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Human Rights Watch Calls on Leaders to Fight Back Against ‘Authoritarian Populists’

FILE - Supporters wave flags as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after the referendum, at his palace, in Ankara, April 17, 2017.

Human Rights Watch released its annual report for 2018, calling on political leaders to fight what the group calls "authoritarian populist agendas."

“The past year showed the importance of pushing back against the threat posed by demagogues and their abusive policies,” according to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

Roth accuses authoritarian populists of seeking ‘to replace democracy – elected government limited by rights and the rule of law – with their self-serving interpretation of what the majority desires.’

The annual report picks out France as an example of successful resistance to such populism – where President Emmanuel Macron led a liberal, pro-European campaign against the far right National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen. But the report says President Macron has had a mixed record in his first months in office, ‘with his counterterrorism policies and muted visit to China causes for concern.’

French President Emmanuel Macron accompanies a guest after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Jan. 12, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron accompanies a guest after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Jan. 12, 2018.

Human Rights Watch accuses U.S. President Donald Trump of pursuing ‘anti-immigrant, racially divisive, and pro-drug-war policies’ – but says that civic groups, journalists, lawyers, judges, and elected members of Trump’s own party have fought back.

The White House repeatedly has pointed out that President Trump was elected on a pledge to reduce migration. He has denied holding racist views.

Human Rights Watch praises the European Union for taking on what it terms ‘authoritarian populist governments’ in Hungary and Poland. Both countries deny accusations that they are curbing basic freedoms.

The report criticizes the EU for its response to the political crackdown in Turkey, accusing Brussels of turning a blind eye as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ‘decimated Turkey’s democratic system’ – as Europe instead focused largely on enlisting his help to stem the flight of refugees to Europe.

The report authors praise smaller countries for stepping into the gap left by larger democracies like Britain and the United States, which the report claims are stepping away from their traditional roles. It cites the case of Liechtenstein, which overcame Russian resistance in the United Nations Security Council to establish a mechanism to collect evidence for the possible prosecution of war crimes in Syria.

The report notes that the January 2017 Women’s March in the United States morphed into a global phenomenon, as the #MeToo movement has swept across the world, highlighting abuses and discrimination against women.

Executive director Kenneth Roth says human rights defenders should take encouragement.

“The central lesson of the past year is that human rights can be protected from populist challenges,” he said.

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