World leaders must act urgently to confront the changing nature of conflict and protect civilians from horrific violence by states and armed groups, urged Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
"2014 was a catastrophic year for millions caught up in violence. The global response to conflict and abuses by states and armed groups has been shameful and ineffective. As people suffered an escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting," said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
"The United Nations was established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War. We are now seeing violence on a mass scale and an enormous refugee crisis caused by that violence. There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time."
Asia Pacific: A muzzle on free speech across the region
Amnesty International's Annual Report provides a comprehensive overview of human rights in 160 countries during 2014, including 29 countries in Asia Pacific where there has been a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression across the region.
"There's a muzzle on free speech across the Asia-Pacific region. Speaking out is becoming a crime in too many countries, leaving media and civil society less space to operate," said Richard Bennett, Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.
"Over the past year, we saw governments use draconian security laws to suppress civil society, locking up and punishing critical voices on the pretext of 'national security'. States are growing increasingly fearful of the power of new technology and are suppressing the use of online tools."
Without changes in law, policy and approach, Amnesty International is forecasting several trends for the Asia-Pacific region including:
- Increasing crackdown on freedom of expression. Space will continue to shrink for civil society and media, with legislation including national security laws in, for example, South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar used to silence those critical of the authorities. Governments across the region in, for example, China, North Korea, Viet Nam and Laos will most likely continue to try to control public
- An increase in religious discrimination. Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka used hate speech or violence against other groups; repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Indonesia were used to target mainly minority groups; while India has seen an alarming escalation of rhetoric from a range of actors against Muslim and Christian minorities.
- A worsening of the region's refugee crisis. Millions of Afghans have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict a trend that will most likely continue in 2015 with insecurity on the rise. Tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya fled Myanmar and many were held in appalling conditions by traffickers. China, and other countries, continue to forcibly return people to North Korea, where they are often subject to arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour, torture or other ill-treatment, and maybe subject to execution. Australia toughened up its harsh policies towards refugees, turning back boats and continuing to ship asylum seekers to offshore processing centres. Asian migrant workers continue to face deplorable conditions, both inside and outside of the region.
Of particular concern is the rising power of non-state armed groups, including the group which calls itself Islamic State (IS).
Armed groups committed abuses in at least 35 countries in 2014, more than one in five of the countries that Amnesty International investigated.
"As the influence of groups such as Boko Haram, IS and Al Shabaab spills over national borders, more civilians will be forced to live under their quasi-state control, subject to abuse, persecution and discrimination," said Anna Neistat, Senior Director for Research at Amnesty International.
"Governments must stop pretending the protection of civilians is beyond their power and help roll back the tide of suffering of millions. Leaders must embrace a fundamental change in the way they respond to crises around the world."
UN Security Council veto
In Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Israel and Ukraine, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to deal with crises and conflict, even in situations where horrific crimes are being committed against civilians by states or by armed groups, based on vested interests or political expediency.
Amnesty International is now calling for the five permanent UNSC members to renounce their veto rights in situations of genocide and other mass atrocities.
"This could be a game changer for the international community and the tools it has at its disposal to help protect civilian lives. By renouncing their veto rights the five permanent members of the Security Council would give the UN more scope to take action to protect civilians when lives are at grave risk and send a powerful signal to perpetrators that the world will not sit idly by while mass atrocities take place," said Salil Shetty.
The bloody legacy of the flooding of weapons into countries where they are used for grave abuses by states and armed groups claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives in 2014.
Amnesty International is calling for all statesincluding the US, China, Canada, India, Israel and Russia to ratify or accede, and adhere, to the Arms Trade Treaty, which came into force last year after decades of campaigning by Amnesty International and others.
"Huge arms shipments were delivered to Iraq, Israel, Russia, South Sudan and Syria in 2014 despite the very high likelihood these weapons would be used against civilian populations trapped in conflict. When IS took control of large parts of Iraq, it found large arsenals, ripe for the picking. The irresponsible flow of weapons to human rights abusers must stop now," said Anna Neistat.
Amnesty International is calling for world leaders to introduce new restrictions to tackle the use of explosive weaponssuch as aircraft bombs, mortars, artillery, rockets and ballistic missilesin populated areas, which led to countless civilian deaths in 2014.
"Further restrictions on the use of explosive weapons which cannot be precisely targeted or which otherwise have wide-area effect in populated areas could have helped save thousands of lives lost in recent conflicts, including in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine. The international community can and must do more to protect civilians whose homes have become the frontline battle zone of warring parties," said Anna Neistat.
Amnesty International is urging governments to ensure their response to security threats do not undermine fundamental human rights or fuel further violence.
The Annual Report details how many governments in 2014 reacted to security threats with draconian and repressive tactics including:
- The introduction of harsh restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly on the pretext of "national security" - in Thailand by the military government, which seized power in a coup in May.
- The use of a wide range of draconian laws to silence journalists and human rights defenders who criticize authorities in Myanmar arrests picked up pace significantly in 2014.
- The continued application of the National Security Law in South Korea by the government to severely curtail freedom of expression and association.
- A tightening of already onerous restrictions on Islam by the Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) with the stated aim of fighting "violent terrorism and religious extremism". In a "strike hard" campaign launched in May, officials prioritized speed in making arrests and convening trials, while calling for greater "cooperation" between prosecuting authorities and courts, raising additional concerns that accused individuals would not receive fair trials.
"From Baga to Baghdad, government leaders have attempted to justify human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the world 'safe'," said Salil Shetty.
"We are seeing worrying signs that leaders will continue to crack down hard on protests, introduce draconian anti-terror laws and use unjustified mass surveillance techniques in response to security threats. But knee-jerk reactions do not work. Instead they create an environment of repression in which extremism can thrive."
A tragic consequence of the international community's inability to deal with the changing face of conflict is one of the worst refugee crises the world has seen, as millions of people including four million from Syria alone continue to flee violence and persecution.
"It is abhorrent to see how wealthy countries' efforts to keep people out take precedence over their efforts to keep people alive. The global refugee crisis is only likely to get worse, unless urgent measures are taken," said Salil Shetty.
"Leaders have it in their power to alleviate the suffering of millionsby committing political and financial resources to assist and protect those fleeing danger, delivering humanitarian aid generously, and resettling the most vulnerable."
Call to action
"The global outlook on the state of human rights is bleak, but there are solutions. World leaders must take immediate and decisive action to avert an impending global crisis and take us one step closer to a safer world in which rights and freedoms are protected," said Salil Shetty.