There have been few times in recent history when human rights have been eroded, derided, denied or violated as severely across the globe as they are today. From Syria and Iraq to North Korea and China, from Burma and Vietnam to Cuba and Colombia, from Nigeria, Sudan and Eritrea to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and even to some extent now in mature western democracies, there are few corners of the world where, to some degree, human rights are not threatened.
Tomorrow we mark International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. We would do well to look again at the UDHR’s thirty articles and remind ourselves of the basic freedoms which we take for granted but which are flagrantly denied to millions around the world.
Some of the world’s crises receive plenty of attention, even if the international community seems impotent – while other human tragedies unfold almost unnoticed.
In Burma, a military offensive against the Muslim Rohingya people in the past two months has left 30,000 displaced, women raped and hundreds kills. It has been described by a UN official as “ethnic cleansing”. At the same time, the military has escalated attacks on civilians in Kachin and northern Shan states, and is denying humanitarian aid access in all three areas.
In China, new allegations have emerged of the barbaric practice of forced organ harvesting – the forcible removal of vital organs for sale for transplant. The victims are prisoners of conscience, particularly practitioners of the Buddha-school spiritual practice known as Falun Gong, as well as other religious minorities. A new report, authored by former Canadian parliamentarian and government minister David Kilgour, human rights lawyer David Matas and journalist Ethan Gutmann, details the horrific scale of the practise, and a new film, The Bleeding Edge, starring Miss World Canada Anastasia Lin depicts this barbaric trade.
In addition, since he became president Xi Jinping has unleashed a severe crackdown on human rights across the board, rounding up human rights lawyers, bloggers and dissidents and tightening restrictions on civil society and religious freedom. Hong Kong’s liberties and the rule of law are also facing increasing erosion, as pro-democracy legislators confront attempts by Beijing to remove them from the legislature. The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights 2013-2016, details the deterioration in China and includes recommendations for the UK’s China policy.
Two years ago a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea concluded that the “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. A catalogue of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions”, as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, require a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Two years on, little has changed.
Religious intolerance around the world is particularly on the rise, leading to grave violations of freedom of religion or belief. Bahai’s in Iran, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners in China, as well as Christians across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and some parts of Latin America, notably Cuba, face severe restrictions on religious practise and often violent persecution. And it is not only religious adherents that suffer – as the new report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union shows, atheists in some parts of the world face as much threat as religious minorities.
Blasphemy laws in some parts of the world are a particularly insidious and dangerous cause of intolerance. The current governor of Jakarta, capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, is a double-minority – ethnic Chinese and a Christian – and a great advertisement for Indonesia’s pluralism, but he now faces trial on blasphemy charges as radical Islamists try to prevent his re-election.
Even countries where progress had seemed positive a few years ago are now backsliding. The Maldives ended decades of dictatorship in 2008 and transitioned to a multi-party democracy, with Mohamed Nasheed, a former dissident who had spent years in prison, as the elected president. Four years later, however, he was overthrown in a coup and the current president, who is the brother of the former dictator, is trampling human rights and terrorising his opponents.
In all of this, western democracies have been remarkably careless. To laud Fidel Castro, as Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Justin Trudeau did so absurdly, is to give succour to human rights abusers. To pursue an uncritical engagement with China is to be complicit with its crimes. To fail to hold North Korea to account, or to stop genocide unfolding in Syria and Iraq, or to prevent ethnic cleansing in Burma is the height of impotence. That is why, 68 years on from the establishment of the UDHR, it is time to review our foreign policy priorities and strive to make International Human Rights Day mean something for everyone, everywhere in the world. Human rights are universal, and we must promote and protect them everywhere.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and author, serves as Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, works for the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is a member of Bright Blue’s Human Rights Commission.