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Human rights battlegrounds of the decade

Extinction Rebellion demonstration, central London, 15 April 2019
Extinction Rebellion demonstration, central London, 15 April 2019 © © Amnesty International (Photo:Richard Burton)

As the end of a decade approaches, we take a look at some of the battlegrounds that have defined the human rights struggle over the past ten years.

From uprisings across the Arab world and the rise of global protest movements, to the resurgence of the politics of hate, and concerns over the misuse of big data and surveillance technology, the 2010s have opened up new frontiers in the fight for our rights.

Politics of demonisation

Nayapara refugee camp - Rohingya refugees collect water © Amnesty International (Photo: Ahmer Khan)

One of the most disturbing trends of the past decade has been the rise of rhetoric and policies that demonise some of the most marginalised groups in society, including refugees and asylum seekers, religious and ethnic minorities, women and LGBTI people.

It’s the common thread that links the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, mass internment of Uighurs in China and the proposed introduction of the death penalty for people who engage in same-sex sexual activity in Uganda. It has also fuelled xenophobic attacks against migrants in South Africa and been the driving force behind U.S. policy to forcibly separate families seeking safety. Meanwhile, it has contributed to the increasing criminalisation of those helping refugees in Europe.

Instead of addressing real problems like inequality, corruption, unemployment and economic hardship, political leaders on every continent are using minority groups as scapegoats for social and economic ills, spreading fake news about them and inciting discrimination, hostility and violence against them.

Social media platforms have allowed these hateful views to flourish largely unchecked. However, such hatred has galvanised activists the world over. Fighting for our human rights has never seemed more important.

The climate emergency

School students forfeting school to demand action to tackle the climate emergency. © Christian Aslund/Greenpeace

This decade is likely to be the hottest on record - another alarming sign of the climate emergency which is one of the greatest threats to human rights of our age.

Millions of people are already suffering from the catastrophic effects of climate change – from prolonged drought in Africa to devastating tropical storms across South-east Asia and the Caribbean, and heatwaves that have set record temperatures in Europe.

Climate change threatens to exacerbate inequalities between developed and developing countries; between different ethnicities and classes; between genders, generations and communities – with the most disadvantaged groups hardest hit. It is already having harmful impacts on our rights to life, health, food, water, housing and livelihoods.

All the science suggests that extreme weather will only get worse, unless governments take urgent action to slash carbon emissions within the shortest possible timeframe, through a transition that protects the human rights of disadvantaged groups. However, virtually all governments are failing to put in place effective plans, and there is still resistance from some of the biggest emitters; notably the USA, which under President Trump has started the process to formally exit from the Paris Agreement.

More than ever, we need to stand together to hold our political leaders to account. The Fridays for Future movement, started in 2018 by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her colleagues, shows us that change is possible. We cannot afford to fail.

Violence against women

Acid attack survivor with her child in Bangladesh, 2010 © A.M. Ahad/Demotix

The struggle to protect women and girls, and others from all forms of gender-based violence, was as hard-fought as ever. Sexual violence continued to be used as a weapon of war, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where in one case out of many, more than 300 people were raped in four days by armed men in Walikale, North Kivu. Amnesty International also documented the horrific impact of rape in other conflict zones such as Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, Nigeria and South Sudan.

In many places, the very people meant to keep society safe are the ones attacking women and girls. In Mexico, women reported torture and other forms of violence such as electric shocks to the genitals, groping of breasts and rape with objects – during arrest and interrogation by police and armed forces as part of the country’s 'war on drugs'. Homicide rates for women have risen sharply throughout the decade, with Mexican authorities failing to take effective action to solve gender-based violence.

In a breakthrough, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted the landmark Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence - which Amnesty International was involved in drafting – on 7 April 2011. Recently, Sweden and Greece became some of the few European countries who changed their laws to recognise that sex without consent is rape.

One of the most iconic online movements of the decade, #MeToo, brought millions of women together to stand up to sexual violence, harassment and assault. #MeToo has spurred change everywhere from Hollywood studios to remote villages in Nepal and northern Nigeria.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Stormont, Northern Ireland 2019 © Amnesty Northern Ireland

Although some 50 countries have changed their laws to allow greater access to abortion over the last 25 years, sexual and reproductive rights remain contested. One thing that unites all successful campaigns to reform abortion laws has been the bravery of women who speak out and demand the right to decide what happens to their own bodies.

Reproductive rights have come under threat elsewhere. Attempts to further restrict access to abortion sparked nationwide protests in Poland. Near-total bans or laws further restricting access to abortion have been introduced in several US states. President Trump’s reinstatement of the 'global gag' rule, which blocks US federal international funding for NGOs that provide abortion counselling or referrals, or that advocate for decriminalising abortion, was a massive blow to women’s rights globally. So were the US administration’s attempts to remove references to ‘sexual and reproductive health’ from high-level UN policy documents endorsed by Members States,

From Ireland to South Korea, activists have helped dispel the stigma and secrecy surrounding abortion by sharing their stories. In Argentina and Poland, over a million women have marched to demand that their voices be heard. In the last year alone, legal abortion services opened up in Ireland and is on its way to becoming a reality in Northern Ireland too, after years of campaigning by groups, including Amnesty International. There was more good news in Argentina, where president-elect Alberto Fernández promised he would move to legalise abortion after taking office in December 2019.

LGBTI rights

March for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, June 2 2018 © Brendan Harkin/Love Equality

No doubt the LGBTI rights movement is more visible than ever before, but progress has been mixed in the past decade. In many countries, LGBTI people are still harassed in the streets, beaten up, arrested and sometimes killed simply because of who they are or who they love.

Consensual same-sex sexual activity is a crime in 70 countries, and the death penalty is imposed as a punishment in a number of countries, including in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Sometimes, hostility directed at LGBTI people is stoked by their own governments. In Chechnya for example, a state-sponsored campaign led to the abduction, torture and even killing of people believed to be gay or lesbian.

There have been a few momentous steps taken this past year. A landmark ruling in India decriminalised consensual same-sex relations, marking a critical milestone in the three-decades-old struggle by LGBTI activists and their allies in India. Taiwan became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage after passing a historic law on 17 May 2019. And Pakistan passed one of the most progressive legislations in the world on transgender rights, becoming the first Asian country and one of the few in the world to legally recognise self-perceived gender identity.

But for many LGBTI people around the globe who have been persecuted, maimed, killed, shamed, set on fire, refused entry into hospitals, shunned, raped and marginalised, there is still a long way to go. Governments must ensure that their rights are protected, and that discrimination on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity is abolished.

Big Tech and data privacy

Massive amounts of private communications from ordinary people is being intercepted and processed on a daily basis © Beraldo Leal

The decade took an Orwellian turn with the rise of Big Tech companies, such as Facebook and Google harvesting and monetising our personal data, and the consequent omnipresent surveillance of billions of people posing a systemic threat to our human rights.

While, at the beginning of the decade, we were all lulled into a false sense of security, believing we were simply sharing photos with a few friends, it became increasingly clear  that our shared information could be exploited as both a weapon of influence and a means of spreading dangerous disinformation and online abuse. A decade later, the so-called ‘influence industry’ in the form of social media platforms, internet search engines, data brokers and tech companies analysing our personal data and trading in predictions about people’s interests, characteristics, and ultimately behaviour for marketing and advertising, has become one of the biggest and most sinister societal threats of our time.

We now live in a world where insidious control of our digital lives has far-reaching consequences that go even beyond our privacy - disinformation and information manipulation is a continual battleground, with serious implications on our freedom of opinion, expression and thought. In polls, huge numbers of individuals say they are worried about the influence Big Tech has on their lives, concerned both about data revealing too much about them, and about data being used by state authorities to target them.

It took time for the human rights risks posed by Big Tech to become clear, partly because civil society and tech companies have traditionally worked together to keep the Internet free from state meddling, and by extension from regulation. A classic example is the defence of end-to-end encryption. This work is important. But by seeing the human rights threat as stemming from government surveillance and censorship, we have somehow failed to fully realise the magnitude of the threat caused by Big Tech’s ubiquitous presence.

As we move into a new decade, it will be governments’ responsibility to take action to protect us from corporate human rights abuses, including enforcing robust data protection laws and effective regulation of Big Tech, in line with international human rights law.