2021). Ortega wins again in Nicaraguan elections panned as ‘parody’ by international observers. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/07/americas/nicaragua-election-nov-7-intl-latam/index.html

instead of a democracy in 2022[57]. Even in countries that are still widely seen as democracies, authoritarian principles are becoming more powerful.

With the constant possibility of being replaced in the next election, a democratic government has the incentive to win the favor of the majority. This is entwined with the preservation of rights because the social contract theory hypothesizes that people sacrifice some of their rights to the state in exchange for others[58]. An authoritarian government has all the powers of a democratic one without the incentives that oblige the latter to preserve the rights of the citizens. It gains impunity for rights violations because it controls the dominant narrative by suppressing the right of expression and has the guarantee of semi-permanent power[59]. This emboldens it to act in self-interest and to abuse its power.

This is the factor enabling many of the aforementioned violations. Historically, autocrats have been known to exact ruthless punishments on their rivals, as in Tsarist Russia under Ivan the Terrible, or to severely persecute minorities, as in Nazi Germany[60]. The autocracies in the world today echo those of the past in this respect; the most well-known example is China. The Chinese Communist Party, which has been in sole control of the People’s Republic of China since the nation’s founding in 1949[61], is guilty of many more violations than the oppression of Uyghurs mentioned above.

During COVID-19, China’s control on online freedom of expression tightened[62]. In general, only select elites are allowed to speak critically of the party, and then only in settings where they have an insignificant Chinese audience[63]. By dictating what people may or may not say, China severely limits the freedom of expression of its citizens. This further prohibits people from hearing a balanced set of perspectives, violating their freedom to hold opinions without interference and to receive information from any media[64]. Such censorship is made possible through the Golden Shield Project, a set of sophisticated media filters developed by the government[65].

With such media control, the government has a greater ability to engage in deplorable violations. Activists are arbitrarily detained and suffer from torture[66][67], a direct defiance of the prohibition of arbitrary arrest and torture[68]. In 2020, China imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which dissolved basic rights like freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly[69]. Massive city-scale quarantines enacted by the government’s zero-covid policies encroached on freedom of movement[70][71]. Independent unions are illegal, with negative impacts on workers’ rights to freedom of association and just remuneration[72][73]. These violations happen in relative obscurity within borders or with general support by the populace, who view the government positively due to its economic achievements[74]. The censorship situation in China illustrates how a powerful authoritarian regime can and will use its power to suppress citizens and at the same time how this suppression may lead to the consolidation of its power, thus creating a vicious cycle. The government has successfully created a political climate where the respect for human rights is eroding.

[57] European Parliament. (2022). MEPs: Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy | News | European Parliament

[58] Friend, C. Social Contract Theory | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[59] LibertiesEU. (2021). Why Is an Authoritarian Government Bad? | liberties.eu

[60] McIntosh, M. (2020). Autokrator: A History of the Origins and Developments of Autocracy – Brewminate

[61] Britannica. Chinese Communist Party | political party, China | Britannica

[62] Moynihan, H., Patel, C. (2021). Restrictions on online freedom of expression in China

[63] Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Freedom of Expression in China: A Privilege, Not a Right

[64] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[65] Chan, C., Dao, A. Hou, J. Jin, T. Tuong, C. (2011). China’s Great Firewall

[66] Amnesty International. (2021). China: Further information: Lawyer faces charges for reporting torture: Chang Weiping – Amnesty International

[67] Amnesty International. (2021). China: Activist detained for reporting torture: Li Qiaochu – Amnesty International

Authoritarian governments similarly strike down political dissidents all over the world, with the consequence being that rights are completely disregarded. Iran’s morality police conduct harsh crackdowns on those deemed to be wearing inappropriate dress, resulting in the death of a young woman this year[75]: breaching the prohibition of cruel punishment[76]. In Chad, abduction and torture of protestors is commonplace[77], infringing the prohibition of torture and the right of peaceful assembly[78]. Even in the United States, a famously democratic country, autocratic leaders like Trump use their influence to further white supremacist agendas[79] that ultimately result in increased discrimination against racial and religious minorities[80]. In conclusion, the lack of respect for rights demonstrated by autocrats is dangerous because they are powerful enough to make policy changes based on such a mindset and to influence billions of citizens living under authoritarian rule, thus catalyzing wide-scale erosion of the respect for human rights.

[68] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[69] Human Rights Watch. (2021). Dismantling a Free Society: Hong Kong One Year after the National Security Law | Human Rights Watch

[70] Hurst, B. (2022). Stuck in a corner: China’s Zero-Covid strategy | Centre for Geopolitics

[71] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[72] U.S. Department of State. China’s Disregard for Human Rights – United States Department of State

[73] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[74] Roberts, D. (2021). https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/how-much-support-does-the-chinese-communist-party-really-have/

[75] Mahdavi, P. (2022). What are Iran’s morality police? A scholar of the Middle East explains their history

[76] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[77] Schwikowski, M. (2022). Violence in Chad: Demonstrators abducted and tortured – DW – 10/26/2022

[78] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III),https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[79] Cineas, F. (2021). Trump’s history of inciting violence in words and tweets: A timeline from 2015 through the Capitol attack – Vox

[80] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

The Solution

Crucially, however, authoritarian regimes of this era are not infallible. With the unavoidable increase in media freedom that arises from the era of the Internet, people living in autocracies are better equipped to recognize the flaws of their governments than ever. Protests against autocrats have gained in traction. Despite the government’s violent suppression efforts, protests in Iran have continued after the death of Mahsa Amini in September this year[81]. In Poland, peaceful protests for human rights and the rule of law have survived the threat of detention and violence[82]. Protests following the draconian zero-covid policies in China have been fruitful in driving the government to lift some lockdown measures[83]. This is important because it shows that the will of the people holds power, even in autocracies.

The reason citizens of autocracies are viewed as powerless is because their will rarely translates to changes in governance. The missing link is fair and free voting. Referendums in occupied regions of Ukraine, which appeared to show overwhelming support for the annexation of these regions by Russia, were widely condemned due to Russian provisions that made an alternative result impossible[84]. Similarly, the lack of direct or competitive elections for national executive leaders in China makes it difficult for change to materialize[85]. To enable people to fully exercise their right to vote and realize a government led by the will of the people, we must first protect the electoral process.

This could be done by the safeguarding of elections. Given the imbalance of power within autocracies, an external actor is needed to protect the sanctity of elections in such countries. Beyond issuing condemnations of the flawed elections in autocracies, international bodies like the United Nations or the European Union could be bestowed with the power to oversee elections in transitioning democracies. With due care taken to ensure that this external influence does not distort due process, the results of the elections would be a much more accurate reflection of the will of the people. It would be difficult for a government, however powerful, to ignore a glaringly unfavorable vote. If the need arises, international bodies could also oversee the transition of power from an autocratic government to a democratic one.

Autocratic leaders in democratic countries should be faced with greater international condemnation, comparable to that faced by fully-fledged autocrats. Because they are shielded by the presence of free and fair elections, their abuse of power and tendency to condone human rights violations impact the respect for human rights in a more insidious way. It is important for the citizens of these countries to realize the hazard of allowing a leader to understate the importance of preserving human rights.

[81] Askew, J. (2022). Iran protests: What caused them? Are they different this time? Will the regime fall? https://www.euronews.com/2022/11/25/iran-protests-what-caused-them-who-is-generation-z-will-the-unrest-lead-to-revolution

[82] Amnesty International. (2021). Poland peaceful protesters defy escalating assault on freedom of Assembly. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/06/poland-peaceful-protesters-defy-escalating-assault-on-freedom-of-assembly/

[83] Mao, F. (2022). China abandons key parts of zero-Covid strategy after protests – BBC News

[84] Beaubien, J. (2022). Occupied regions of Ukraine vote to join Russia in staged referendums : NPR

[85] Freedom House. China: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report

The Conclusion

The urgency of restoring the rights of oppressed people cannot be overemphasized; it is the most fundamental step to upholding their standards of living and preserving their dignity. The challenge of achieving that task is the presence of inherently powerful adversaries. That said, the instinctiveness and naturality of many of the universally accepted rights can compel many to take action against the actors who undervalue them. I write with hope and conviction that we may soon achieve great progress in reinstating the respect for human rights that should underpin any decisions made by either the state or the citizen.

Liam Harte
Year 14
Holy Cross College

Respect for Human Rights
Seems to be Eroding in Many Countries

The fundamental principle of human rights has been a defining characteristic of modern civilization, enshrined in numerous international declarations and agreements that seek to protect and promote the inherent dignity and equality of all individuals. However, in recent years there has been a growing concern that this respect is rapidly eroding in many countries around the world, as authoritarian regimes consolidate power, xenophobia and nativism rise, and marginalized groups face increasing violence and discrimination. In this essay, I will argue that respect for human rights is indeed eroding, and will provide examples to support my claim. Furthermore, I will explore the major causes of this problem, possible counterarguments and will offer some suggestions for addressing it in order to promote a more just and equitable society.

Human rights, the fundamental principle that is enshrined in international law and the constitutions of many countries. It is the idea that all people, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or other factors, are entitled to certain inalienable rights and freedoms, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the definition of which originated in the West, therefore reflecting Western interests and are, therefore, a weapon of cultural hegemony or a new form of imperialism.[1] Though human rights are said to have universal validity, it is clear of their erosion globally, as countless examples hinder our trust in the protection of human rights.

As a result, one might expect western nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom to be exemplar examples and of the world’s upholding of human rights, frontrunners in beliefs as to how citizens should be treated. Ironically however, both of these ‘United’ territories have been unable to unfailingly uphold the United Nations’ definition of human rights, as “inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.”[2] These nations unite to serve as a microcosm for the rest of the world’s future in terms of its attitude to human rights.[3] These two nations, whom serve as harbingers for the rest of the world’s treatment of human rights, have appeared to have been eroding in terms of human rights, stemming from the very highest level of authority, before seeping down through fragmented flaws in their judicial, social and economic systems.

One major cause of the erosion of respect for human rights is the rise of authoritarian regimes and populist leaders who prioritize their own interests over the rights of their citizens. These leaders often use fear and division as tactics to maintain their power, and as a result, they are willing to trample on the rights of those who disagree with them or who are seen as a threat to their rule. One particularly egregious example is the situation in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un’s regime has consistently and systematically violated the human rights of its citizens. Reports from human rights organizations and defectors paint a picture of a society where citizens are denied basic freedoms, such as the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, and where political prisoners are subjected to torture and other forms of abuse.[4]

In a similar vein, the Russian government, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has been heavily criticized by international organizations and human rights groups for its treatment of dissidents and political opposition. These individuals are often subject to arbitrary detention, torture, and other forms of abuse, and in some cases, they are imprisoned on trumped-up charges or simply disappear without a trace.[5] The Russian government has also implemented strict control over the media and internet, which has resulted in the suppression of political dissent and the stifling of independent voices.[6] This has created a climate of fear and intimidation, with many people afraid to speak out against the government for fear of reprisal. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have consistently condemned Russia for its human rights abuses and the lack of due process in its treatment of dissidents and political opposition.[7] These abuses have also been met with condemnation from the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union,[8] but to this criticism, the Russian government has been indifferent and shown little willingness to change its tactics and continues to crack down on political opposition.

Furthermore, in China, the government has engaged in widespread surveillance[9] and repression of political dissidents, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups, particularly in the Xinjiang region, where reports of mass detention and forced labour have emerged, including the forced “re-education” of Uighur Muslims.[10] When considering this, along with the imprisonment of human rights lawyers and the suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it is clear that China is a frontrunner in the erosion of human rights on a global level. Another example of the harsh measures taken by the Chinese government to suppress freedom of expression and access to information is the case of Tibetan monk Rinchen Tsultrim.[11] In 2019, Tsultrim was arrested and charged with “inciting secession” for expressing political views on his social media account. He was subsequently subjected to a secret trial and sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Since his arrest, Tsultrim has been held incommunicado, with no contact with his family or access to legal representation. It was only through the intervention of UN human rights experts in August 2021 that his family learned of his alleged crime and his whereabouts. This highlights the disturbing trend of the Chinese government using the criminal justice system as a tool to silence and punish those who dare to speak out against the state.[12]

In India too, the government has passed laws that discriminate against Muslims and other religious minorities. This has included the implementation of a controversial citizenship law that essentially strips Muslims of their citizenship, as well as the creation of a National Register of Citizens that has been used to target and harass Muslims.[13] The government has also been accused of failing to protect Muslims from violence by Hindu nationalist mobs, and of turning a blind eye to the growing climate of hate and intolerance in the country.

It should come as no surprise then, that the erosion of respect for human rights can also be seen in the treatment of refugees and migrants. In recent years, we have seen a rise in xenophobia and nativism, with many countries adopting increasingly restrictive policies towards refugees and migrants. The aforementioned United States has fallen lieu to this, where the government has implemented policies such as the Muslim ban,[14] family separation, and the building of a wall along the southern border. These policies not only violate the rights of refugees and migrants, but also run counter to the principles of compassion and humanity that are at the heart of human rights.

But as to what reason are these crucial, socially vital human rights being eroded from beneath our very feet? One major cause is the rise of authoritarian leaders who are more concerned with maintaining their own power than protecting the rights of their citizens. These leaders often use propaganda and other tactics to suppress dissent and silence those who might challenge their rule. Another factor is the growth of extremist ideologies, which often reject the idea of universal human rights and seek to impose their own narrow, discriminatory views on society. These ideologies often gain traction in times of economic uncertainty and social upheaval, when people are looking for answers and solutions to their problems.[15]

Moreover, another factor that may be contributing to the erosion of respect for human rights is the growing influence of social media.[16] In recent years, we have seen the rise of online platforms that allow people to connect and share information. While this has many benefits, it has also given rise to echo chambers, where individuals are only exposed to information that aligns with their beliefs. This can lead to the spread of misinformation and hate, and can make it difficult for people to understand and appreciate the importance of human rights.

To address this problem, there needs to be a concerted effort by the international community to hold countries accountable for their human rights violations. This can be done through the imposition of economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures, as well as through the use of international tribunals to prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses. Additionally, the international community should work to promote and strengthen international human rights conventions and treaties, as well as aid those countries whose respect for human rights is lagging. International organizations such as the United Nations should increase their pressure on governments that violate human rights, and governments should be held responsible for their actions. Additionally, citizens of countries around the world should be educated on the importance of human rights and the severity of human rights violations. This will help to ensure that citizens of these countries are aware of the value of human rights and are better able to hold their governments accountable.

This is due to the fact that one source of the core crisis is the lack of accountability for those who violate human rights. In many cases, perpetrators of human rights abuses are not held to account for their actions, which sends a message that such behaviour is acceptable. This can be seen in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the government has carried out extrajudicial killings and tortured prisoners without facing any consequences. For example, the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents in the country’s consulate in Istanbul was a shocking and grotesque violation of human rights.[17] Despite widespread international condemnation of the killing, the Saudi government has refused to hold anyone accountable for the murder and instead has launched a campaign of repression against dissidents and activists.[18] This blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law is a disturbing example of the ways in which authoritarian regimes are willing to trample on the rights of their citizens in order to maintain their power. It is crucial that the international community continues to pressure the Saudi government to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder accountable and to end its campaign of repression against those who dare to speak out against the regime.

While it is undeniable that there are many examples of human rights being violated in various countries around the world, there are also those who argue that the problem is not as widespread as it is often portrayed. These individuals argue that the media often exaggerates the issue of human rights erosion, and that in many countries, respect for human rights is instead improving.[19] This argument may have some merit, as in some parts of the world, formerly repressive regimes have undergone democratic transitions and are now taking steps to protect the rights of their citizens. In South Africa, for example, the post-apartheid government has implemented a range of policies and laws aimed at promoting equality and justice for all, including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the crimes of the past.[20] Similarly, in Guatemala, the government has made strides in addressing the country’s long history of human rights abuses, including the establishment of a commission to investigate the forced disappearances of thousands of people during the country’s civil war.[21]

In addition to the progress made by individual countries, international organizations and civil society groups have also played a crucial role in promoting and defending human rights. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have worked tirelessly to document and expose human rights violations, and have often been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action.[22] Additionally, the United Nations has established a number of mechanisms, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council, to monitor and promote human rights around the world.[23] While it is true that there are still many challenges to the protection of human rights, it is important to recognize the progress that has been made in some parts of the world. By highlighting these successes, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the issue and identify effective strategies for promoting and defending human rights.

Another example of the growing recognition of human rights is the increasing attention to the rights of indigenous peoples. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, culture, and self-determination. This has led to the adoption of international legal instruments such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,[24] which provides a framework for the recognition and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. This is a crucial step in ensuring that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected and protected, and it reflects a growing recognition of the unique challenges and experiences faced by these communities.

Moreover, an example of recent positive progression in regard to the education of human rights is the “Uncensored Library”,[25] an innovative project created to combat the issue of censorship in countries that lack freedom of the press. The library, which is a Minecraft server and map, was a collaboration between ‘Reporters without Borders’, ‘BlockWorks’, ‘DDB Berlin’, and ‘MediaMonks’. It was released on March 12, 2020, the World Day Against Cyber Censorship.[26] The goal of the “Uncensored Library” is to provide access to banned reporting from countries like Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Each of these countries has its own wing in the library, with several banned articles available for viewing. By using Minecraft as a platform, the creators of the library were able to circumvent traditional censorship methods and provide access to this important information.[27] The “Uncensored Library” has been well received by both the public and the press,[28] with many people praising it as a creative and effective way to combat censorship. It has also been a valuable resource for journalists and researchers who are looking for information that may have been suppressed by their governments.

After careful consideration of the issue, it is clear that respect for human rights is indeed eroding in many countries around the world. This trend is deeply concerning and has far-reaching consequences for individuals and societies. The major cause of this erosion of respect for human rights is the growing trend of governments using authoritarian measures to silence and punish those who dare to challenge their authority. To address this problem, it is essential that a comprehensive and collaborative effort be undertaken. This will require the strengthening of international legal frameworks for the protection of human rights, as well as a concerted effort to address the root causes of the erosion of respect for human rights. Only by taking these steps can we ensure that respect for human rights remains strong and that all people, regardless of their background, can live with dignity and freedom.

Footnotes:

[1] Human Rights: A Non-Western Viewpoint on JSTOR

[2] Human Rights | United Nations

[3] Is “Human Rights” a Western Concept? | IPI Global Observatory (theglobalobservatory.org)

[4] North Korea: Horrific Pretrial Detention System | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

[5] Navalny aide says the jailed Russian dissident has disappeared – POLITICO

[6] Russia: Kremlin’s ruthless crackdown stifles independent journalism and anti-war movement – Amnesty International

[7] Human Rights Committee Considers Report of the Russian Federation in the Absence of a Delegation, Experts Raise Issues on the Persecution of Journalists and the Arrests of Protesters | OHCHR

[8] More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[9] China surveillance system—the world’s largest—is growing. So is the backlash | Fortune

[10] China’s repression of Uighur Muslims: Concentration camps, forced labor, and other abuses – Vox

[11] China: Tibetan monk held incommunicado for 2 years | Amnesty International UK

[12] Xi is Bending Chinese Law to His Will | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

[13] India passes a citizenship bill that excludes Muslims – Vox

[14] A licence to discriminate: Trump’s Muslim & refugee ban | Amnesty International UK

[15] Fear: A powerful motivator in elections (apa.org)

[16] Social media’s growing impact on our lives (apa.org)

[17] Timeline of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi | Human Rights News | Al Jazeera

[18] G20: Hold Saudi Arabia Accountable for Abuses | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

[19] The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences | Steven Pinker | The Guardian

[20] Truth and Reconciliation Commission (justice.gov.za)

[21] Truth Commission: Guatemala | United States Institute of Peace (usip.org)

[22] Human Rights Activism and the Role of NGOs – Manual for Human Rights Education with Young people (coe.int)

[23] OHCHR | Welcome to the Human Rights Council

[24] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples | United Nations For Indigenous Peoples

[25] RSF opens “The Uncensored Library” – The digital home of Press Freedom within a global computer game | RSF

[26] World Day Against Cyber Censorship: Here are some points to keep in mind when using internet (firstpost.com)

[27] virtual minecraft library combats government censorship by housing banned journalism (designboom.com)

[28] This Minecraft library is making censored journalism accessible all over the world – The Verge

Works Cited:

Pollis, Adamantia; Schwab, Peter, “Human rights : a Western construct with limited applicability in Human rights: cultural and ideological perspectives” Shared item from PUBLG075: Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights : Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia | University College London (talis.com)

Ramesh Thakur, “Human Rights: Amnesty International and the United Nations” Human Rights: Amnesty International and the United Nations on JSTOR

ANN MARIE CLARK, “Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms” Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms on JSTOR

John P. Humphrey, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on JSTOR

Emma Gilligan, “Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War” Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War on JSTOR