The past year has seen human rights crises worsening around the world, from Ukraine to China to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report, released Thursday.
But new voices of leadership for championing human rights have emerged, according to the report.
World Report 2023 looks at the state of human rights in nearly 100 countries where the New York-based organization works.
“The obvious conclusion to draw from the litany of human rights crises in 2022 —from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deliberate attacks on civilians in Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s open-air prison for the Uyghurs in China to the Taliban’s putting millions of Afghans at risk of starvation — is that unchecked authoritarian power leaves behind a sea of human suffering,” the report says.
“But 2022 also revealed a fundamental shift in power in the world that opens the way for all concerned governments to push back against these abuses by protecting and strengthening the global human rights system,” says the report.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report’s authors say the global community deserves credit for unleashing what it calls the "full arsenal" of the human rights system, including an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
“We saw immediate responses from the international community to mobilize around key human rights supports, including establishing international justice mechanisms [and] evidence gathering for war crimes,” Tirana Hassan, acting executive director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA.
In towns such as Bucha and Izyum, there is widespread evidence of the torture, execution and rape of Ukrainian civilians by occupying Russian soldiers. The United Nations Human Rights Council has documented several hundred civilian killings, thought to be a fraction of the total.
Following a visit to Ukraine in December, Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the war "continues to be marked by gross violations of international human rights law."
“In some cases, Russian soldiers executed civilians in makeshift places of detention. Others were summarily executed on the spot following security checks — in their houses, yards and doorways. Even where the victim had shown clearly that they were not a threat, for example, by holding their hands in the air. There are strong indications that the summary executions documented in the report may constitute the war crime of willful killing,” Türk told reporters Dec. 15.
Human Rights Watch said the West could have acted against Russia before its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin’s brazenness has been made possible largely because of his long-standing free hand to operate with impunity," the report says. "The loss of civilian life in Ukraine comes as no surprise to Syrians who suffered grave abuses from airstrikes following Russia’s intervention to support Syrian forces under Bashar al-Assad in 2015.”
Human Rights Watch highlights ongoing abuses in China, including the mass detention, torture and forced labor of as many as a million Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Beijing denies the accusations.
In October, a U.N. resolution to open a debate on abuses by Beijing against the Uyghurs fell short by two votes. However, the report says the closeness of the vote “shows the potential in cross-regional alliances and fresh coalitions to come together to challenge the Chinese government’s expectation of impunity.”
Hassan said the U.N. vote was an important moment.
“What we have seen for the first time in a very long time is cracks in the authoritarian armor,” she told VOA.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have imposed numerous laws violating the fundamental rights of women and girls, including freedom of movement, right to work and a livelihood, and access to education and health care.
“Taliban security forces throughout the year carried out arbitrary detentions, torture, and summary executions of former security officers and perceived enemies,” the reports says.
In Iran, protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini after she was detained by morality police have grown into nationwide anti-government demonstrations.
Human Rights Watch said the execution of at least four protesters in recent weeks must trigger a stronger global response.
“We need to move beyond international solidarity for protesters and need to make sure that governments all over the world are holding Iranian officials to account,” Hassan told VOA.
The report cites increasing human rights abuses in Myanmar, where the authors say the regime is launching assaults on communities across the country that oppose the 2021 military coup.
“The junta security forces have carried out mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, and other abuses that amount to crimes against humanity," the report says. "Freedom of speech and assembly face severe restrictions. Expanded military operations have resulted in numerous war crimes against ethnic minority populations in Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Shan States.”
In Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch says the recent African Union-led peace process has resulted in a fragile truce.
“Ensuring that there is accountability for the egregious crimes that took place in the Tigray region, for example, is going to be critical for this cease-fire and this truce to actually hold,” Hassan said.
In Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch criticized the government for abusing Rohingya refugees.
"Rohingya refugees, facing impossible conditions for safe and voluntary return to Myanmar, suffer threats, extortion, and ill-treatment by Bangladeshi security forces and other authorities," the report said.
HRW also said refugees reported threats, extortion, arbitrary arrests and torture by police.
Human Rights Watch says climate change is having an increasing impact on basic rights in every corner of the world, from devastating floods in Pakistan to wildfires in the United States. It says governments have a legal and moral obligation to regulate industries such as fossil fuel extraction that are incompatible with protecting basic rights.
“Governments should act with urgency in upholding human rights in their responses to climate extremes and slow-onset changes that are already inevitable, protecting those populations most at risk, including Indigenous peoples, women, children, older people, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty,” the report says.