Governments increasingly view human rights as “a luxury” they can ill afford, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday, warning that abuses fuel crises in world trouble spots like Syria and Ukraine.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said that Wahhabism and western “double standards” were behind the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups in the region in 2014.
Western powers, he said, are far from blameless, and in some cases their wrongdoings have fed the very climate in which serial rights abusers like ISIS jihadists thrive.
Ignoring human rights while addressing global security risks “fails to get at the root causes that gave rise to many of these threats,” Roth told reporters in Beirut.
Even as it seems that “the world is unraveling,” he warned, many governments “appear to have concluded that today’s serious security threats must take precedence over human rights.”
“In this difficult moment, they seem to argue, human rights must be put on the back burner, a luxury for less trying times,” Roth said, introducing the 660-page HRW World Report 2015.
Such a calculation is false, Roth insisted.
Governments that flout human rights during crises are not only violating international law, but they are also following “short-sighted and counter-productive” strategies, he added.
From Iraq to Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Ukraine, “protecting human rights and enabling people to have a say in how their governments address the crises will be key to their resolution.”
The emergence of ISIS was in part fueled by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and also by the West’s failure to address atrocities committed in the Syrian conflict.
The Iraq invasion led to a security vacuum and abuses in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay which fueled distrust of the US occupying forces in the region.
Later, the US and Britain “largely shut their eyes” to the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government and claims that it persecuted the country’s Sunni minority, and even continued to supply it with arms.
In Syria, the US cobbled together a 60-strong coalition to combat the ISIS jihadists, but no nations have stepped up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad “to stop the slaughter of civilians,” Roth said.
Speaking to AFP in Beirut, Roth said: “The West is not going to succeed in stopping ISIS if it allows ISIS to say that it’s the only one trying to stop Assad’s barrel bombs.”
This same selectivity has been shown in Egypt, where the global response to “unprecedented repression” by general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been “shamefully inadequate.”
Washington has shied away from denouncing the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated President Mohammed Mursi or labeling it as a coup.
In this, it was driven by its own concerns for the security of the unruly Sinai Peninsula and neighboring US ally Israel
Support for Sisi’s leadership is “a disaster for the Egyptian hopes of a democratic future” and sends “an appalling message to the region,” Roth said.
“The worst example is the Rabaa Square massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in, where in the course of 12 hours security forces — directed by Sisi and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim — shot and killed a minimum of 817 people,” he said.
He added that Western support for Egypt’s government was one reason for the rise of militant groups such as the ISIS in the region.
Roth asserted: “The message being sent by the West cozying up to Sisi is ‘don’t bother with the ballot box if you believe in political Islam, because your government will be overthrown with no protest’.”
“The effect of allowing Sisi to quash the Brotherhood so ruthlessly is basically to say that the ballot box isn’t an option for political Islam and that the only option around is [ISIS],” he added.
“That is a horrible message. I hope the West thinks twice before proceeding down this very dangerous path,” Roth warned.
“ISIS can now credibly argue that violence is the only path to power for Islamists because when they sought power through fair elections and won, they were ousted with little international protest,” Roth said.
Human rights abuses in Russia, which stifled critical voices inside the country over the past two years, and the West’s “relatively narrow reaction … may well have aggravated the Ukrainian crisis,” he added.
Yet, the West has also fallen back on “a good-versus-bad mentality” and in its desire to show Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression has been “reluctant to address Ukrainian abuses.”
Roth went on to criticize US President Barack Obama’s failure to comment on Saudi Arabia’s “disastrous human rights record” during his visit to Riyadh this week.
“He went to India and gave a beautiful speech about women’s rights, religious freedoms and respect for different ethnicities — then he went to Saudi Arabia and didn’t say anything,” Roth said.
In Saudi Arabia, he added, “women are completely second-class citizens. Any efforts at dissent are being ruthlessly snuffed out with people handed 15-year prison sentences and a thousand lashes — and Obama has nothing to say about this.”
“That overt double standard… leaves Saudi people in the lurch,” Roth asserted.
He noted that Saudi Arabia’s role in “quashing” the Muslim Brotherhood group, which had won elections in a number of Arab states following a serious of uprisings in the region in 2011, stemmed from the lack of political freedom in the oil-rich kingdom.
“The idea that you can rule in the name of Islam and hold elections… is terrifying to the Saudi monarchy because they try to rule in the name of Islam but they never hold elections,” Roth said.
He added: “The reason the Saudi government is so intent on quashing the Muslim Brotherhood wherever it’s found is because [the Brotherhood] is an existential threat.”
Another HRW concern is the trampling of human rights during mega-sporting events such as the Sochi Winter Olympics, when Moscow cracked down on civil society and journalists over Putin’s remarks on “public homosexuality.”
The fact that only Kazakhstan and China — both with terrible rights records — are in the running for the 2022 Winter Olympics, “should be keeping the IOC [International Olympic Committee] up at night,” the report said.
It proposed that the IOC build human rights monitoring into the hosting process in the same way “as they now do to build ski jumps, swimming pools and equestrian facilities on time.”
The need for security in the digital age has also triggered concerns for HRW, alarmed by daily data snooping by governments targeting hundreds of millions of people.
“Governments everywhere are expanding their own mass surveillance capacity,” argued senior HRW Internet researcher Cynthia Wong.
The US and Britain remain the leaders in the field, having “thrown away any notion of proportionality.”
Wong said the transatlantic allies “have provided a roadmap for governments of all political persuasions to build their own systems of mass surveillance.”
With few privacy protections built in, she warned, “a truly Orwellian scenario could unfold.”