2016: The year of ‘us vs them’

From the worsening plight of refugees around the world to mass unlawful killings, from the vicious crackdowns on dissenting voices to the rise of hate speech across Europe and the USA, the world in 2016 became a darker and more unstable place.

Our annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, warns that an ‘us v them’ climate of blame, hate and fear is undermining the very foundations of universal human rights in 2016.

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When the world turned its back on mass atrocities

Large parts of Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo, were pounded to dust by air strikes and street battles, while the cruel onslaught against civilians in Yemen continued.

As world leaders failed to rise to the challenge of the global refugee crisis, 75,000 people remained trapped in a desert no man’s land between Syria and Jordan and thousands lost their lives trying to reach Europe.

Meanwhile, three African Union member states announced that they were pulling out of the International Criminal Court, undermining the prospect of accountability for crimes under international law.

And Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir roamed the continent freely while his government dropped chemical weapons on its own people in Darfur.

The politics of demonisation

Hateful, divisive and dehumanising rhetoric unleashed the darkest instincts of human nature in 2016.

On the political stage, the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA followed a campaign of deeply divisive statements marked by misogyny and xenophobia, and pledges to roll back established civil liberties.

Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign rhetoric and the policies that have followed exemplify a global trend towards more divisive politics.

Across the world, leaders and politicians wagered power on narratives of fear and disunity, pinning blame on the ‘other’ for the grievances of the electorate.

President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, left a legacy that includes many failures to uphold human rights, not least the expansion of the CIA’s secretive campaign of drone strikes and the development of a mass surveillance machine as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Human rights in danger

Despite the lessons of the past, human dignity and equality came under relentless assault from powerful forces of blame, fear and scapegoating, spread by those who sought to hold power at almost any cost.

The more countries that backtrack on fundamental human rights commitments at home, the less leadership we see on the world stage with governments everywhere emboldened to join a global pushback against human rights.

This could have disastrous consequences given the already pitiful global response to mass atrocities in 2016, with the world standing by as events in Aleppo, Darfur and Yemen unfolded.

The quest to silence critical voices

In the wake of a coup attempt in July, Turkey escalated its crackdown on dissenting voices during a state of emergency. More than 90,000 public sector employees were dismissed on grounds of alleged ‘links to a terrorist organisation or threat to national security’, while hundreds more journalists were detained and media outlets permanently closed.

Often stern measures were simply an attempt to mask government failures, such as in Venezuela, where the government sought to silence critics rather than address a spiralling humanitarian crisis.

In addition to the direct threats and attacks, there was an insidious chipping away at established civil and political freedoms in the name of security.

The UK adopted a new law, the Investigatory Powers Act, which significantly increased the authorities’ powers to intercept, access, retain or otherwise hack digital communications and data without any requirement of reasonable suspicion against an individual. By introducing one of the broadest regimes for mass surveillance of any country in the world, the UK took a significant step towards a reality where the right to privacy is simply not recognised. Find out more about human rights in the UK – link to UK article

The resistance was real

The story of 2016 was also a story of human courage, resilience, creativity and determination in the face of immense challenges.

Every region of the world saw evidence that where formal structures of power are used to repress, people will find ways of rising up and being heard.

Peaceful movements such as the International Women’s March, the pro-democracy protests in the Gambia and the Ayotzinapa student protests in Mexico should inspire us all to stand up for our freedoms.

During a year of division and dehumanisation, the actions of some people to affirm the fundamental dignity of every person shone more brightly than ever.

This compassionate response was embodied by 24-year-old Anas al-Basha, known as the ‘clown of Aleppo’, who chose to remain in the city to bring comfort and joy to children even after government forces unleashed their horrific bombardment. After his death in an air strike on 29 November, his brother paid tribute to him for making children happy in ‘the darkest, most dangerous place’.

A time for ordinary heroes

We cannot rely on governments to protect our freedoms. We must come together and resist the roll back of long-established human rights.

We can find inspiration from those brave activists of the past. In dark times, individuals have made a difference by taking a stand, be they civil rights activists in the USA, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, or women’s rights and LGBTI movements around the world.

It is in these times that courageous voices are needed, ordinary heroes who will stand up against injustice and repression.

Nobody can take on the whole world, but everyone can change their own world.

2017 needs human rights heroes.

Take action: join the fight for rights

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Annual Report 2016/17: The State of the World's Human rights