Human Rights Watch condemns European populism

Kenneth Roth (left) © Minister-president Rutte
Kenneth Roth (left) © Minister-president Rutte

In its World Report 2018, published today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly criticises populism and authoritarian agendas in Europe.

The organisation monitors human rights practices around the world. Its report, which focuses on the events of 2017, condemned what it saw as a trend of anti-migrant sentiment. EU countries have taken steps to strengthen their borders and prevent arrivals, and those countries less affected by direct arrivals remain reluctant the share responsibility, the report attests.

The report is highly critical of the EU’s approach to the migrant crisis, one example of which is its containment strategy in Libya. The report charges Libyan authorities with ‘pervasive and routine brutality’ against refugees and asylum seekers, and highlights that Libya has no functioning asylum system. HRW condemns the EU for continuing the strategy despite ‘overwhelming evidence’.

What does the report say?

For Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, the biggest challenge to human rights is the rise of populism. In the report’s introduction, Roth said: “Populists tend to respond [to social issues] by scapegoating vulnerable minorities and disfavoured members of society. The result has been a frontal assault on the values of inclusivity, tolerance and respect that lie at the heart of human rights.”

However, Roth also welcomed what he views as something of a paradigm shift last year which marks a move away from demagoguery: “The surge of authoritarian populists appears less inevitable than it did a year ago … Today, a popular reaction in a broad range of countries, bolstered in some cases by political leaders with the courage to stand up for human rights, has left the fate of many of these populist agendas more uncertain. Where the pushback is strong, populist advances have been limited.”

How did individual countries fare?

Roth criticised the UK, which he called a “traditional” defender of human rights, for being too preoccupied with Brexit to fulfil its international responsibilities. He also warned that the rise of racist and anti-refugee political forces in Germany and France has distracted those countries from protecting human rights around the world.

On the other hand, the report welcomes the European Commission’s decision to launch infringement proceedings against Poland over a proposed law on courts. The laws included proposals to:

  • Give the minister of justice control over judicial appointments;
  • Remove all sitting supreme court judges; and
  • Allow the justice minister power to appoint or dismiss the presidents of lower courts.

The proposals faced widespread international criticism from such the Council of Europe, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

However, the report highlights that Poland has passed unrelated legislation which restricts human rights, such as a law limiting access to certain forms of emergency contraception.

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