HRW Chief: Autocrats feel increasingly threatened by democracy

By Antonio Broto

Geneva, Jan 13 (EFE).- Autocratic regimes globally have been adopting defensive strategies amid widespread discontent and have used the pandemic to quell dissent, Kenneth Roth executive director of Human Rights Watch told Efe on occasion of the watchdog’s yearly report.

QUESTION: Is there any reason to believe that democracy could topple existing dictatorships?

ANSWER: The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent and democracy is on the decline. But when we look back on the last year we recognize that that really is too simplistic, that indeed autocrats are very much on the defensive.

Q: Has the pandemic been used to curb democracy?

A: We cited a number of autocratic leaders that have used the pandemic as an excuse to silence dissent. And we have seen this both in confirmed autocratic states like Egypt where critics of the government response are just silenced, but we’ve also seen it in democracies with leaders with autocratic tendencies say like India where Prime Minister Modi has also attacked the doctors who were critical of his response to the pandemic.

Q: In 2021 international pressure on China grew such as the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Could this yield results?

A: The Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity, against the Uighur people. Detaining a million of them to force them to renounce their religion, their language and their culture. So these are enormous crimes and the world has been slow to respond because of China’s economic power and its threat of retaliation against critics, but it is now responding. There have been 44 governments that have banded together to sign a joint statement condemning the atrocities in Xinjiang. There has been a growing diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there is growing recognition that the widespread use of forced labor in Xinjiang is posing a problem to the world’s supply chains and that nobody should be importing goods from Xinjiang because there is now way to ensure that it is not tainted by forced labor.

Q: Russia has recently had much coverage due to the crises in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, what has its role been?

A: The Russian government has also shown that it is determined to crush any movement toward democracy in neighboring countries. So it has helped president Lukashenki crush the popular uprising and probably electoral defeat of him in Belarus, there was recently what began as a pro-reform protest in Kazakhstan, it seems to have been taken over by a power feud between two factions within the government, but again the Kremlin sent troops to crush that rebellion.

And the real way to understand what is happening in Ukraine today is not the threat of Nato, Nato is not about to invade Russia, but rather the threat of democracy. The Kremlin cannot tolerate Ukraine becoming a functioning, viable democracy because it would stand too starkly in contrast with the poor showing in Russia.

Q: In his first year as president of the United States, has Joe Biden been a true defender of human rights?

A: President Biden is obviously a huge improvement over President Trump, in that, unlike Trump, he is not embracing every friendly autocrat under the sun, so Biden is an improvement, yes. But Biden has also been a disappointment. He said that human rights would be central to foreign policy, in fact his foreign policy looks more like conventional US foreign policy. So yes, they support human rights when it is relatively easy, in a place like Myanmar, but when the government is friendly they are much less likely to support human rights, so if you look at US foreign policy toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, it’s the same foreign policy. They are still selling arms, they are still backing dictatorships, they are still ignoring the repressive Israeli occupation, this hasn’t changed.

Q: What is your diagnosis of the state of human rights in Latin America?

The big challenge in this next year is going to be Brazil. And, Bolsonaro with strong autocratic tendencies, is already pursuing the Trump strategy. He is already saying there is electoral fraud, we cannot trust the election because he seems to fear that the Brazilian people are going to vote against him. EFE


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