LONDON - Wednesday is United Nations’ Human Rights Day. Many observers describe 2014 as a horrific year for human rights violations. War is the major source of abuses around the world - and in the past 12 months, major conflicts have intensified.
The Syrian civil war is approaching its fourth year. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions forced from their homes. In the past 12 months the conflict has splintered and spread to neighboring Iraq, with government forces, moderate opposition fighters, Islamist militants and Kurdish fighters all battling for territory.
The international community must take some responsibility, said Steve Crawshaw, senior advisor at Amnesty International.
“[For] the failures to address the Syria conflict better and earlier and to really speak out loudly and to put the kind of pressures that were needed for human rights to be better observed,” he said.
The barrel bomb, barrels packed with explosives and dropped from a helicopter - has been used widely by Syrian government forces, killing thousands of civilians. Syria’s key ally Russia should speak out against their use, said Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.
“They [barrel bombs] allow ISIS to say that at least it is standing up to the Russian-backed government in Damascus that is trying to commit murder among civilians in opposition-held areas,” he said.
Moscow meanwhile is fueling conflict in the east of Ukraine by providing military support to separatists. Close to 4,500 people have been killed, and there are numerous cases of abduction and torture. On a recent visit to Moscow, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch said the situation could deteriorate.
“I think it is political insecurity that lies behind all of this. And I fear that this is only going to intensify as Russia encounters some real economic problems as a consequence of Putin's adventurism in Ukraine,” he said.
Russia’s increasing isolation has led to the worst crackdown on dissent within Russia since Soviet times, according to Roth.
“What all this adds up to is that the architecture is in place for a still more intense crackdown should Putin need it,” he said.
China is accused of rolling back recent progress on human rights with its ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The spread of Islamist militant groups in Africa is driving human rights violations on a vast scale. Killings and suicide attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria are intensifying, while Nigerian government forces are accused of beheadings and torture.
In Egypt, campaigners say the hopes of the Arab Spring protestors are all but extinguished. But Amnesty International is keen to highlight two key achievements of the past 12 months.
“In Sri Lanka there is now an international inquiry into the terrible killings of 2009 when tens of thousands of civilians died. Also in U.N. terms, there’s the Arms Trade Treaty, which we have been campaigning for, for 20 years,” Crawshaw said.
Overall though, Human Rights Day 2014 will likely be seen as a reminder of the vast scale of abuses in many parts of the world.